Hundred days of accountability
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Starting 1 December, for 100 days, citizens across the 33 districts of Rajasthan will come out and ask the government about information that may not be easily available.
We know how information has different roles to play in our country. While the most critical information is extremely difficult to access and consume at the village level, the same information often makes those in power and authority corrupt.
Mano Devi and Kunta Devi live in a remote village in Barmer district. In a door-to-door campaign, one of our Soochna Mitras (information friends) reached out to these two old ladies. He invited them to join a community meeting to make villagers aware of the meaning and power of access and information.
Neither of them could understand what exactly the meeting was about. Yet, during the conversation, they shared that they could not read and write. There were two papers in their possession, and they wanted to know what they were about. It turned out that those two pieces of papers were bank cheques of Rs.1,600 and Rs.1,400.
These were the payments that the two ladies had got under their entitlements of Janani Suraksha Yojana (a social security scheme for mothers). It is ironical that while the right to information (RTI) law got them their due, it was of no use to them because of their inability to process information: the cheques, lying idle in their home, had already expired. We, of course, helped them visit the bank and get the cheques reissued and the money credited to their accounts.
Vinit’s story from Mehsana district in Gujarat is also instructive. When he was in Class VII, his daily commute to school by an autorickshaw was a bumpy ride. Vinit used to pester his uncle every day: “Why are the roads never repaired?” One day, the uncle told him to go ask the government. Finally, they walked into the municipal office and Vinit filed an RTI petition. Vinit’s quest was only to know why the road was all broken up, but what surprised everyone was that before the reply to the RTI came, the road was repaired.
Abdullah Akelbhai is on a different quest for information. He is 70 and hails from one of the border villages of Barmer called Fakiron Ka Nihaan. Most of his family members are on the other side of the border, but he knew that his family had been given 50 bighas of land for tilling by the local king called Prabhat Singh Vaghela. Recently, Akelbhai found a pamphlet about RTI at a tea stall and realized that there is a mechanism through which he could seek information from the government about his ancestral land. He has been spending a lot of time at the Jaipur secretariat since then to find out if the land exists and if so, who is using it and if he can get hold of it once again. Akelbhai’s quest is more to know than to reacquire the property.
When we travel across villages among our brethren who live in remote areas, we find that there are different values of information. For some, it is critical to their lives, while for others, it does not make much of a difference because they do not know how to consume the information. The various layers of languages and medium make information relevant or irrelevant.
Pankti Jog is one who has made it her life’s mission to enable a situation to make information democratically available to the masses and see to it that people use relevant and critical information to their benefit. In several cases, her effort is also to make information consumption and production a practised culture in society.
Jog hails from Goa. She became a scientist and came all the way to Kutch in 2001 to serve the earthquake victims and was hugely affected by the prevailing corruption. Once the RTI became a reality, she decided to use the law to fight corruption.
Her effort translated into RTI on Wheels, a multimedia and Internet-enabled bus that moves from village to village, meeting people to help them understand how they can seek information and, if necessary, use RTI. So far, RTI on Wheels has covered eight states, 322,000km, aggregated more than 50,000 RTI applications and responded to 389,000 calls.
For the next three months, this unique digitally empowered bus will roll into each and every district of Rajasthan. The mission is to generate awareness about the right to education (RTE) Act, and using RTI, inspire children, parents and the community to put pressure on the government and all its functionaries to deliver what they were always supposed to, and be accountable.
The name of the movement is called Soochna Evam Rozgar Abhiyan (refer to my earlier column at http://mintne.ws/1GNtggD), commemorating 10 years of the RTI Act.
The yatra is an attempt to strengthen the transparency campaign while putting in place a strong accountability regime, especially around social sector entitlements.
The programme will end around the first week of March, a little after the conclusion of the 10 years of the passage of the rural jobs guarantee law.
RTI on Wheels will make the yatra help citizens file their RTIs on the go through Internet connectivity and village-based data entry operators.
The larger message, however, is that it may not be enough for our country to only have laws and policies. We need a constant citizens’ movement to ensure that the government cannot fall into an inertia but works to deliver on promises with transparency and accountability.
I hope that all the other states will follow suit and make our democracy modern, where information is not a commodity but a culture of equity.
Osama Manzar is the founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan & mBillionth awards. He serves on the board of World Summit Award and Association of Progressive Communication. He is the co-author of NetCh@kra—15 Years of Internet in India & Internet Economy of India.
His Twitter handle is @osamamanzar