Age-old Afflictions Snare New Act of Freedoms
Sowmya Kerbart Sivakumar goes to a social audit in Rajasthan and discovers that the Right to Information Act is coming against a few usual Indian suspects. The bureaucracy among them
Information Is Empowerment: Public hearing in Girwar panchayat
Many villagers who had earlier testified on video to irregularities simply did not turn up or pretended to have forgotten what they said
Irregularities amounting to Rs 6 lakh in Valota panchayat, Dungarpur of Rajasthan and seven tonnes of “missing” wheat in Girwar panchayat, Sirohi district came to light on April 25 and May 9 at two separate jan sunwais (public hearings) in the presence of local residents and government officials. The public hearings demonstrated once again the power of the National Right to Information Act that was used in drawing out the panchayats’ records for public scrutiny, in exposing corruption.
However, for one focussing only on the event of the jan sunwai, these outcomes overshadow a much larger context. This is the process of the social audit that starts much earlier and whose effects persist much beyond the date of the public hearing; a story less scripted but far more significant than the amount of corruption itself (The disappointment on the faces of mediapersons — “only Rs 6 lakh?” — was discernible!).
In January, local NGOs — Wagad Mazdoor Kisan Sangathan (WMKS), Dungarpur and Jan Chetna Sansthan with the Bhakhar Bhitrot Vikas Manch, Abu Road — had respectively helped residents of Valota and Girwar in getting information pertaining to the major development schemes implemented in their panchayats in the year 2004-05 (and 2005-06 in Girwar). Their experiences show that, to begin with, obtaining information was no cakewalk.
Why do you want it? you are illiterate
In Girwar panchayat, residents Lala Ram and Dharma Ram had applied for the information and had to face serious resistance. “Why do you want this information, you are illiterate, what are you going to do with it,” was the response from the sarpanch and the Block Development Officer (BDO). When Richa of Jan Chetna Sansthan accompanied them to meet the BDO, he wanted to know why her NGO was instigating them to do this, and what was their real motive after all? “When the district Collector came to know that the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (that spearheaded the Right To Information (RTI) movement in the state) was involved and the purpose was to do a social audit of the development works, he also put pressure on the BDO and they all ultimately fell in line,” says Richa. Incidentally, the social audits were jointly organised by the Centre for Equity Studies, Jaipur supported by the National Institute of Rural Development (NIRD), in itself a government-backed body.
In Valota too, there were similar obstacles and it was only after some “pressure from above” that the information was given. But the manner in which this played out reflects a certain thought-provoking irony. The RTI Act grants a legal right to every citizen equally but in Valota and Girwar, it could not bypass the very power structures that it aimed to bring down, questioning the true accessibility of the law to the ordinary citizen.
How the cover was blown
After obtaining the information and collating it, came the actual door-to-door verification. In both Valota and Girwar, this commenced a few days prior to the day of the jan sunwai, and efforts were made to match the records with the oral evidence of labourers supposedly employed on these works. In the social audit process, this stage marks a transition point; when vested interests start to realise that the Right to Information users mean ‘serious business’. As they see groups going around the panchayat with muster rolls, pointing out to labourers the amounts of money and grain lifted in their name under their signatures and physically measuring and assessing the quality of the finished works to corroborate what the measurement books (MB) say; they realise their cover is blown. And this is when the backlash begins.
A tale of two sarpanchs
At this juncture, Valota and Girwar need to be distinguished. Valota panchayat holds the record of being one of the leading beneficiaries of government schemes in the district with substantial funds flowing in. It has seen the incumbent sarpanch Kurma Ram and his wife hold fort for the last 13 years. His family tractor business has a monopoly of sorts in all development works in the panchayat — bills show that material worth Rs 15.2 lakh (out of the Rs 50 lakh worth of works for which records were obtained in 2004-05 alone) was transported by his son and the panchayat sachiv’s brother to the worksites. The effects of these were apparent on the day of the jan sunwai when many villagers who had earlier testified (on video) to irregularities simply did not turn up or pretended to have forgotten what they said.
In Girwar panchayat, residents not only showed up in large numbers but also testified without going back on their word. Here, however, the twist in the tale was the sarpanch’s own prior affiliation to the NGO which organised the social audit. “Bhimaram (the sarpanch) had joined the Bhakhar Bhitrot Vikas Manch about six years ago, and went on to become its adhyaksha for the last three years. He actively took up issues like employment guarantee and right to information and agreed to start his own panchayat for social audit in a meeting of the manch three months ago — which is how Girwar was chosen. He probably did not think that the social audit would go into such detail and he would get into trouble!” remarks Richa. He too tried to hush up the villagers prior to the jan sunwai, but was definitely less successful than Kurma.
Got the information. what now?
A panel comprising Planning Commission member BN Yugandar, Joint Secretary and Financial Adviser (Lok Sabha Secretariat) Amitabh Mukhopadhay, Shailesh Gandhi, member, National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, Trilochan Shastry (Professor, IIM Bangalore) besides local political representatives and administration witnessed the jan sunwai on April 25 in Valota. The district Collector pledged to bring anyone found guilty to book after an official enquiry, no matter who they are.
“We heard that sarpanch Kurma hosted a sumptuous feast on the night of the public hearing and warned people that no one should give any further evidence. He also gathered all workers on a later date and threatened that if they wanted work and payments, they’d better not open their mouths. He got two women to physically assault the wife of one of those who testified, charging that her husband caused all this. NGO workers who reside in the panchayat are facing a social boycott with no one willing to visit them,” revealed Maan Singh Sisodia of WMKS. Political equations are also bound to play a role, as the sarpanch’s alleged saffron affiliations are said to have got him some sympathy from the government.
An enquiry committee set up at the district level has been directed to submit its findings by May 20, but it has asked for more time now. “Everyone knows that it is not the sarpanch alone who is corrupt and there is a nexus. In the least, the enquiry should be done by an independent authority,” says Maan Singh.
Will more heads roll?
In Girwar, it is too early to say what the enquiry will lead up to but some encouraging spillovers are in sight. The fate of Bhimaram within the manch is to be decided in a meeting. In nearby Aamthala panchayat, people have demanded information on Indira Awas Yojana, old age and widow pensions. In Shurpakala panchayat, an application for muster rolls has been put in.
But ultimately the ball will be in the administration’s court. Valota and Girwar have demonstrated that the RTI Act may be a powerful tool to get information but then it is back to facing the same systems — of law, politics and administration. A serious thinking needs to go into the processes that follow a social audit within this system, if the objectives of the RTI Act have to be taken to its logical end.
Jun 03 , 2006