While all of India is talking of corruption and chargesheets at the highest echelons of national and state governments, an initiative gathers steam in a corner of Rajasthan to demand and secure transparency of development works at the village level.
The root of all corruption in the villages is the freedom with which village officials can falsify bills, vouchers, daily wage registers and attendance books. Because the system is so corrupt, because there is no accountability and no fear of being caught and suspended, every year millions of rupees of funds earmarked for building schools, dispensaries, houses, drinking water schemes, planting saplings in forest land and construction of dams, anicuts and community centres go into the pockets of gram sevaks (village workers), patwaris (village clerks) and village level officials in league with touts and politicians. This is the situation in all the South Asian regions, without exception, where governments have taken the responsibility to deliver development schemes to the poor in villages.
Good governance has now become a global issue and a matter of concern for those giving development aid. The top-most priority is to minimise corruption. When he toured South Asia recently, the World Bank President himself minced no words in declaring that aid projects would be stopped if there was enough evidence to prove funds have been wasted or cases of corruption have been proved. A decade ago, such public statements would have been unthinkable.
For all the glib talk of the right to information in India, however, today no villager can walk up to a government official and demand details of expenditure regarding how much the government has spent in his own village. This is because, simply put, he has no rights. He cannot ask for bills, vouchers and ´muster rolls´ because no government order exists to allow him to do so. Without the villager empowered to monitor grassroots projects, therefore, millions of dollars of support from institutions like the World Bank, UNDP and others disappear every year on the way to South Asia´s rural societies.
When the late Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi informed the nation that only l6 paise of every rupee was actually reaching the poor, he was understating the case. He also might have known that he was powerless to stop this leakage. Whatever the policy, however strong a political leader´s commitment, corruption will remain rampant as is the case today, as long as the people at the grassroots are taken for granted and expected to be silent partners in development, and as long as government functionaries at the village level are not accountable or answerable to the villagers they serve.
The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghathan (MKSS) is a mass-based organisation working in one of the most backward areas of Rajasthan, Bhim Tehsil, which incorporates outlying areas of the districts of Pali, Ajmer and Rajsamand. In 1990, this group decided to take up the matter of rural-level transparency and accountability.
It took all of four years for the MKSS to get copies of bills and vouchers and muster rolls of development projects from the government. After all was collected, it was decided to share this information with Bhim Tehsil´s public at a jan sunwayi, or public hearing, the first of its kind in the history of Rajasthan. Because this was a hearing and not an open court, everyone was invited—bureaucrat, politician, contractor, farmer and landless labourer—so that everyone was free to take the platform to make his point.
The jan sunwayi was very effective, for as individual bills, vouchers and names were read out, the brazenness of it all became apparent. Confronted with the surprise and anger among the suddenly-aware villagers, the corrupt officials and politicians had no recourse but to remove themselves from the scene. The MKSS organised more such hearings, and hundreds of the very poorest from miles around came to listen and share their experiences. As the hearings progressed, the public heard the names of dead people supposed to be drawing wages, non-existent bags of cement being claimed, bills for furniture, stone and lime that never reached the village. It all came out in the open, and also became very personal.
Held between December 1994 to April 1995, these jan sunwayis concluded with two unanimous demands. One, every village literate or illiterate had the right to demand details of expenditure, and on payment, to make photocopies of all bills and vouchers and muster rolls relating to any development work in his village. Two, that in all proven cases of corruption, embezzlement and misappropriation in these public hearings, the property and assets of the officials be seized and auctioned and the money recovered be spent in the wronged village. There would be no departmental enquiries, no cases in court and no suspensions—just force the government official through public pressure to return the amount he had embezzled to the same village. This has been done by the MKSS in Rajasthan, and it can be done elsewhere.
The reaction of the State Government was, of course, typical. It claimed that the MKSS was agitating over a non-issue, for there was no order preventing citizens from requesting and receiving information. But then a union of gram sevaks played neatly into the MKSS´ hands and embarrassed the government by declaring a strike in January 1995. The strike was called to announce that they would not give details of expenditure to anyone.
On 5 April 1995, the Chief Minister made a historic announcement on the floor of the State Assembly—the first ever of its kind made since Independence by any government. Without mentioning the MKSS, the Chief Minister declared that every citizen has a right to information on development expenditure. Upon paying the cost of photocopies, the citizen could have access to all documents on all works from 1990-95.
Shock waves reverberated down the lines of bureaucracy and public officialdom, and despite the Chief Minister´s announcement, for a full year no government order was issued. It is clear that there was a threat from elected politicians and corrupt officials to bring all works to a halt if such an order was issued. The government continued to stonewall in the face of repeated requests, and after a year of waiting the MKSS announced an indefinite strike in the form of a dharna (sit-in). This time, it made only one demand, that the Chief Minister honour the commitment he made on the floor of the House.
On the 6 April 1996, the government issued a hurried notice that they were processing the order, which had not been delayed due to pressure from any quarter. They sent word that the strike should be lifted. For its part, the MKSS demanded to see the order first.
When the order did arrive and was read, it fell far short of what the Chief Minister had committed himself to: for there was no mention of the right of inspection or arrangements for photocopying of documents. This did not make sense in a state where the literacy rate is as low as it is, and the MKSS declared they would continue the strike.
The strike lasted for 40 days and nights, and with every passing day the MKSS members received warmth, affection and support from the common man and woman of Beawar town in Ajmer District, where the dharna was being held. Wheat came from farmers, women selling vegetables on the streets donated onions, potatoes, brinjals by the kilos. Pamphlets were printed free, tents and places to stay the night were donated and the whole town was mesmerised by the gutsy peasants fighting the government for a cause.
The Chief Minister was embarrassed by the strikers, for they exposed his government´s inefficiency and indecision. Meanwhile, with every passing day, more members of the public came to understand the importance of viewing documents pertaining to development works, and the significance of the photocopy machine. The value of public hearings as a means of sharing information and of pressuring government to part with closely-held “secrets” also came to be acknowledged.
The venue of the strike was then shifted to the state capital of Jaipur. In a makeshift structure which was deliberately put up close by the State Secretariat, through song and street plays and puppet shows civil servants were entertained on the broken assurances of the Chief Minister. There was nothing the police and the state intelligence apparatus could do as the villagers held court to an appreciative audience.
The local press and the television networks gave the strikers prominence, and their courage and sincerity was so transparent that finally the state government gave in, but with bad grace. It constituted a committee to look into the matter and asked for a report within two months. In good faith, the MKSS called off the strike although there were journalists who warned them that the committee-formation was just a ploy. The government would never concede to allowing documents to be photocopied, the journalists said, and warned the MKSS to be ready for a long battle. The war was far from over.
Two months later, the committee submitted a report strongly recommending that there were practical ways of honouring the Chief Minister´s assurances of photocopying documents. On a case which had everything to do with transparency, the government declared the report secret! Even the members of the committee were not allowed to take a copy with them for fear of its being leaked to the press.
The government said it planned to place the report on the floor of the House when the State Assembly next met, but it was clear that the intention was to bury it, and it is still to be brought before the house.
While the report remains in the government´s sole possession, the MKSS seems to have opened the floodgate of demands for public accountability and transparency in development projects. Prominent invitees to the Beawar dharna, which included social activist Swami Agnivesh and senior journalists Kuldip Nayar, Ajit Bhattacharjee and Prabhat Joshi, have taken up the campaign at the national level. The Press Council of India is presently drafting a Bill called the Right to Information Act with the help of activist groups to be presented to Parliament soon.
The Press Institute of Jaipur has started a regular newsletter called Transparency to keep those interested up-to-date with new developments on the right to information crusade. The UNDP and World Bank have expressed an interest in learning more from the MKSS about its experimentations with accountability. Meanwhile, the National Academy of Administration, which trains bureaucrats in Mussoorie (Uttar Pradesh), has put the issues related to right to information and transparency in development administration in its training programme.
The right to information campaign has spread, and groups in other states of India have taken the cue from the Rajasthani peasants. In Bilaspur in Madhya Pradesh, a young commissioner named Harsh Mander, one of those who had arrived in Beawar to lend support to the dharna, held open hearings on the public distribution system. While this initiative was much resented by the junior officials, the response of the public has been phenomenal. Politicians and Ministers have tried to scuttle the hearings, which have exposed the misdeeds of the officials, but their only success was in getting a change of venue.
Recently, small groups in the Uttar Pradesh hills invited MKSS members to participate in their jan sunwayis. Similarly, several groups in South Indian want MKSS to share its experience on how to organise hearings in their areas.
The Powerful Poor
How have the people benefitted? Certainly not monetarily, for no new schemes or projects have resulted from their activism. But the dignity and self-respect that the poor have acquired in the MKSS area has to be seen to be believed. It takes courage to stand up in front of hundreds to accuse a local official thought to be invincible and beyond the pale of the law. The self confidence that has come from such an experience means more than getting a loan sanctioned or have someone give you a drinking water scheme or schoolhouse or dispensary. The same village officials who used to look down on them as clueless peasants now treat them with respect. The poor in this corner of Rajasthan have gained some invisible power, which is deterrent enough for the officials to be very careful when they handle public money. Who knows when their name might come up in a jan sunwayi. The fear of public humiliation is very real.
As far as the government is concerned, its attitude is marked by indifference bordering on hostility. No one wants to be held publicly accountable and be answerable to a rural community they have always considered inferior, backward, primitive and illiterate. It is unthinkable and mortifying to have to answer questions in front of so many people and be shouted at. The government has collectively decided not to allow the right to information campaign from growing into a movement in Rajasthan. In this, they are hopelessly out of date and out of touch. For this campaign has every indication of ending up a movement, with or without governmental obstruction.
Protection of the right to information at the village level is one of the most important means to promote genuine development. Public hearings, it is clear, are a critically important means to ensure transparency, and they have to be institutionalised throughout the country and the larger South Asian region. This has to be done even though it is certain that the bureaucrat is going to fight such initiatives every inch of the way.
But then, as always, it is small battles that are going to win this war. If a small drop in an obscure town in Bhim in the middle of the desert can spread ripples all over the country swimming in a sea of corruption, then there is still hope.
Traveller, there is no path
Paths are made by walking.