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Volume 11 Number 4
New Delhi, Winter 2004

National Convention Celebrates a Decade of Right To Information in India
Renu Vinod
Intern, Access to Information Programme, CHRI

It was on the 8th of October 2004 that the National Capital of India, New Delhi, was witness to a special Jan Sunwai (public hearing). This Jan Sunwai was special because it heralded a national level three-day celebration commemorating a decade of the Right To Information movement in India. It was also special because barely literate and poor citizens voiced their grievances in front of a thousand strong audience demanding government accountability related to the Public Distribution System.

The public hearing was organised by Parivartan - a leading Delhi-based citizen's group working on RTI that has been instrumental in exposing the nexus between corrupt government officials and Public Distribution Outlet's owners. The National RTI Convention had residents of the slum settlements of Ekta Vihar rubbing shoulders with well-known activists of RTI in India, including Aruna Roy (Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan), Arvind Kejriwal (Parivartan), Prabhash Joshi (also Supreme Court Advocate), Kuldip Nayar (former Member of Parliament) and Ajit Bhattacharjea (former Director, Press Institute of India).

At the hearing, presided over by eminent personalities and attended by civil society groups, and concerned individuals, records of Public Distribution Shops in the area obtained by Parivartan volunteers using the Delhi Right to Information Act, were scrutinised. They found that these below poverty line ration cardholders had been denied their rations (quota of food) for a substantial period stretching from six months to two years. The records however revealed fictitious entries showing that food articles and kerosene had been sold regularly to the beneficiaries of this scheme.

Jan Sunvai in New Delhi

The high point of the Jan Sunwai was when communities bravely narrated their stories, clearly exposing the high levels of corruption that exists in the Public Distribution System in India. The Jan Sunwai also gave a chance to the owners of the Public Distribution Shops charged with corruption to present their cases. Predictably they denied all charges.

Flashback to 1997, when a group of concerned professionals, human rights and social activists, including the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (a workers and farmers solidarity group based in Rajasthan), and Parivartan got together to form the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI) to foster collective action to ensure an effective national Right to Information Act. Following their formation, the first National Convention on the RTI was held in Beawar, Rajasthan in April 2001. The second Convention on a national scale occurred in October 2004 in Delhi, beginning with this very Jan Sunwai, to mark the success of the RTI movement in India.

It was a decade ago in India's desert state of Rajasthan that the grassroots Right to Information movement in the country began. Volunteers from MKSS began their campaign for a social audit of the money the village government had spent on public works. They were the first to use slogans like "The Right to Know is the Right to Live", and "Our Money, Our Accounts", forcing the government to take notice and ultimately opening themselves up for public scrutiny. "Our Money Our Accounts", was then adopted as the slogan of the National Convention.

When the RTI movement first began in India, the focus was mainly on misappropriation of public money being spent on development work meant for the public, and chasing after corrupt Public Distribution outlet's owners who cheated citizens who were below the poverty line of their rightful entitlement to food rations. RTI activists are now trying to extend its practical use beyond the Public Distribution System. This was evident at the National Convention where participants were informed of the wide range of issues in which RTI could be favourably used to procure information, such as on: genetically modified food, industrial pollution, communalism, disability, missing persons, health, military, the criminal justice system and media.

In some areas like nuclear issues, economic globalisation and project displacement, India lacks the expertise in RTI. These workshops were seen as an opportunity by the NCPRI to explore methods by which the public's right to information can be used in these areas to make government and other agencies more accountable. Experts in these fields bringing out the RTI component explored about thirty such new areas.

With participants from over 20 states and 200 organisations, the Convention was also a good opportunity for people from different parts of the country to come together and gaze how effectively RTI functions in states that have adopted it. Case studies in Rajasthan were analysed by participants giving them the opportunity to learn the nuances of the movement and its growth in different parts of the country. The representation from several states and organizations was an apt demonstration of how relevant the Act is for the welfare of people.

The need for RTI was bought to life at the Convention by personal stories. Ram Sagar, for instance, from the state of Uttar Pradesh, which does not have a RTI Act in place yet, suspected foul play in the distribution of money meant for public health in their village. When the villagers from the state were denied information they went on a Dharna (strike) for several days making the local government officials nervous enough to respond. Villagers now use this method to elicit other public information also. Right to Information legislation in the hands of people like Ram Sagar would certainly be a potent weapon to extract information from government authorities especially in a state like Uttar Pradesh where corruption is rampant.

Yet another interesting aspect of this Convention was the urgency felt in making the Central Act "people friendly and any information relevant to ordinary citizens… not be deemed an official secret". The outcome of this urgency was the Delhi Declaration of which the above is an extract. Even though the Freedom of Information Act was passed by Parliament in 2002 it hasn't been made operational till date. It is likely that the draft amendments to the 2002 Bill will be tabled in this year's winter session of the Parliament.

The need of the hour is for everyone to stand united and ensure that the Right to Information Act is effectively utilised for citizens' welfare. The National Convention on Right to Information symbolises this united struggle by concerned citizens to fight an apathetic government and bring in a strong RTI Act.

CHRI National Workshop on Media and the Right to Information

A day preceding the National Convention on Right To Information, CHRI conducted a national workshop on the importance of media networks in using the Right To Information.

The objectives of the workshop were to appraise participants about the possibilities of using RTI provisions to secure information related to their work areas by showcasing examples from abroad; and to create a nation-wide network of media persons who will work on RTI issues.

Twenty-five media persons working with the print and electronic media at the national and regional level attended the daylong workshop. Topics discussed and debated were: RTI in India: Constitutional and Legal Developments; RTI - Citizens and Groups in Action; Media's Use of RTI Laws to Access Information and the Value of Right to Information to the Media.


CHRI Newsletter, Winter 2004

Editors: Vaishali Mishra & Clare Doube, CHRI;
Design: Print: Anshu Tejpal, Electronic: Jyoti Bhargava, CHRI; Web Developer: Swayam Mohanty, CHRI.
Acknowledgement: Many thanks to all contributors

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The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) is an independent international NGO mandated to ensure the practical realisation of human rights in the Commonwealth.