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Singur: Activists cry foul
On the ground floor sits a man who has been victimised by the management of his company and wants to use the Right to Information Act to know why.
A vegetable vendor wanted to know why he wasn't given an OBC certificate in spite of asking the concerned officer for three years.
It is with these problems that people ask Arvind Kejriwal and his organisation Parivartan for help every day. A humble man who carries a cloth bag full of petitions, Kejriwal is a graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology-Kharagpur who set up Parivartan to provide an alternate for the common man who did not want to pay bribes.
He won the Magsaysay Award last year for his contribution to the common man's right to information.
A former civil servant, who was in government service for six years, Kejriwal told Assistant Managing Editor Archana Masih that if India has to improve the lot of its people, then its systems of governance had to change.
In the last few years how has governance changed in India? Has it become more accountable, more transparent?
There are both positive and negative developments that are taking place. The good thing is the Right to Information Act that empowers the people to seek information from the government and hold the government accountable.
But merely having a legislation doesn't help, much more needs to be done. Subsequent developments after the passing of the legislation show that the government is not very serious about implementing the Act.
For example, the way information commissioners have been appointed and the kind of information commissioners that have been appointed.
What are the kind of information commissioners that have been appointed?
In most states, former bureaucrats have been appointed. Individuals who have served in the bureaucracy for 35 years have a mindset that transparency, accountability is not the best thing. Plus they have their own set of colleagues, batch mates, friends etc. They themselves don't believe in the right to information.
Secondly, in many places the people who have been appointed are extremely weak and some have a corrupt past. With this set of people you cannot expect anything great in right to information.
Who are the people who ideally should be appointed then?
The law says eminent citizens but the government has confined its choice only to bureaucrats as if there are no other areas where we have eminent citizens. There are a large number of people who are available in this country, who believe in transparency, in right to information, who could have been appointed.
Like I said, the right to information is a good thing that happened but much more needs to be done.
What about accountability or change in governance?
I think governance is becoming more and more anti-poor and more and more aggressive like we have seen in Nandigram, Special Economic Zones etc.
Though the Right to Information Act exists in all these places when the people asked for copies of the contract signed by the State with various companies, the State said it would violate the commercial confidence of those companies.
As if the lives of millions of people who are going to lose their livelihood is of no consequence. As if the land which is being given by the government at such throw away prices that belongs to the public is of no consequence. So the interest of a large number of people vis-a-vis one or two corporates sectors, the government makes a choice in favour of those corporate sectors.
So on one hand though the government has enacted the Right to Information Act but at the same time the will of the government doesn't seem to be in favour of transparency, it seems to be in favour of secrecy.
In terms of SEZs how has the right to information been used?
We have filed the right to information applications in all central government ministries dealing with the subject. We have filed SEZ application in some states. We are still awaiting information from most of these places. Let us see when the documents come out we hope that if we are able to get access to these documents we should be able to provide these documents to the people's struggles that are going on in different parts of the country so that their voices are strengthened.
What changes have you seen after the implementation of the Right to Information Act?
It is too early to say because it became effective in October 2005, it is just one-and-a-half years. There are stray success stories coming from across the country, how individuals have been able to use the Act and have been able to say no to bribes, check corruption and fight injustice which shows that RTI has huge potential if it is nurtured and allowed to function.
But, unfortunately, the experiences of the last one-and-a-half years show that much needs to be done in terms of implementation. Like I said about the information commissioners, if you don't get information in 30 days' time, you approach the information commissioners with your complaint.
The information commissioner now has a duty to not only get you information but also to impose a penalty on officers who do not provide information. The data shows, for instance, the Central Information Commission, they have disposed 3,000 cases so far and have imposed a penalty on only seven people, which is negligible.
It means that it makes sense for an officer not to provide information and that has made a mockery of the complete Right to Information Act.
What kind of people ask for information under the Act? Are they the educated lot?
All kinds of people are asking for information. Rural, urban, educated, uneducated, people living in slums, middle class, corporate sector -- all kinds of people are asking for it. The people who are going to the information commission are predominantly middle class people because rural, illiterate people do not have the capacity as the information commissioners have made the whole process so cumbersome. They do not have the capacity to draft those litigations and appeals.
How easy or difficult is it to get information?
The Indian law is the best law in the world. There are 68 countries that have the Right to Information Act, but the procedures that we have adopted are extremely cumbersome. It is very cumbersome for even an educated person like me.
We have to simplify this process and in this the Bihar government has taken the lead. The state has set up a right to information telephone line where you don't need to draft your application -- the biggest problem in RTI is to submit your application.
While drafting the application you have to use the right language and your questions have to be very sharp, then you have to find an officer to whom you have to submit the information, which is a Herculean task, you have to make a Rs 10 demand draft, then you don't know in whose name the demand draft has to be made, it is not available on the Web site or in any notification. So filing the RTI information is a big job.
The Bihar government has taken the lead, it has hired a call centre. Any citizen of Bihar, from any part of Bihar can call that number, give his name, address and say I want this information from the Bihar government.
He doesn't need to know the name of the officer, he doesn't need to make a demand draft, his voice gets recorded on the other side and that becomes his application and the ten rupees he is supposed to deposit comes as his phone bill.
The call centre takes a printout of the application and forwards it to the concerned officer and if this person does not get information in 30 days' time, he can again call the call centre and say I am not satisfied with the information I've got or I did not get information in 30 days. Again the recorded voice becomes the appeal.
This is a great experiment that is being done by the Bihar government which needs to be replicated all over the country, especially when you have large sections of the population that is illiterate.
It is surprising that the Bihar government took the initiative because many consider Bihar as a lost case?
They deserve credit for this. We met (Chief Minister) Nitish Kumar and he jumped at the idea. We gave this idea to many other state governments and the central government as well but in Bihar within two months this RTI line was functioning.
What about the great Indian bureaucracy, especially in smaller towns -- the endless wait by the public for our babus, the wait for getting to speak to a district magistrate -- has all that changed?
I don't think it has become better at all. We have simply inherited the British system of governance and that system was meant to serve a colonial master. Now the entire bureaucracy is not accountable to the people, they have no sympathy or loyalty towards the people. They have loyalty to the immediate boss. It goes upwards, it is not downwards.
For them in many places the people are treated as obstacles in their work. If you go to the Information Commission you hear things like -- 'Roz ek appeal le kar a jate ho, hum kya khaali baithey hai?' (You come with an appeal every day, do you think we have no work?').
But that is what their job is! To listen to our appeals and complaints. Your existence is based on our appeals and complaints. So this mindset that the bureaucracy has that the people are an obstacle in our work has to change, the bureaucrats have to become accountable to the people and the primary reason for that is too much centralisation of power in the hands of the bureaucracy and politicians.
This power needs to be decentralised at the level of the people. People have to have more control over their own lives.
There is a district magistrate who is supposed to take decisions on our behalf, there is an MLA who is supposed to take decisions on our behalf. They have all the powers, we keep pleading and pleading before them and they never listen to us. Power needs to come back to us.
People should have a meeting, make a list of the problems and give them to the District Magistrate and the DM should be under the obligation to execute those demands. If the DM doesn't work, we should have the power to impose a penalty on him. This relationship needs to be reversed.
We are the masters of this country. The people are the masters of the country.
Do you think the middle class is interested in taking an initiative in making things better?
It is a classic case of loss of credibility in the existing systems. Existing systems have failed, so the people have become cynics. Wherever they see a ray of hope they do take the initiative. I don't agree that the middle class does not take the initiative.
In contemporary India, what are the things that make you proud?
We can say we have made great progress in science and technology, IT but unless all this starts impacting the lives of the poorest people in the country it will be meaningless. It is a cliched way of saying it, but there are two Indias that exist, so all the positives that take place in this country will not have a meaning for the other India.
One thing that is great about India is the freedom to speak and the spaces available in our democracy to protest which doesn't exist in many places in the world.
Where have we failed most drastically?
The most drastic failure is the failure of governance which impacts everything. There is lots being done in education, health etc and I keep telling them that nothing of this is going to work unless governance improves.
There are 1,850 primary government schools in Delhi catering to 1 million children. It is a shame on education, there is nothing that exists in the name of education in these schools.
NGOs can build one to two schools and run them but unless governance is improved and these 1,850 primary schools are improved we can't look at education and health in isolation unless governance improves.
We have completely failed in governance because there is too much centralisation of power in the hands of bureaucrats and there is complete non accountability.
We have to make the bureaucracy accountable to the people. It is not something esoteric, it can be done.
I also thought by entering the civil service I could bring about a change. Once you are in, you realise that you can do your job very well but if you want large system changes to take place that is perhaps not possible within the bureaucracy and you have to come out. Because the moment you try to change the status quo you will immediately get transferred.
Let me also say that most of the people working within the government are good people. It is the kind of governance systems that we have that have failed us. We need to work out what kind of systems of governance we should have. This governance system is directly inherited from the British, it is not meant for a democracy like ours. The accountability is to the top, it has to be to the bottom.
Photograph: Seema Pant
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