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The right to know

Civil Society News, New Delhi

Published: Feb. 11, 2020
Updated: Feb. 11, 2020

This story appeared in Civil Society's September 2003 edition. 

Till two years ago, what Sundernagari knew about itself it preferred to forget. A squalid and dilapidated neighbourhood in the festering eastern fringes of Delhi, the area had for long lived with broken roads, open drains, erratic power supply, garbage dumps and disease. If any hope existed among Sundernagari’s residents, it was that one day they could escape its hellish conditions. It was much too much to think that things could get better — that sewers could be laid, roads fixed, corrupt municipal officials brought to book.

But that was two years ago, when a short young man called Arvind Kejriwal turned up from nowhere. He came with Panini Anand. They called themselves Parivartan and brought with them the message that change was possible if the residents of Sundernagari learned to use an enormously powerful weapon: the Right to Information Act.

Arvind, 35, is an income-tax officer on leave from his job in the government. Anand, 21, is a talented street performer with a degree in mass communications. There are five others who work full-time for Parivartan and many others who pitch in as volunteers. Together they have tried to show the residents of Sundernagari how to intervene in the process of local governance.

Residents, who had once surrendered to the filth of their surroundings, now ask for development. They insist on knowing why a road has not been properly paved or why water pumps have not been installed. It amazes them that officials, whom they couldn’t even speak to earlier, can now be made to open up municipal books to show how money has been spent.

“Sundernagari is a laboratory for an experiment in people’s democracy which we will replicate elsewhere,” says Arvind, “Accountability is not merely demanded. It has to be got out of the government. People need to be literate, aware and participate in governance.”

Parivartan’s activists first educated people about their right to information and democracy. They walked through Sundernagari’s narrow lanes, singing their messages to the beat of drums. People stood around and listened.

“From birth to death you pay taxes to the government,” Anand told them. “You buy medicines, you pay a tax. When you buy food, you pay tax. You pay taxes all the time. It’s your money. So why don’t you ask the government how your money is being spent?” Government officials are the servants of the people, explained Arvind. “They get salaries from the taxes people pay. We are their masters and can question their actions.”

The Delhi Right to Information Act is perhaps one of the bureaucracy’s most zealously guarded secrets. The State Assembly passed the Act two years ago, but were it not for Parivartan no one might have heard of it. It is a hugely effective weapon and easy to use. All a citizen has to do is fill up a form asking for information and hand it over to the department concerned.

An answer has to come in three weeks. If there is no response or the request is rejected, the citizen can go to the public grievances commission, which serves as the appellate authority. Thereafter, both the citizen and the government can go to the high court, but the court cannot reverse the commission’s decision unless it is proved that the commission acted with bias.

For every day of delay in providing information, an officer is liable to a fine of Rs 50. This is a landmark provision because, perhaps for the first time in the country, it fixes a monetary penalty for a government officer failing to do his or her duty. But putting the law into practice is tough. The reality is, this penalty clause has been kept in abeyance for undefined procedural reasons. The bureaucracy has clearly struck back.

In Sundernagari, Parivartan has shown people how to use the Act to get information about basic development work. It has applied the Act to ask for details about tenders and inspection reports. One ongoing battle is about the quality of material utilized for paving a road. A resident has asked the municipality to provide a sample of the material used to pave a lane, so that it can be sent to a laboratory to determine whether the aggregate is of the correct specifications.

In December last year, a Jan Sunwai or public hearing was held in Sundernagari. At this hearing people spoke of work, which had either not been done at all, or left incomplete. In each case the municipal books showed the work as having been completed and payments made to contractors.

But more important than the public hearing, were its preparations. The public hearing could only be a success if local people participated and were convinced of what Parivartan was doing. Momentum was needed and Parivartan’s call had to go beyond slogans and street corner meetings.

It was here that the Right to Information Act played a crucial role. Through a series of applications asking for information, Parivartan managed to obtain copies of all the civil works undertaken by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) in the past two financial years in Sundernagari and Seemapuri.

This information was broken up for 11 blocks of Sundernagari and seven blocks of Seemapuri. Parivartan volunteers then went to each block and compared municipal claims with reality. They involved local people in this exercise so that they could see how money was being siphoned off. Street corner meetings were held, public anger was expressed and in this manner the stage was set for the Jan Sunwai held in December 2002.

More than a thousand people living in the area, turned up. Local municipal officials were present to answer questions. Parivartan was helped by the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) and the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangthan (MKSS). Both organisations have experience in organising campaigns for transparency. Observers were invited. They were: Justice PB Sawant, Aruna Roy, Prabhash Joshi, Vinod Mehta, Bharat Dogra, Shekhar Singh, Arundhati Roy and Harsh Mander. The Jan Sunwai made public all kinds of information about development work in the area:


Twenty-nine hand pumps with electric motors were supposed to have been installed. In reality only 14 hand pumps had been fitted. Not a single one had an electric motor.


When a new street is made it is supposed to have new iron gratings on the drains going across the street. Out of a total of 253 iron gratings weighing 27,557 kg only 30 weighing 3136 kg were installed.

NEW DRAINS: LOSS Rs 1,385,175

When a new street is constructed drains on both sides are to be demolished and made afresh. It was found either no work had been done or a single brick was used to raise the level of the existing gutters. But payments for the new drains had been made fully.


Streets are to be lined with a concrete layer of 10 cm thickness. Digging showed, in most cases, the layer was just 5 cm.


Several streets were found to exist only on paper. Not only were the streets nonexistent, the payments for work, claimed to have been done, were clearly excessive.

What effect has this onslaught had on the municipal authorities? The initial reaction was of resistance. But as pressure built up, the authorities caved in. After the Jan Sunwai, there was further compliance and willingness to institutionalise some measure of transparency.

Three important steps have been agreed upon: 1. Every work site will have a board displaying the nature of the work, name of the contractor, money to be paid and dates for start and completion. 2. Every division office of the municipal body will display work completed in the past quarter. 3. The details of all ongoing work will be put up at municipal stores.

This is an achievement, but it seems to be in response to Parivartan’s shock treatment, rather than to any long-term commitment to transparent governance.

Close on the heels of the concessions, entrenched interests began working against Parivartan. Recently an executive engineer went to the police with a complaint that Parivartan was disrupting the municipal authority’s work in the area.

Municipal contracts usually see a convergence of interests involving local politicians, the police and municipal authorities. This particular complaint resulted in policemen making several rounds to Rajiv’s house. Rajiv lives in Seemapuri and works full-time for Parivartan. In his area, police visits can be menacing. Rajiv has no special clout and is a resident like any other. He has a small house, a tenant and gets Rs 4000 a month from Parivartan to meet his expenses. Finally, he and Arvind had to spend several hours at Nandnagari police station, answering questions and filing explanations before being let off with a warning, which sounded more like a threat. “ I’m not as decent as I look,” the police sub-inspector said to them.

Things are no better at the office of the food commissioner, Sumati Mehta, who has been asked for the records of ration shops in Sundernagari, under the Right to Information Act. People know that traders take away food meant for them. The records of the ration shops are fudged to do this.

Parivartan has got individuals to file applications asking for these records. The food commissioner has little sympathy for Parivartan’s cause though the government stands committed to the right to information. As the commissioner prevaricates, despite an order from the public grievances commission, the traders get the time they need to slip the matter into the high court.

Parivartan, therefore, barely seems to end one encounter before it begins another. But they keep on trying. Arvind’s role as an activist began at the offices of the erstwhile Delhi Vidyut Board (DVB), which was known for the corruption of its staff. Getting a bill checked or a cable replaced or a connection restored meant greasing palms. DVB offices were known for their touts who could get things done at a price.

Arvind decided to be a different kind of tout. He put up a board and table and told DVB consumers he would help them if they didn’t pay bribes. He showed them how filling up a form under the Right to Information Act was very effective. Billing problems, which had been lingering for months, were easily cracked. Most often, corrupt staff merely wanted the applicant to go away and dealt with the case speedily.

Privatisation changed the situation at DVB. It was broken into separate corporations with the Tatas and Reliance taking over distribution. With this many of the old problems would melt away over time. Billing, complaints etc would become more transparent.

It was then that Arvind moved to Sundernagari, hoping to achieve transparent governance, not among urban elites, but among the poor and disadvantaged. In March 2002, Arvind came into contact with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangthan (MKSS), which had been campaigning on the right to information in Rajasthan. Parivartan now draws sustenance from the experience of MKSS. The Jan Sunwai model has been used very effectively for the rural poor in Rajasthan.


The urban activist

What drives Arvind Kejriwal, 35, with a comfortable job in the Indian Revenue Service, to campaign in the streets for transparent governance? It is certainly not money because Parivartan gets to see very little of it. It could well be fame, but when you get to know Arvind, you realise it is not that either. He is a determined man, but terribly self-effacing. Arvind cannot explain why he does what he does in Sundernagari. Or why he prefers to turn his back on a job as an income-tax officer, in favour of a life on the streets. He just does it. A graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) at Kharagpur, Arvind’s first job was with the Tatas at Jamshedpur. It was a cushy one. It was from here that he took the exams for joining the government and landed in the revenue service. He married a batch mate. His wife is still a serving income-tax officer. They have two children and live in a flat in Ghaziabad. Arvind travels mostly by bus. Since the government allows an officer to go on study leave, Arvind has managed to draw his salary for the past two years. If he wants to continue, he has to take secondment to an NGO which will pay him. Arvind’s choice is the Centre for Equity Studies headed by Shekhar Singh. The Parivartan team (see picture) has been cobbled together as the NGO has gone along. They take a subsistence allowance but no salary. Team members have their own reasons for working with Parivartan, but they are there because they got hooked on to the work. None of them are very highly educated. But they could earn much more doing something else. Two of them live in Sundernagari and one in nearby Seemapuri. Panini Anand, 21, graduated from the Institute of Mass Communications (IMC) last year. He is paid Rs 5000 a month. If he were to pursue a career as a journalist, either in print or on television, he could earn much more. But Anand is a talented street performer and knows how to dramatise complex messages so that they make sense to ordinary people. Rajiv Sharma, 30, has passed Class 12. He has a good understanding of how the law works in every day life. He earns Rs 4000 a month. Chander, 27, a graduate lives in Mayur Vihar in east Delhi. He used to work in a doctor’s clinic. Chander is paid Rs 4000 by Parivartan. Rekha Kohli, 22, a graduate, used to stay in Sundernagari. She gets Rs 3000. Lata Sharma, 23, also a graduate lives in Yamuna Vihar. Rajiv brought her along. She earns Rs 3000. “Parivartan is funded from donations made by people,” says Arvind, “We do not believe in institutional funding. If the people we work for do not need us around, we have no business being there”.


How a Jan Sunwai works

A Jan Sunwai or public hearing enables the citizen to assess the work done by the government. It allows for inspection of government records of expenditure and comparison of these with work shown as completed. Such hearings have been used in rural Rajasthan by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangthan (MKSS) since 1994-95 to increase the participation of ordinary people in the process of governance. This has greatly empowered local communities and it has been seen that levels of corruption have come down. A Jan Sunwai must be preceded by an assessment of the records of the government. Details from these records have to be collated, analysed and presented to the people in an understandable form. At the Jan Sunwai, the details of vouchers, tenders, muster rolls, specifications of work undertaken are read out to the people who gather. Any one present, including government officials and political representatives, is free to give evidence in support of or against the information being presented. It is emphasized that people only comment on those issues on which they have personal direct knowledge. Inspections are also carried out either before, during or after the Jan Sunwai along with officials. A Jan Sunwai is a people’s analysis of government records. As a matter of principle it is organized only when the local population asks for it. An independent panel is invited to participate in the proceedings so as to encourage objectivity and fair play. The panel files a report on the proceedings. The purpose of a Jan Sunwai is to bring down walls of mistrust. To that extent it is necessary that government officials, politicians and other players are involved and also get the credit for improving the system.


A little help from Sheila Dikshit 

Parivartan’s transparency campaign owes much to the Congress government under Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit. The bureaucracy may be difficult to convince, but Dikshit has shown a commitment to transparency. In her five years in power, she has reached out to the citizens of Delhi. Dikshit piloted the Bhagidari system, which involves citizens in governance. Residents’ Welfare Associations (RWAs) are helped to coordinate with the administration. The bureaucracy has been directed to listen to the RWAs. Much remains to be done, but expectations have been raised. Her government passed the Right to Information Act. Implementing the Act may be difficult, but the government cannot be accused of not trying. The council for the Act consists of independent members. Dikshit invests time in knowing how the Act is being put into practice. When Arvind drew a blank with the food commissioner, it wasn’t too tough for him to get an hour-long appointment with the chief minister along with other members of the council. Dikshit went into details at this meeting, making it clear that she respected efforts such as Partivartan’s. Dikshit’s government holds regular meetings between resident associations and officials. The structures of these meetings are far from perfect. Officials continue to have the upper hand. Perhaps not much gets done. But residents do get a hearing. They list their problems and ask for action. The right to information campaign and the Bhagidari system intersect well. Resident Welfare Associations have much left to deliver, but people already see themselves driving solutions to Delhi’s problems. At a meeting Arvind held with these associations recently, people were very interested in knowing how they could use the Right to Information Act lesewhere in Delhi. As Delhi goes to the polls in a few months from now, Dikshit naturally hopes to draw much mileage out of her image as a chief minister who believes in less government.


How to use the Delhi law

This is how you can use the Right to Information Act in Delhi.

1.119 Departments of the Delhi state government have been brought under the purview of the Act. In each department, one officer has been designated as the competent authority under the Act to accept the request forms and to provide the information sought by the people.

2.Any person seeking information under the Act can file an application in Form-A. Forms are available free of cost with the designated officer in each department.

3.A normal application fee of Rs 50 per application is charged for supply of information other than the information relating to tenders and contracts. For tenders and contracts the fee is Rs 500. In addition Rs 5 a page is charged for copies of documents.

4.You can expect the information you seek in 15 days or a maximum of 30 days.

5.In case you fail to get a response within 30 days, you can go to the Public Grievance Commission.

6.In case you win your appeal, expect the information within the next 30 days.

7.If the information provided is false, the official supplying it is liable to pay a penalty of Rs 1000 per application.

8.If information is not provided and the application is also not rejected, the official is required to pay a penalty of rs 50 a day up to a maximum of Rs 500 per application. This has not yet been implemented in Delhi.


Strong laws, weak laws

Right to information laws exists in eight states. These are Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Goa, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Assam, Delhi and Madhya Pradesh. The Union Government has also passed Central legislation, but it is yet to be notified. Three clauses are considered crucial for making the law work. Also a quick comparison of the different laws in the states and at the Centre. 1. Penalty clause: If information is not provided in time or if the information provided is false, there should be a provision for imposing penalty on the guilty officials. Tamil Nadu and the Central law do not have penalty provisions. 2. Exemptions: The number of areas exempted from the purview of the law should be as few as possible. The Central law fails miserably on this account. Laws in Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan also full of exclusions. 3. Appeals: An independent appellate mechanism is needed if information is not provided in time or if the applicant is not satisfied with the information received. The Central law does not provide for an independent appellate machinery. In the Central law, the appeal lies with the immediate superior of the guilty official. Laws in Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan also do not provide for independent appellate mechanism. The Delhi, Goa, Maharashtra and Karnataka laws are effective laws. They provide for a penalty, cover most areas of governance and have an independent appellate mechanism. But the fees in Delhi are very high and low everywhere else. In Delhi, it is Rs 500 per application seeking contractrelated information. Parivartan, for instance, paid around Rs 13,000 for contracts pertaining to municipal work in Sundernagari and Seemapuri Such fees could be beyond the pocket most individuals. In comparison to Delhi's Rs 500, an application elsewhere can be moved for as little as Rs 5.






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