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20.5.2014 | Von:
Aruna Roy

Empowering People, Enforcing Accountability

Lessons from India's Right to Information Movement for the Fight against Corruption

Studenten informieren mit einer Theater-Performance über den Right To Information Act.Studenten informieren mit einer Theater-Performance über den Right To Information Act. (© picture-alliance/dpa)

Corruption has been, and remains an endemic problem at all levels in India. However, the approach to fighting corruption has vastly differed, and political activists on different sides of the ideological spectrum have used it as a convenient means to mobilise people against a corrupt regime, without having to explain their own perspective on what they want from development or politics. They have invariably made the overthrow of a corrupt regime, synonymous with the replacement of a corrupt system, and therefore focussed more on the change of the ruling party, than on the kind of systemic change that is needed. Anti-corruption movements have peaked at regular intervals, but failed to provide a lasting solution. But solutions demand fundamental change and persistent efforts to re-work the architecture of governance. That is no easy task. Anti-corruption movements led by Jaiprakash Narain in the mid 1970's and by V.P. Singh in 1989 stand witness.

This paper argues that the Right to Information (RTI) Campaign in India, has changed the nature of the struggle against corruption. There are several reasons why this bottom up movement made a seminal difference. First, it did not get encumbered by the illusion that replacing one set of rulers with another would solve ethical governance issues. Second, it was initiated, supported, and energised by some of the poorest people of the country, who understood exploitation and felt the effect of corruption every day. Theirs was implicitly a struggle for access to justice, and a life of dignity. Corruption was just the symptom.

The link between corruption and injustice, was simply and logically explained in their demands, and sustained their struggle. Its direct message blazed a trail where the ordinary citizen started questioning unaccountable "rulers", placing transparency and accountability in the context of poverty, inequality and injustice. It impacted the discourse of RTI around the world. The RTI movement in India, set in motion a set of radical reforms that promised to put power in the hands of the people. It began to dismantle the opaque and unaccountable structures that nurture corruption. But, its profound impact is visible perhaps only as hindsight.

"The Right to Know, the Right to Live"

The relationship of the 'right to know' with fighting corruption was not new. What was significantly different was the leadership and articulation of poor communities for RTI. The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), a peasant and workers organisation campaigned for RTI in rural Rajasthan through the 1990's, and established the intrinsic connections of the right to information with the struggle against injustice and the arbitrary exercise of power. The principles were articulated simply and powerfully by ordinary persons. Two famous slogans emerged from the movement: "the right to know, the right to live", and "our money, our accounts".

These slogans succinctly and effectively communicated the objective of establishing the sovereignty of the ordinary citizen in a democratic framework, and helped poor communities understand their stake in transparency and the "people's right to information". In fact it was this long, intense grass roots struggle and sustained advocacy, which began in 1992/93 that helped the RTI movement cross the threshold and transform itself from a localised struggle into a national campaign and a peoples movement demanding a law. The struggle corroborated the assumption that corruption arises from inequality.

For obvious reasons, local public expenditure and delivery of services were the initial focus of the demands. This phase of the MKSS struggle for information culminated in a 40 day 'sit in' in the market town of Beawar in 1996, where along with access to specific records, the MKSS also articulated the demand for a Right to Information law. The support of many prominent individuals from the media, the legal fraternity, and other people's movements, converted the Beawar dharna into a national issue. Wider participation and support, and the increasingly obvious implications of the RTI in building a participatory democracy also led to the formation of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI) in Delhi later that year.

The impact of corruption on life, livelihood and the corrosion of grass roots democratic institutions, had always been clear to poor people. Their articulation of the vital role of access to official information in enforcing democratic accountability, excited supporters from other peoples movements, and other parts of the country. The RTI began to be used to fight discrimination; based on gender, caste, and religion; and in the denial of essential services for the poor. In recent times, the RTI has been an important tool to fight many neo liberal economic policies which have undermined basic democratic rights.


Proof of Corruption and Mismanagement

As peoples demands for information became more focussed, and bureaucratic resistance grew, the struggle for information snowballed into a much larger campaign and movement. The information obtained formally and informally, began to be used in the public domain. Jan Sunwais or Public hearings energised local communities. Public audits, or social audits, began to emerge as a new discipline. The demand for participatory democracy was strengthened through a practical application of its concepts.

As the Campaign spread, the scope of the RTI grew in tandem. Social movements, also began to understand it was a transformatory entitlement necessary for them to help realise other legal and constitutional rights. This gave the demand widespread support across the spectrum, and very soon RTI became a movement with a life of its own.

The Right to Information Act 2005, was put to use soon after it was enacted. Citizens success in accessing information led to another significant challenge. Armed with proof of corruption and mismanagement, the demand for corrective action grew exponentially. Some issues were resolved through naming and shaming. But people continued to face barriers in trying to enforce accountability, even after information was accessed and placed in the public domain. The accountability laws and mechanisms remained weak. The criminal justice system continued to be beset with resistance and delay. As people began to assert their right to monitor and participate, frustration levels with official inaction, began to mount dramatically.

Users of Right to Information under Attack

While campaigns and movements began to use the RTI to access official records, the RTI also saw the birth of a new breed of individual activism. Individuals in various parts of India used their own time, resources, and determination to extract information and doggedly pursue complaints, even against the most powerful vested interests. RTI users were threatened, attacked, and killed in all parts of the country. Since 2011, more than 30 such RTI users have lost their lives in brutal attacks.

Growing frustration and anger propelled the people and the NCPRI to demand a series of accountability legislations. In September 2010 the NCPRI began a series of consultations for the passage of a Whistleblower Protection law (to protect RTI users and whistleblowers) and to mandate the setting up of an independent anti-corruption ombudsmen called the Lokpal.

+The campaign India Against Corruption (IAC) was an offshoot of this effort. At the end of 2010, the IAC demanded a single institution – called the Jan Lokpal – with the power to investigate complaints against people at all levels in the judiciary, the legislature and the executive. The IAC began a series of protests for the Jan Lokpal including hunger strikes by anti-corruption campaigner Anna Hazare in 2011. IAC activists demanded that they be included in the official drafting committee for the law. Despite discussions, they refused to accommodate divergent views from many within the anti-corruption movement who cautioned against the creation of a powerful and unaccountable investigating agency.

The NCPRI raised objections to the scope and powers of the proposed Jan Lokpal, and argued that this "super power" investigating agency would be unaccountable, susceptible to corruption, and even a potential threat to the checks and balances of democracy. The NCPRI, instead demanded that a basket of four separate legislations be enacted: to oversee high level corruption; to redress grievances; to protect whistle blowers; and to enforce judicial accountability.

Corruption reduces Democratic Processes to a Mockery

The immediate popularity of the anti-corruption agitation, led to comparisons by commentators with the protests that were taking place at the same time in the Arab world. There are however, vast differences between the Arab spring and the Indian summer. In Tahrir square and in Jantar Mantar (the protest site in Delhi), people battled for a completely different set of demands. The Arab spring was a popular mobilisation seeking to replace dictatorship with democracy. In the Indian context, the protest was against an administrative system riddled by corruption.

With all its imperfections, there was a functioning parliamentary democracy with legal space for popular protest. India has a long and robust tradition of democratic protest, and political movements thrive even outside political parties. The anti-corruption movement in India drew strength and legitimacy from the democratic space created by civil disobedience movements of the past, and the right to protest enshrined in the Constitutional structure.

The Indian anti-corruption movement was therefore addressing second generation problems that arise from injustice, poverty and gross inequality within a democratic framework. The vote is a non negotiable part of democratic practice. However, it has fallen prey to prejudices of a feudal social structure with its primary identities of caste and religion. The word "majoritarianism" – an addition to the Indian lexicon – is the (mis)use of platforms of democratic decision making by a numerical majority to undermine ethical precepts and constitutional principles.

The neo-liberal economy has further undermined democratic choice by imposing a set of "free trade" decisions on local communities, whether or not they agree with them. The capitalist growth driven economic framework has magnified economic inequalities, and destroyed many local ecosystems. Election campaigns, parties, and elected governments are increasingly compromised by big money and their vested interests. Corruption, over laid by arbitrariness, has reduced democratic processes to a mockery of itself.

Proactive Transparency as an Antidote to Corruption

The vote is necessary, but not a sufficient enough foundation for a democracy. The use of the RTI has helped expose these perversions by steadily unpacking the meaning of governance. What started as a demand from the village panchayat (institution of local self-governance), has traced its trajectory to the Prime Minister's office and Parliament. It has exposed entrenched vested interests, and begun to dismantle illegitimate centres of power at all levels of governance. It has promoted proactive transparency – the only real antidote to corruption. The answers to corruption were not expected to emerge as a single solution. They had to be found in the million mutinies the RTI was giving rise to. It was from these struggles that the subsequent demand for accountability and anti-corruption laws emerged.

The RTI Campaign has helped fix responsibility for implementation and delivery. The right to ask questions is a fundamental part of democratic governance. The casting of a vote is the beginning of a social contract between the voter and her representative. For the first time in India, the RTI Act conceptually equated the citizen with the elected representative: The proviso to the exemption clause states, "provided that the information which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person". Representative democracy had begun to hegemonize power. The RTI Act provided a tool to ordinary citizens to begin demanding their share of power from the state, by demanding accountability every day.

The RTI movement in India also developed its theory through practice, and the Indian judiciary acknowledged its conceptual framework. The Delhi High Court, ruled that the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and his office would fall under the purview of the Act. The judgement explicitly acknowledged and vindicated the argument of ordinary people who fought for the law, that the fundamental right to the 'freedom of expression' under Article 19, the 'right to equality' under Article 14, and the 'right to live' under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution, come together in exercising the right to know.

Attrition, Education and Political Understanding

The RTI has provided the basis for people to investigate and expose many cases of corruption. This process of political education through practice, has helped ordinary Indians to understand how much is at stake for individuals, groups, and entire communities, when corruption is allowed to continue unchallenged. Indifference and frustration are being overcome by asserting participation in the political process. Many of the major scams like spectrum allocation, coal block allocation, urban land and building scams, have been exposed using proof obtained through the RTI forcing government, investigating agencies, and courts, to take action. The second generation demand for the Whistleblower law, the Lokpal law, the Grievance Redress law, and the Judicial Accountability law, owes its genesis to this process.

Different streams in the Indian anti-corruption movements have taken divergent paths. Nevertheless their common rhetoric demands structural change, better laws, and better implementation. The anti-corruption battle is one of attrition, education, greater political understanding, and practical institutionalisation. Instant remedies do not deliver.

+The IAC disappointed at the waning chances of the campaign to get the law it wanted, decided to form a party, and seek to win the election. Its aim was to legislate revolutionary change through the enactment of the Jan Lokpal. The Lokpal debate has seen differences arise even within the IAC and later between the demands of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and their former leader Anna Hazare. It culminated when Anna Hazare, did not join the political party, and sat on another hunger strike in December 2013, when the Lokpal Bill was finally passed.

No Magic Wand to bring Ethics into Governments

The National Campaign for People's Right to Information continues to pressurise all parties, and the government, for effective transparency and accountability legislation, and their better implementation. Thanks to its efforts, the Whistleblower Protection Bill was finally enacted in Parliament in February 2014. Despite a political consensus for the Grievance Redress Bill, a Parliament beset by the inertia of disturbances and adjournments, failed to take it up for passage, and it lapsed. Many other anti-corruption legislations under consideration also lapsed.

The anti-corruption and accountability debate is interestingly poised. There are no magic wands to bring in ethics in public life and governments. While some feel that political power through the vote will deliver, others are as insistent that it is only one part of the problem. It is also clear that all Governments have to be continually monitored, and pressurized to perform.

An international study ranks the Indian Right to Information Act as the second best in the world. The use of the RTI by all segments of society is without parallel. The roughly five million annual users of the RTI in India, are a testimony to how much ordinary people have understood that governments are to be engaged with, to fight corruption. They have learnt that laws have to be fought for, and used creatively and effectively. Their struggles are having an impact, even though basic change in the culture of governance will take time. There is however no doubt that the momentum is growing, and vested interests will not be able to withstand growing pressure from the people. Corruption will be controlled in India when the many ongoing efforts succeed in ensuring that whoever occupies positions of power, will have to be transparent, and accountable to the people.

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