Right2Information

Right to Information – Master key to good governance

The Right to Know – Raj Chauhan and Preeti Chauhan

Posted by rtiact2005 on June 23, 2006

The Right to KnowRaj Chauhan and Preeti Chauhan

https://www.ashanet.org/library/articles/sulekha.200204.html

[This is a local copy of an article originally posted at Sulekha.com]

The Majdoor Kisan Shakti Sangh (MKSS) is a more than a decade old organization in Rajasthan that has fought for the right to information. The organization was started in Devdoongri which is about a 5-hour drive from Jaipur.

This right to information campaign is for bringing about transparency in how and where the money is being spent by the government. It is an extremely powerful tool to expose corruption, so the funds allocated by the government are actually used for their intended purposes, i.e. to improve the lives of the people. A vivid description of the people involved in this struggle was written by Rajni Bakshi in her book, Bapu Kuti. Ex-IAS officer and Magsaysay award receipent, Aruna Roy, is the de facto leader of this organization. MKSS doesn't accept funds from any organization (especially none from abroad).

Recent legislation in Rajasthan regarding the right to information has primarily been a result of MKSS's efforts. So at least on the books there are laws in Rajasthan for people to demand information. In the recent past, MKSS has held Jan Sunwaayi (social audits) where all the villagers confirm or deny (in various degrees) all the public expenditures in their community. Earlier this year, the Rajasthan government asked MKSS to work with them and conduct about 6-8 social audits in gram panchayats where the most money was spent. The government organizes these audits and helps provide information to MKSS. Typically, 3-4 days before a social audit, the MKSS visits a village, tries to get as much information about the finances and the actual physical outlays from the money spent for the last 5 years. During the audit all expenses are discussed and the village locals decide whether or not they agree with how the money was spent.

We were fortunate to have found out about such a meeting or Jan Sunwaayi in a village near Devdoongri. It was organized by the government and facilitated by the MKSS. The notes below elaborate the nature of this meeting.

The Visit

We visited the third Jan Sunwaayi conducted by MKSS and the government in the village of Lasani, Rajasthan. After a five-and-a-half hour drive from Jaipur we reached the village of Lasani around 11:30 a.m. This village is about 12 kms from the village of Devdoongri where the MKSS started its efforts and where Aruna Roy and other volunteers still live. As one can imagine, the landscape of the area is dry and even in February the intensity of the sun felt like it was mid-summer. The villagers of Lasani slowly gathered under the large colorful shamiana (tent) put up for this meeting in the school ground. The loudspeakers were placed in such a manner that people who couldn't attend the meeting could listen to the proceedings.

 Jan Sunwaayi at Lasani

In the beginning there were no women at the Jan Sunwaayi, but soon they started coming in large numbers. The meeting began with a puppet show that laid out the rules of the meeting: raising objections was allowed for issues pertaining to their respective villages only, no smoking or drinking in the meeting, etc. Then brief introductions and the purpose of the meeting were put forth. The Block Development Officer (BDO) was responsible for sorting out issues. MKSS volunteers explained to villagers that they shouldn't be afraid to talk about any issue related to the money spent so far since after all it was their money. Soon the BDO started reading out the expense items as set out by the government for the time period 1995-2000. These expenses were for a number of causes such as school boundary wall construction, public toilet construction, hathia (community courtyard) repair and reconstruction, etc.

Initially, there was little response from the audience. No one would get up and say if an item was built or expenditure actually took place in their respective villages. Soon a few (especially the ones who were sitting in the front) would get up and say, Yes, the construction had taken place and the work done was fine. Then a few dissensions starting taking place — people sitting in the back came forward and disagreed with some of the expense items, e.g. 5 bags of cement was delivered instead of the 15 that was indicated in the BDO's list. Before one knew there were a host of allegations against the local thekedar (contractor) who seems to have delivered on 20-30% of what he had gotten from the government. The ex-sarpanch who was sitting in the audience was called up. He denied anything to do with what was going on and even denied his own signatures on the deliveries of materials. Later on we were to find out that the group sitting up front and agreeing with the BDO on each item were placed there on purpose by the ex-sarpanch. Also, it was learnt in the assembly that the thekedar had disappeared from the assembly and the village. So far the proceeding were reasonably smooth.

Then the more interesting aspect of the proceedings began. Since this social audit was government-sponsored, the collectors and divisional collectors started arriving with full fanfare. They sat on chairs in front of the audience who were sitting on the floor. The focus of the meeting began to shift from the people to these IAS officers who seemed to find the proceedings somewhat amusing. What was more disappointing was the way these officers tried to shift the attention from the main issue that was emerging at this social audit — which was the corrupt workings of the thekedar. Each officer then gave a speech for at least 20-30 minutes and at times they were talking about things completely unrelated to the issue at hand (e.g. how installations of MRI machines are helping save lives in Rajasthan and how weddings in villages were conducted when they were children!). In a cunning fashion they had managed to waste a lot of valuable time and change the nature of the meeting — the issue now being debated was how 'contractorship' in villages was better than other forms of construction in villages. MKSS and Aruna Roy, realizing this change in the proceedings, tried a number of times to bring the meeting back to its original basis. It did eventually get back on track but precious time had been wasted.

 Taking Stock: The Social Audit

The BDO who was reading each expense item before the audience was the most interesting character of all. He seemed most interested in getting through the list than actually hearing the people. If a villager would come up to microphone to deny a government expenditure he would quickly be brushed aside and sometimes he would say things like, This guy doesn't know how to read and write, so he shouldn't be really be commenting. In fact, we learned later that he had refused to use a wireless microphone in the meeting to prevent more people from participating (especially women). The women rarely came in front to speak to the audience. The collectors and commissioners left the proceeding shortly after making their long and largely irrelevant speeches.

The proceedings continued till about 7 p.m. There was continued denial by the villagers of certain projects that were supposed to have taken place in their villages. This list was compiled and is supposed to be investigated by the government. But generally the BDO quickly read an item and moved to the next item before any villager had an opportunity to understand or respond.

At the end of this meeting we accompanied the MKSS volunteers back to their village of Devdoongri. We met Aruna Roy and other MKSS volunteers and saw the little hut where they had started their struggle and where they live. The MKSS volunteers informed us of the behind-the-scenes activities of the meeting: for example, the ex-sarpanch and others had bribed the people sitting in the front, who were asked to go and accept almost all items being presented. The BDO who has a history of taking bribes was overheard saying, How will we get fat (moneyed) if MKSS keeps doing this Although the social audit was government-sponsored, the government team did little to present their findings, did not talk to the villagers, did not physically check the constructions claimed by the government, etc.

Opinion

In many ways what MKSS has accomplished in the last few years is amazing — an activity like social audit was unimaginable a few years back. Villagers wanted to know how their money was being spent. But this meeting also demonstrates that although there might be laws and there may be support for such activity from the top echelons of the government, the vested interests (e.g. officials at district and block level) will continue to protect and enhance their own economic interests.

 Aruna Roy speaking with visitors at her hut in Devdoongri

We were very impressed with MKSS and its volunteers and the way they dealt the proceedings. It was also quite evident that Aruna Roy has excellent leadership qualities. She maintained her cool and directed her responses at issues and not at people, without becoming bitter or angry.

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