Movement for Right to Information in India
People's Power for the Control of Corruption
Harsh Mander and Abha Joshi
the space of less than a decade, the burgeoning movement for the
right to information in India has significantly sought to expand
democratic space, and empower the ordinary citizen to exercise far
greater control over the corrupt and arbitrary exercise of state
right to information is implicit in the Constitution of India, even
so the dominant culture of the executive has been one of secrecy
and resolute denial of access of information to the citizen. Citizens
groups have long battled for the exercise of these rights in courts.
The movement for the right to information received a fresh impetus
from a courageous and powerful grassroots struggle of the rural
poor for the right to information, to combat rampant corruption
in famine relief works. This struggle was led by a people’s organisation,
the Mazdoor Kisaan Shakti Sangathan (which literally means ‘organisation
for the empowerment of workers and peasants’). The reverberations
of this struggle led to a nationwide demand for a law to guarantee
the right to information to every citizen, with widespread support
from social activists, professionals, lawyers, and persons within
the bureaucracy, politics and the media, who are committed to transparent
and accountable governance and people’s empowerment. Three successive
federal governments in quick succession have committed themselves
to the passage of a law to guarantee the people’s right to information
and some state governments have actually passed such laws and administrative
paper will attempt to outline firstly the significance of the right
to information, particularly in empowering ordinary citizens to
combat state corruption. It will describe in some detail the most
important grassroots struggle for the right to information, which
has succeeded in linking the entire movement in the country to the
struggles for survival and justice of the most poor. It would then
delineate the constitutional history of the right, and attempts
through the courts to breach the culture of secrecy of the executive,
and initiatives from persons within the government. It will in the
end describe efforts at the national level to legislate this right
of the Right to Information to Combat Corruption
India today, the state has spread its tentacles to virtually every
aspect of public life. The
person on the street is condemned to grapple hopelessly with corruption
in almost every aspect of daily work and living. Most government
offices typically present a picture of a client public bewildered
and harassed by opaque rules and procedures and inordinate delays,
constantly vulnerable to exploitation by employees and touts.
the quest for systemic answers to this chronic malaise, it is important
to identify the sources of corruption inherent within the character
of the state machine. These
include a determined denial of transparency, accessibility and accountability,
cumbersome and confusing procedures, proliferation of mindless controls,
and poor commitment at all levels to real results of public welfare.
this section, we will argue that information is power, and that
the executive at all levels attempts to withhold information to
increase its scope for control, patronage, and the arbitrary, corrupt
and unaccountable exercise of power. Therefore, demystification
of rules and procedures, complete transparency and pro-active dissemination
of this relevant information amongst the public is potentially a
very strong safeguard against corruption. Ultimately the most effective
systemic check on corruption would be where the citizen herself
or himself has the right to take the initiative to seek information
from the state, and thereby to enforce transparency and accountability.
is in this context that the movement for right to information is
so important. A statutory right to information would be in many
ways the most significant reform in public administration in India
in the last 50 years. This
is because it would secure for every citizen the enforceable right
to question, examine, audit, review and assess government acts and
decisions, to ensure that these are consistent with the principles
of public interest, probity and justice.
It would promote openness, transparency and accountability
in administration, by making government more open to continuing
is the currency that every citizen requires to participate in the
life and governance of society.
The greater the access of the citizen to information, the
greater would be the responsiveness of government to community needs.
Alternatively, the greater the restrictions that are placed
on access, the greater the feelings of `powerlessness’ and ‘alienation’.
Without information, people cannot adequately exercise their rights
and responsibilities as citizens or make informed choices.
Government information is a national resource.
Neither the particular government of the day nor public officials
create information for their own benefit.
This information is generated for purposes related to the
legitimate discharge of their duties of office, and for the service
of the public for whose benefit the institutions of government exist,
and who ultimately (through one kind of import or another) fund
the institutions of government and the salaries of officials.
It follows that government and officials are `trustees’ of
this information for the people.
The proposed legislation would enable members of the public
to obtain access under the law to documents that may otherwise be
available only at the discretion of government.
are numerous ways in which government information is at least in
theory already accessible to members of the public.
The parliamentary system promotes the transfer of information
from government to parliament and the legislatures, and from these
to the people. Members of the public can seek information from their
elected members. Annual reporting requirements, committee reports,
publication of information and administrative law requirements increase
the flow of information from government to the citizen. Recent technological
advances have the potential to reduce further the existing gap between
the 'information rich’ and the ‘information poor’.
in practice the overwhelming culture of the bureaucracy remains
one of secrecy, distance and mystification, not fundamentally different
from colonial times. In fact, this preponderance of bureaucratic
secrecy is usually legitimised by a colonial law, the Official Secrets
Act, 1923, which makes the disclosure of official information by
public servants an offence.
right to information is expected to improve the quality of decision
making by public authorities, in both policy and administrative
matters, by removing unnecessary secrecy surrounding the decision
making process. It would enable groups and individuals to be kept
informed about the functioning of the decision making process as
it affects them, and to know the kinds of criteria that are to be
applied by government agencies in making these decisions.
It is hoped that this would enhance the quality of participatory
political democracy by giving all citizens further opportunity to
participate in a more full and informed way in the political process.
By securing access to relevant information and knowledge,
the citizens would be enabled to assess government performance and
to participate in and influence the process of government decision-making
and policy formulation on any issue of concern to them.
cumulative impact on control of corruption and the arbitrary exercise
of power, of the availability of such information to the citizen,
would be momentous. This
information would include, for example in the context of maximum
interface of the ordinary citizen with government, the following:
estimates, sanctions, bills, vouchers and muster rolls (statements
indicating attendance and wages paid to all daily wage workers)
for all public works.
and procedure for selection of beneficiaries for any government
programme, list of applicants and list of persons selected.
capita food eligibility and allotments under nutrition supplementation
programmes, in hospitals, welfare and custodial institutions.
and purchase of drugs and consumable in hospitals.
related to award of permits, licences, house allotments, gas,
water and electricity connections, contracts, etc., list of
applicants with relevant details of applications, and list of
those selected, conditions of award if any.
related to imposition of taxes such as property tax, stamp duty,
sales tax, income tax, etc., copies of tax returns, and reasons
for imposition of a particular level of tax in any specific
of all land records.
of revenue, civil and criminal case work disposal.
of afforestation works, including, details of land/sites, species
and numbers of plants, expenditure on protection.
of children enrolled and attending school, availing of scholarships
and other facilities.
related to criterion and procedure for selection of persons
for appointment in government, local bodies or public undertakings,
copy of advertisement and/or references to employment exchange,
list of applicants with relevant details, and list of beneficiaries
procedures for sending names from employment exchanges, relevant
details of demands from prospective employers, list of candidates
registered and list referred to specific employers.
related to criterion and procedure for college admission, list
of applicants with relevant details, and list of persons selected.
of monthly crime report.
of registration and disposal of crimes against women, tribals
and dalits (literally the oppressed, groups traditionally subjected
to severe social disabilties)
and other vulnerable groups, crimes committed during
sectarian riots and corruption cases.
and list of persons in police custody, period of and reasons
and list of persons in custodial institutions including jails,
reasons for and length of custody, details of presentation before
appointment of visitors committees to every custodial institution,
with full access and quasi-judicial authority to enquire into
and water emission levels and content with regard to all manufacturing
units, coupled with the right of citizens’ committees to check
the veracity of these figures; copies also of levels declared
safe by government authorities, to be published and made available
a short random listing such as this would demonstrate the enormous
potential power of information, if it be placed in the hands of
citizens, to combat corruption that they experience in their daily
to Information: The Grassroots Struggles in Rajasthan
most important feature that distinguishes the movement for the people’s
right to information in India from that in most other countries,
whether of the North or the South, is that it is deeply rooted in
the struggles and concerns for survival and justice of most disadvantaged
rural people. The reason for this special character to the entire
movement is that it was inspired by a highly courageous, resolute,
and ethically consistent grassroots struggle related to the most
fundamental livelihood and justice concerns of the rural poor. This
inspiring struggle in the large desert state of Rajasthan was led
by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), as part of a people’s
movement for justice in wages, livelihoods and land.
this section, we will recount in some detail the story of the MKSS,
because it would enable a deeper understanding of why the movement
for the people’s right to information in India has developed as
part of a larger movement for people’s empowerment and justice.
of the MKSS
was eleven years ago, in the summer of 1987, that the three founding
activists of MKSS chose a humble hut in a small and impoverished
village Devdungri in the arid state of Rajasthan, as their base
to share the life and struggles of the rural poor.
The oldest member of the group was Aruna Roy, who had resigned
from the elite Indian Administrative Service over a decade earlier.
She had worked in a
pioneer developmental NGO, the Social Work and Research Centre,
Tilonia, and gained important grassroots experience and contact
with ordinary rural people, but now sought work which went beyond
the delivery of services to greater empowerment of the poor.
She was accompanied by Shankar Singh, a resident of a village
not far from Devdungri, whose talent was in rural communication
with a rare sense of humour and irony.
He drifted through seventeen jobs - working mostly with his
hands or his wits in a range of small factories and establishments
- before he reached Tilonia, to help establish its rural communication
unit. With him was
his wife Anshi and three small children. The third activist of the
group was Nikhil Dey, a young man who abandoned his studies in the
USA in search for meaningful rural social activism.
they had come to the village Devdungri, with only a general idea
of their goal of work, to build an organisation for the rural poor.
They were much clearer about what they did not want to do:
they would not accept funding or set up the conventional institutional
structures of buildings and vehicles common to most NGOs, they would
not set up the usual delivery systems of services, they would accept
not more than minimum wages for unskilled labour, and this too they
would derive mainly from small research projects and assistance
from friends, they would not accept international or government
funding for their work, and they would not live with facilities
superior to those accessible to the ordinary small farmer of the
lived in a hut no different from that inhabited by the poor of the
village, with no electricity or running water, and they ate the
same sparse food of thick coarse grain rotis as the working class
villager. They had
no vehicle, and used trucks and buses for transport.
They continue to live in this way even today.
region which they had chosen for their life and work was environmentally
degraded and chronically drought prone. The land-holdings were too
small to be viable even if the rains came. There were few alternate
sources of rural livelihood, and distress migration in the lean
summer months was high. Government
interventions mainly took the form of famine relief works, like
construction of roads and tanks, with extremely high levels of corruption
and extremely poor durability.
Wages, even on government relief works, were low and payment
too erratic to provide any real social security cover.
Literacy levels were abysmally low, especially for women
(1.4%) and even for men (26%).
The average debt burden was colossal, at over 3,200 rupees
their initial years, the MKSS got drawn in as partners in important
local struggles of the poor, relating mainly to land and wages,
but also women's rights, prices and sectarian violence.
On May Day, 1990, the organisation was formally registered
under the name Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan.
Its ranks grew as MKSS built a strong cadre drawn from marginal
peasants and landless workers, mainly from the lower socio-economic
groupings. Locally the organisation gained recognition for its uncompromising
but non-violent resistance to injustice such as an epic struggle
to secure the payment of minimum wages to landless farm workers,
and also for integrity and ethical consistency of the life-styles
and the means adopted by its activists.
battle against corruption: the new instrument of public hearings
the winter of 1994, their work entered a new phase, breaking new
ground with experiments in fighting corruption through the methodology
of jan sunwais or public hearings.
This movement, despite its local character, has had state-wide
reverberations and has shaken the very foundations of the traditional
monopoly, the arbitrariness and corruption of the state bureaucracy.
In fact the movement contains the seeds for growth of a highly
significant new dimension to empowerment of the poor, and the momentous
enlargement of their space and strength in relation to structures
of the state.
with most great ideas, the concept and methodology of public hearings
or jan sunwais fashioned by the MKSS is disarmingly simple.
For years, indeed centuries, the people have been in their
daily lives habitual victims of an unremitting tradition of acts
of corruption by state authorities - graft, extortion, nepotism,
arbitrariness, to name only a few - but have mostly been silent
sufferers trapped in settled despair and cynicism.
From time to time, courageous individuals - political leaders,
officials, social activists - have attempted to fight this scourge
and bring relief to the people. But in most such efforts, the role
of the people who are victims of such corruption has mostly been
passive, without participation or hope. Such campaigns for the most
part have arisen out of sudden public anger at an event and died
down as suddenly or has been sustained critically dependent on a
charismatic leadership. Consequently the results of campaigns against
corruption have been temporary and unsustainable.
mode of public hearings initiated by MKSS, by contrast, commences
with the premise of the fundamental right of people to information,
about all acts and decisions of the state apparatus. In the specific
context of development and relief public works, with which MKSS
had been deeply involved for so many years, this right to information
translates itself into a demand that copies of all documents related
to public works are made available to the people, for a people’s
audit. The important documents related to public works are the muster
roll, which lists the attendance of the workers and the wages due
and paid, and bills and vouchers which relate to purchase and transportation
are then read out and explained to the people, in open public meetings.
The people thus have gained unprecedented access to information
about, for instance, whose names were listed as workers in the muster
rolls, the amounts of money stated to have been paid to them as
wages, the details of various materials claimed to have used in
the construction, and so on.
They have learnt that a large number of persons, some long
dead or migrated or non-existent, were listed as workers and shown
to be paid wages which were siphoned away, that as many bags of
cement were said to have used in the ‘repair’ of a primary school
building as would be adequate for a new building, and innumerable
other such stunning facts of the duplicity and fraud of the local
officials and elected representatives.
is not as if they were unaware in the past that muster rolls are
forged, that records are fudged, that materials are misappropriated,
and so on. But these
were general fears and doubts, and in the absence of access to hard
facts and evidence, they were unable to take any preventive or remedial
action. The public hearings dramatically changed this, and ordinary
people spoke out fearlessly and gave convincing evidence against
corruption, and public officials were invited to defend themselves.
is interesting and educative to see how officials and public representatives
at various levels of the hierarchy have reacted to this unprecedented
movement for people's empowerment. For a public hearing organised last year, for instance, the
head of the district administration, known as the Collector, initially
acceded to the demands of the MKSS activists, and issued instructions
for copies of the muster rolls, bills and vouchers to be given to
the activists. The
village development officers however refused to comply with the
written instructions of the Collector, and went on strike against
the Collector's order, insisting that they would submit themselves
to an audit only by government, and that they would refuse to share
copies of documents with any non-officials.
The agitation spread to the entire state of Rajasthan.
elections were then in progress and the Collector requested the withholding of the documents until the elections
were over so that the village officials’ strike does not obstruct
the election process. MKSS
organised the public hearing in the absence of documents, but were
still able to gather evidence for prima facie cases of corruption
in works and delays in payment.
These were presented to the Collector, who promised an enquiry.
compliance with this assurance, the official arrived at village
Bagmal for an enquiry. The
villagers had gathered, and the official commenced his examination
in an open space under the shade of a spreading tree.
However, 24 sarpanches
or elected village heads of surrounding villages who had nothing
to do with the enquiry in progress, arrived at the spot and raised
an uproar. A woman
sarpanch tore the shirt of a villager giving evidence.
The official remained silent, but shifted his enquiry indoors.
Threats and assaults on the villagers and activists continued
is significant that the local administration in the four districts
in which public hearings were organised by MKSS refused to register
criminal cases or institute recovery proceedings against the officials
and elected representatives against whom incontrovertible evidence
of corruption had been gathered in the course of the public hearings
and their follow-up.
enormous significance of this struggle has been its fundamental
premise that ordinary people should not be condemned to remain dependent
on the chance good fortune of an honest and courageous official,
or political or social leader, to release them from time to time
from the oppressive stranglehold of corruption.
The people must be empowered to control and fight this corruption
directly. For this,
firstly they require a cast-iron right to information.
Concretely, this means that the citizen must have the right
to obtain documents such as bills, vouchers and muster rolls, connected
with expenditures on all local development works.
with such information, as we have seen, the people would be empowered
to place this before and explain these documents to the concerned
village communities, in a series of 'public hearings'.
In these hearings, concrete evidence of corruption such as
false muster rolls, diversion of building materials etc. would come
to light. Armed with
such evidence, the people would now be empowered to demand action
against the corrupt, and recovery of diverted development expenditures.
public hearings to the movement for an enforceable right to information
public hearings organised by MKSS evoked widespread hope among the
underprivileged people locally, as well as among progressive elements
within and outside government.
In October, 1995, the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy
of Administration, Mussoorie, which is responsible for training
all senior civil service recruits, took the unusual step of organising
a national workshop of officials and activists to focus attention
on the right to information.
responding to the public opinion that coalesced around the issue,
the Chief Minister of Rajasthan on 5 April, 1995 announced in the
state legislature that his government would be the first in the
country to confer to every citizen the right to obtain for a fee
photo-copies of all official documents related to local development
a full year later, this assurance to the legislature was not followed
up by any administrative order. This lapse of faith was presumably
under pressure both from elected representatives and officials connected
with such works, who regard as their birthright the illegal siphoning
off of major portions of such expenditure.
one year after the aborted assurance of the Chief Minister, and
to coincide with an election campaign shrill in its hypocrisy regarding
corruption, the MKSS decided to launch at a small town Beawar a
demand was to press for the issue of administrative orders to enforce
the right to information of ordinary citizens regarding local development
state government responded by issuing an order on the first day
of the dharna, allowing citizens the right to inspect such documents
for a fee, but not to obtain certified copies or photo-copies.
The MKSS rejected this order as toothless and diversionary,
because in the absence of a legally valid copy, no action such as
filing a police case can be undertaken by a citizen who detects
defalcation. Further no time-limits and penalties were prescribed for compliance
and non-compliance respectively with these orders.
order to press for a more cast-iron government circular, the MKSS
continued its dharna.
A delegation met the Chief Minister during on election meeting
at the village Jawaja, and he verbally conceded to the demand but
refused to issue written instructions until the elections were over.
The stalemate continued.
day since the launching of the dharna meanwhile witnessed an unprecedented upsurge of homespun idealism
in the small town of Beawar and the surrounding countryside.
Donations in cash and kind poured in daily from ordinary
local people, including vegetables and milk from small vendors,
sacks of wheat from farmers in surrounding villages, tents, voluntary
services of cooking, serving cold water, photography and so on,
and cash donations from even the poorest.
more significant was the daily assembly of over 500 people in the
heat of the tent, listening to speeches and joining in for slogans,
songs and rallies. Active
support cut across all class and political barriers. Rich shopkeepers and professionals to daily wage labourers,
and the entire political spectrum from the right wing fringe to
communist trade unions extended vocal and enthusiastic support.
at random to people both in the dharna and in shops and streets
of the crowded and dusty marketplace, we found surprisingly high
awareness of the issues involved. 'Why cannot the government give
us information regarding expenditures made in our name?'
passionately demanded a waiter in a tea-stall. 'It is a fight for justice for the poor' affirmed the owner
of a pavement shop selling rubber footwear.
Everyone we spoke to was unanimous that there was no other
agitation since Independence to which women and men from all backgrounds
extended such unstinted support and in which they saw so much hope. They praised the MKSS activists for their discipline, courtesy,
the simplicity of their life-styles, their lack of political ambitions
and the authenticity of their motives.
dharna continued without resolution, but with continuously growing
manifest public support, overshadowing locally the more familiar
drama associated with the rough and tumble of the election schedule.
Behind the scenes, intermediaries and sympathisers including
some from within government attempted to re-establish dialogue between
the activists and government and reach a compromise.
no assurance from government was forthcoming, and therefore after
completion of polling on 2 May, 1996, while the dharna continued
in Beawar, it spread also to state capital of Jaipur.
In Jaipur, in an unprecedented gesture, over 70 people's
organisations and several respected citizens came forward to extend
support to the MKSS demand.
The mainstream press was also openly sympathetic.
the end, an official press-note was issued in Jaipur on 14 May,
1996 on behalf of the Rajasthan state government.
It stated firstly that the state government had taken a decision
on the issue not because of the pressure of people's organisations,
but because of the government's own commitment to transparency and
controlling corruption. It
went on to announce the establishment of a committee which within
two months would work out the logistics to give practical shape
to the assurance made by the Chief Minister to the legislature,
regarding making available photo-copies of documents relating to
local development works.
MKSS and other people's organisations who were involved in the struggle
decided to take this assurance of the state government on face value
and call off the dharna. It
was a highly significant victory, even if reluctantly conceded,
in the on-going movement for people's empowerment.
But clearly several battles remained to be fought before
the state would concede genuine space to real accountability to
year passed and despite repeated meetings with the Chief Minister
and senior cabinet
members and state officials, no order was issued and shared with
the activists, although again there were repeated assurances.
In the end, on a hot summer morning in May, 1997, began another
epic dharna, this time in the state capital of Jaipur close to the
State Secretariat. The
struggle saw the same outpourings of public support as had been
seen in Beawar a year earlier.
the end of 52 days of the dharna, the Deputy Chief Minister made an astonishing announcement,
that six months earlier, the state government had already notified
the right to receive photo-copies of documents related to panchayat or village local government institutions.
Why such an order, ironically related to transparency, had
been kept a secret, even during the 52-day dharna, remained a mystery.
the order of the state government was welcomed as a major milestone,
because for the first time, it recognised the legal entitlement
of ordinary citizens to obtain copies of government held documents.
MKSS and other organisations set about organising people to use
this important entitlement.
However, they continued to face in a majority of cases an
obstinate bureaucracy and recalcitrant local government representatives
who still refused to supply copies of documents.
MKSS has responded to such problems by complaints to authorities,
from local levels to the state government, highlighting the illegal
withholding of information in the press, and organising and mobilising
people to mount peaceful democratic agitational pressure on the
authorities. To take a case study, the sarpanch or elected head of the village panchayat of Harmara refused to give copies of muster rolls, bills
and vouchers for works conducted in his panchayat. MKSS workers
made repeated visits to the sarpanch, and kept a meticulous record
of the number of times they unsuccessfully contacted the sarpanch
for these documents. At
the time of writing, 65 such visits and appeals to the sarpanch
had been made, but with very limited success.
After a while, the sarpanch and panchayat secretary stopped
visiting the panchayat office altogether.
The MKSS workers then visited his home, but were manhandled
and pushed out. The sarpanch followed this up by registering a false complaint
against the MKSS workers in the police station, who responded with
their own police complaint.
The Rajasthan State Campaign Committee on Right to Information
held a dharna, in collaboration with the state People’s Union for
Civil Liberties, but the sarpanch remained recalcitrant.
Eventually, MKSS gave notice for a dharna at the sub-divisional
headquarters of Kishengarh, with backing from the National Campaign
for Right to Information.
The sarpanch finally responded with documents for only 3
works out of the 20 sought, and these were also incomplete and unreliable
with extensive over-writing.
The Block Office gave copies of muster rolls for 13 works
the night before the dharna, but no bills and vouchers. The Collector
ordered a special audit and seizure of the documents, but this was
also not implemented.
contrast, for Kukurkheda panchayat, MKSS workers demanded documents
in a meeting of the village panchayat, but were refused. They complained
to superior authorities but without avail. They then mounted agitations, including dharnas and picketing at the office of the sarpanch. He relented
within 2 weeks, and gave documents relating to all works in his
from the Grassroot Experience of MKSS: Towards Developing a Methodology
for People's Audit of Public Authorities
have seen how the exercise of the people’s right to information
can potentially powerfully empower ordinary citizens or people’s
groups in relation to the state. In practice, however, the exercise
of this right is hampered substantially because there is little
awareness about the methodologies that citizens and people’s groups
may adopt to effectively apply the right to information to enforce
transparent and accountable governance.
This section attempts to abstract from available grassroots
experience some initial principles, which may assist in developing
a methodology of people’s audit of public authorities.
we have seen, no public authority functions in ways that are in
theory unaccountable. There
are extensive checks and balances built into the functioning of
all public bodies, but traditionally these have been based on supervision
by superiors within the hierarchy, audit by specialised bodies within
government, judicial scrutiny and accountability to the legislature.
for the first time the movement for the right to information has
paved the way for audit and supervision also directly by the people,
of which the major steps are as follows.
first step in any exercise of people’s audit of public authorities
would be to identify the specific problems faced by the people in
their interface with the public authority in question.
The problems would be specifically in relation to the corrupt,
arbitrary or unaccountable exercise of power by a public authority.
These may be of many kinds, which would include:
or the misuse of one’s official position for private benefit,
at the expense of public interest. For example in the context
of rural development works, use of less materials in construction
than shown in the estimates or in the bills and vouchers, payment
to fictitious workers listed in muster rolls, etc.
or arbitrary exercise of patronage or power, for example, selection
of beneficiaries for government programmes in contravention
of established rules.
or exercise of official
in favour of the powerful in the contravention of law
or established principles of justice, for example failure to
implement social legislation such as those related to minimum
wages, gender and protection of disadvantaged groups.
of power in contravention of the rights and dignity of the individual,
for example confinement of people in sub-human conditions in
mental hospitals, jails or remand homes for children and women.
decisions that critically and adversely affect people without
consulting them, for example establishment of large development
projects without informing local populations about its impacts
on displacement and on the environment; and
to perform duties effectively; for example public health authorities
who fail to improve Infant Mortality Rate and Maternal Mortality
Rate, rural development authorities who fail to reduce poverty,
and educational authorities who fail to increase enrolment and
of relevant information
premise here is that people who are victims of corrupt, arbitrary
or unaccountable exercise of state power would be better equipped
to ensure accountability, probity and performance of public authorities
if they are equipped with the necessary information.
first question that we would ask is: what are the norms, rules,
procedures and laws governing the discharge of responsibilities
and exercise of power by the public authorities in question?
next question that we must ask is: what information would strengthen
people in relation to the state, with regard to each specific problem
that is experienced by people as they interact with the said public
authority? In other
words, what must individuals or groups know if they are to effectively
address the problems with which they are confronted when they interact
with the government? We
may, for example conclude that people would be able to reduce arbitrariness
and corruption in the public distribution system(PDS)
if they had information about the quantities of food grain allotments
to the shop and who this has been distributed to. Likewise, they
may be able to audit and control corruption in public works if they
have information about the quantity of the materials required and
those actually used.
next task would be to identify within the system whether and where,
and in what form, are these categories of information being generated,
recorded and stored. For example, the information identified in
the examples listed in the earlier paragraph would be recorded in
the food-grain allotment and distribution registers; and the measurement
books, bills and vouchers respectively.
It would frequently be the case that most citizens would
have very little knowledge about the nature of documents generated
in the course of functioning of a public authority, for example
many persons would not know about the allotment and distribution
registers in a public distribution outlet.
Therefore in a state committed to enforcing a regime of accountability
and transparency, public authorities themselves should actively
disseminate information regarding the procedures governing internal
functioning of such organisations.
This also underlines the necessity of citizens and groups
who wish to use the right to information to first make a close study
of the internal procedures, including documents and reporting procedures,
within the public authority.
now need to ask what are the rules, procedures and precedents, if
any, for public access to or retrieval of such documents?
We may find, to carry forward our earlier examples, that
the allotment and distribution registers for PDS shops are not legally
accessible to the consumer.
On the other hand, the Government of India has directed that
copies of muster rolls, bills, measurement books and vouchers for
all rural development works must be read out in all gram sabha
meetings, and copies must be made available on demand. An enabling
legislation to guarantee the right to information would render most
such documents legally accessible to people. Some would have to
be made available on the suo-moto initiative of the public authority,
copies of others would be available on demand
documents required by the law or administrative instructions to
be suo-moto made available to the citizens, access should at least
in theory not pose any problem. If, however, the instructions are
not being complied with, relief prescribed under the same law or
instructions may be resorted to, such as appeal to the designated
documents available to the citizen on demand, the first step would
be a systematic and focussed inspection of documents, to zero in
on those particular documents, which may be relevant for the subsequent
social audit. If documents
are bulky, such as muster rolls (there may be hundreds of muster
rolls for a particular work), it may be useful to precede the inspection
with a field study so that one is aided in identifying documents
of doubtful veracity in advance.
If the documents are not bulky, such as the measurement book,
bills and vouchers, all documents related to the work being audited
may be inspected. It would also be useful for persons with intimate knowledge,
both of local specifics as well as technical details, to form part
of a team which is deputed to inspect the documents, so that identification
of specific documents related to the problem in question is possible.
such documents are identified, the next step would be to apply for
certified copies of such documents. Legal entitlements, backed by necessary administrative instructions,
should ensure that certified copies are supplied within the prescribed
time limits. However,
as we have seen, the experience of the MKSS has been that frequently
government orders are flagrantly flouted to withhold copies of documents,
which would establish malfeasance.
order to facilitate the scrutiny and use of these documents by individuals,
organisations and the village community, it is important that information
contained in the documents is organised and collated in a manner
that enables easy comprehension and verification.
us take the example of muster rolls or wage employment registers.
The information contained in these may be collated in a simple
aggregated table of 4 columns.
The first column would list the names of the workers, the
second the fortnight (or week) in which they
worked, the third the number of days worked, and the fourth
the payment received. The
veracity of this aggregated information would then be confirmed
with a field visit, in small informal groups of residents. For instance, one could check whether all the persons listed
(a) exist at all; (b) worked on the specified days; (c) were paid
as recorded; (d) actually signed the muster rolls; and (e) were
also listed simultaneously for the same days in other panchayats.
If resources permit, the process of field verification may
take another example, bills and vouchers of works may be collated
and scrutinised as follows: Begin with listing of materials used
as recorded, indicating type of material used, cost per unit, quantity
used, place of purchase or extraction, and total cost of the material.
Discuss with technical staff about the norms of prescribed
ratios in combining various materials during construction.
In field verification, it would be useful to speak to the
people on work-sites, again in groups. It would especially be useful to talk the mistry or mason. Some of the enquiries may be as follows: Was the
quantity of material indicated
actually used on site? Was
it transported from the location indicated? Were the ratios as prescribed?
If local evidence establishes that a certain ratio was applied,
does it tally with the quantities of materials indicated in the
may be stressed that these are only cursory illustrations. For each
specific issue and type of document, a thorough understanding would
have to be attained in advance, of the content of the documents,
the kinds of malpractices that can occur, and how these involve
manipulation of the records.
Based on this, a specific methodology could be developed
in each instance, to collate and professionally scrutinise the documents,
to detect specific
prima facie instances of corruption and malfeasance.
Audit of Information for Grievance Redressal
arrived at a situation in which the individual or group has prima-facie
evidence, including certified copies of relevant documents, of corruption
or misuse of official power, there are three broad options open
for grievance redressal:
the individual or group may want to address conventional grievance
mechanisms of public authorities, mainly applying to supervisory
or corruption control authorities with copies of relevant documents.
Since this does not involve any mechanism of social audit,
it does not fall within the purview of this paper.
second recourse open to the individuals or groups would be to
access fora that have been established under the law, with the
express purpose of facilitating people’s audit.
A typical example of this is the institutional arrangements
like the gram sabha or village assembly in India, which is specifically
empowered under the law, to conduct a social audit into all
rural development programmes.
However, in most cases, the citizen or group is likely
to encounter passive, even defunct institutions, in which members
are unaware or cynical about their rights. For instance, rarely
have gram sabhas actually functioned as vehicles for social
audit. The individual or group would therefore have to mobilise the
members of the gram sabha to participate in the gram sabha meetings
as a duty akin to the vote. It would inform them about their
rights, encourage the victims of injustice and disadvantaged
groups to speak out in such meetings, ensure that information
is placed before the participants in a comprehensible manner,
that decisions taken are legally recorded, and follow-up ensured.
In many ways, an
empowered gram sabha would function not dissimilarly to a jan
sunwai or public hearing, which is described in the next sub-section.
third recourse available to the individual or group is to resort
to organised community action for people’s audit, based on inherent
democratic rights and the right to information.
One highly successful pathbreaking example of this has
been the jan sunwais or public hearings organised by the MKSS in Rajasthan.
We will elaborate here the methodology followed for jan
sunwais by MKSS, while stressing that each group should experiment
with its own methodologies which are best suited to the local
people, the group’s own strengths, the response of public authorities
and the specifics of the issues involved.
jan sunwais or public hearings
remaining part of this section elaborates the methodology of organising
jan sunwais based on a further documentation of the experience of
the MKSS. The initial preparation for a jan sunwai would involve
precisely the same steps outlined earlier, of identifying people’s
problems and relevant information, and accessing and scrutinising
documents. Having arrived
at prima facie cases of corruption, and armed with the necessary documentary
evidence, one may fix the date for a jan sunwai or public hearing.
for the jan sunwai includes sharing the information in each place
in which the public work was undertaken, with small groups of affected
people. In these small
group meetings, earlier inferences would also be verified, and participants
invited to the jan sunwai. Mobilisation may also be through wall
writing and pamphlets, which would also include details of some
prima-facie cases, but in generic terms without laying blame in
is important to note that the other side also mobilises simultaneously
in a variety of ways, through persuasion, appeals to class, caste
and clan loyalties, threats and covert or overt violence.
In many cases, payments withheld in the past from workers
are clandestinely paid, for example the sarpanch of Harmara referred
to earlier made payments of 150,000 rupees to workers since the
process of people’s audit began.
The other side may also come forward to negotiate with the
facilitators, and such negotiations should be conducted with full
the face of this counter mobilisation, the facilitators of people’s
audit need to remain calm and resolute.
Also, as agents of hitherto exclusive information, they gain
a sense of power, therefore they must be trained in advance to resist
exercising personal power, and instead to regard themselves only
as custodians of people’s information for facilitating the exercise
of people’s power.
officials and panchayat members, of the district, block and village levels are also
invited to the jan sunwais.
MKSS also invites a panel of impartial observers, comprising
persons of eminence from public life, the press and the professions.
It has been experience of the MKSS that local government
officials, and panchayat members, including those likely to be indicted, attend the
jan sunwais, despite the fact that these have no legal sanction.
This is also linked to the inclusive nature of jan sunwais,
the fact that care is taken that the proceedings must be conducted
with forthrightness and courage, but there must be no personal rancour
or irresponsible mud slinging.
The local officials and public representatives are also given
places of respect on the dais, along side the members of the panel.
the start of the jan sunwai, the rules of the meeting are laid out. Everyone present is entitled to speak, except persons under
the influence of liquor. They
must speak only on the theme, and be restrained in their language,
strictly abjuring swearwords and phrases, which assault the dignity
of any individual. It
is also made clear that MKSS activists themselves would speak only
on issues on which people from the village community are prepared
to speak, because they are only facilitators.
identified cases are taken up one by one.
The documents, and the relevant rules and technical details
are not merely read out, but paraphrased and demystified for the
assembly. People speak
out, and verbal evidence is gathered.
Members of the panel intervene wherever they desire.
The government and panchayat authorities are also encouraged
to clarify or defend themselves on any issue.
people’s audit is conducted through statutory bodies for social
audit, like gram sabhas, or innovative democratic institutions for
people's audit like the jan sunwai, one major question still remains
to be resolved. This is: how does an empowered and informed village
community, armed with evidence of the mala fide exercise of authority
by public bodies, ensure that the guilty are punished and public
order to understand the complexity of the issues involved, we may
return to the case-study of the Kukurkheda panchayat. In a jan sunwai organised by the MKSS, the woman sarpanch publicly
accepted her guilt in a charge of corruption in public works to
the tune of 100,000
rupees, and during the jan sunwai itself returned the first instalment
of Rs 50,000/=. This
amount was deposited in the panchayat fund.
This was perceived as a major victory by both the village
community and the MKSS, although questions were raised whether mere
refund of the amount misappropriated constituted adequate penalty
and deterrence, or whether criminal charges should also have been
days after the jan sunwai, the Block Development Officer
(BDO) organised a special audit into the works of Kukurkheda panchayat,
and established several prima facie cases of corruption.
After this, instead of taking legal action against the sarpanch
and panchayat secretary, the BDO called an informal meeting of sarpanches
of the Block, and they jointly persuaded the sarpanch of Kukukheda to retract.
Cornered, she illegally withdrew from the panchayat fund the Rs 50,000/= she had paid into it.
Neither district nor block officials have taken any action
contrast, in Ajmer district, two sarpanches also returned misappropriated
money detected during the jan sunwai. The Collector ordered a special
audit, recovery of misappropriated money as arrears of land revenue,
as well as filed police complaints against the guilty.
The two sarpanches
are presently held in judicial custody.
two contrasting examples help raise the basic question, that if
guilt of a public authority is established in a people's audit,
but despite this no action is taken against the authority, what
are the remedies available to the individual citizen or group?
There are no ready answers, because people’s audit of public
authorities is a new avenue of people's action, and clearer answers
would emerge only after more experience is gathered by diverse groups
working in different regions on varied issues. However, recourse
to some kind of organised peaceful protest seems inevitable, if
state authorities remain recalcitrant.
Initiatives of the Bureaucrac
India, some of the most practical moves for enforcing the right
to information have arisen surprisingly from the much-maligned quarters
- from members of the bureaucracy and the politicians. This has
been possible despite the consistent hostility of the executive
in general to transparency, and the fact that the bureaucracy as
a whole is deeply corroded by corruption and nepotism.
India, the few progressive elements in the bureaucracy have often
been marginalised. Bureaucrats who attempted to change things and
took firm stands against corrupt practices have been routinely transferred
out to ‘punishment postings’ and disempowered. Some attempted to
change things in innocuous ways like setting right the system of
records, but these exercises were centred around individuals and
lasted only until the new entrant. The public remained at the mercy
of chance benevolent administrators in the absence of institutionalisation
of accountability mechanisms.
experiments that bear mentioning are the ones using Information
Technology to revamp the system of recording information. As far
back as 1985, the District Collector of Karwar District in Karnataka,
one of the Southern states, diverted funds meant for a jeep in order
to purchase a microcomputer which was successfully used as an analytical
tool. In the first year after adopting this system, the district
went up from being the 18th to the 3rd in
the success rate for implementing development programmes. The success
of this programme was in its replication to other districts as a
formal Programme named CRISP (Computerised Rural Information Systems
in Ahmednagar District of the state of Maharashtra, a Collector
revamped the whole records system,
allowing the public to get copies of documents and to inspect
records easily. This system resulted
both in speedy disposal of public grievances as well as a
far more professional work environment for the office clerks.
the wildfire growth of Information Technology, these ideas for accessing
information are being given much stress and huge programmes for
networking rural districts to enable people to access information
are being carried out. The most notable among these is the one taken
on by Chief Minister
of Andhra Pradesh, another Indian state, by linking through computers
all the rural regions. This is being done by setting up information
kiosks at the taluka
level where anybody can have access to desired information from
the government. Of course, these experiments in using information
technology will pose their own problems in terms of the quality
of information made available. For these could well boil down to
furtherance of government propaganda and as much can be hidden as
revealed. Advocates of the right to information need to keep an
eye on all these aspects and ensure that transparency is carried
to its logical conclusion and the sources of the information and
the generation of information is made equally transparent.
these experiments were hailed as experiments in good administration,
the really dynamic experiment in recent years has been one carried
out in one of the Divisions
of India’s largest
state, Madhya Pradesh. This process, as we shall see was not a mere
exercise in logistics, but contained strong conceptual and ideological
elements which helped later to spur a movement in the entire state,
resulting in wide-ranging administrative reforms for openness.
Commissioner sought to systematically introduce transparency in
certain key departments like the Public Distribution System, the
Employment Exchange, and the Pollution Control Board.
Public Distribution System in rural India is one of the most corrupt
networks, beset with hoarding, supply of sub-standard foodgrains
to the public, illegal sale of the allotted quotas in the open market,
and almost always manned by rude and unresponsive persons who make
people queue for hours for days on end to receive their share of
the basic necessities. Into this cesspool of corruption which daily
threatened the food entitlements of the most poor, a system was
put into place whereby each outlet was required to send certified
copies of the Stock Register, the Sale Register and the Ration Card
Register and to these to the Tehsil office. From this office,
any person could secure certified copies on demand within 24 hours
to personally investigate what grains had come, and to whom these
were distributed. Installing photocopiers at the tehsil offices
was made mandatory. This was made cost-effective by buying photocopiers
for handicapped persons through a governmental scheme, thereby generating
employment as well as adding to administrative efficiency. A deadline
was laid down for adherence to this system and a system of fines
was established at all levels for delay in following the system.
the Employment Exchange was required to give details about the criterion
and procedure for selection to any government position, and the
detailed merit list, on demand by any person.
Division is also home to Korba, one of the most polluted areas in
the country due to multiple and uncontrolled industrialisation.
The administration realised that pollution levels could not be brought
down without the active participation of the public. The Pollution
Control Board of this area was therefore required to collect and
publish daily in the local newspapers, details of the various pollutants
in the area, along with the levels of pollution, and a citizens
committee was trained and authorised to check the veracity of the
this whole exercise soon ran into trouble with the local power groups,
and the officer whose brainchild it was, was transferred out of
the area. To briefly enumerate the fallout of this exercise:
Although the experiment has often been referred to as a “failure”
by some quarters in that the number of information seekers was negligible
and in that the system collapsed with the exit of the Commissioner,
in the duration that the orders for right to information were in
operation, the deterrent effect of transparency to corruption and
inefficiency became only too apparent. The foodgrain shops recorded
unprecedented excess stocks, as the distributors could no longer
oblige local politicians and goons by diverting the stocks to them
and to the black market. They even remarked, “the people’s right
to know has become our right to “no”! Pollution levels showed a
marked decline and the daily publication of pollution levels encouraged
the public to take an interest in their environment and to question
the levels of pollution.
cynics had a field day criticising the experiment on all fronts
ranging from the standard charge of it being ‘impractical’ to ‘not
feasible financially,’ the ground had been well prepared and the
seeds sown for sweeping acceptance of the right to information in
principle in the entire state of Madhya Pradesh.
this was an experiment carried out pro bono, it found many supporters
who could look beyond the teething troubles and sense that here
was an answer to many ills to which many cures had earlier failed.
It was this realisation that spurred
the Chief Minister of the state, himself a professed crusader
for decentralisation of power and transparency and accountability,
to attempt an enactment for enforcing the right to information.
The attempt was, however, axed by his cabinet. There are unofficial
and amusing reports of the horror and dismay of the ministers at
the very idea of complete transparency in the working of government.
The whole attitude was one of “either this law remains or we remain”.
Political considerations obviously warranted a backtracking on the
move. However, the next move of the State government demonstrates
how political will can push reforms through even in adverse circumstances
and how spaces can be created starting from a tiny wedge.
in a neighbouring state the people were fighting tooth and nail
(the MKSS campaign, elaborated in an earlier section) for a governmental
order to get photocopying rights in one sphere of government, that of the Panchayats, the government of Madhya Pradesh surprised all campaigners
for the right to information by handing out a veritable bouquet
of rights of access to government records in the form of executive
orders to 37 departments of the state government. These broadly
included the departments of Public Works, Panchayats and Rural Development,
Urban Development, Dairy Development, the Public Distribution System,
Jails, Social Welfare, Co-operatives, Tribal Welfare Forests, to
name a few. The Chief Minister declared his commitment to transparency
saying “transparency is essential because it is the basis of Democracy…This
will go a long way in establishing a vibrant administration, a vibrant
society and a vibrant nation. That is why we are telling people
before they start asking.”
process followed by the government was strategic in that it attempted
to follow the line of least resistance and thereby got through much
more than it could have hoped to by forcing it on a reluctant and
hostile bureaucracy. “We asked the officials to enumerate all those
categories of information which were easily available with them
and which could be given without any extra burden on the administration.
This has enabled us to give the reforms a practical shape. Gradually,
we expect a change in the mindset as people get used to the idea
and then we can always expand the areas for giving information.
We felt that it was better to give something rather than deny everything”.
whole process was moderated by the department of General Administaration
which, as the name suggests, is responsible for the overall efficiency
and functioning of the administrative structure and also for reforms
of this structure. The broad pattern of the orders is a directive
to provide photocopies or rights of inspection for certain categories
of documents enumerated in the order itself, “for a mass campaign
against corruption through the right to information”.
The orders prescribe a minimum fee for inspecting the documents
and formats for requests for inspection and photocopies. While most
of the fee structures seem reasonable, there are some departments
where the fee structure suggests that it would act as a deterrent
to information seekers, who may most likely be from disadvantaged
classes such as those living under the poverty line.
orders were not issued because of any apparent public pressure or
movement, though it is likely that developments in other parts of
the country, particularly pervasive public revulsion at corruption
in high places, egged on the political masters and the bureaucracy
to take pre-emptive measures.