Campaigning for right to information

Thursday, 12 December 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

By D.C. Ranatunga On 9 December 2009, we were waiting in the lounge of Inter-Continental (as The Kingsbury was then known) for our visitor from India. We noticed a not-so-tall person in a white shirt and trousers, wearing sandals, coming towards us. He was the one we were waiting for. The simple, most unassuming Arvind Kejriwal greeted us in traditional style with a friendly smile. The anti-corruption crusader was to be the Chief Guest at the National Integrity Award – the annual flagship event of Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL). I was reminded of this incident when I read the AFP report from New Delhi that Kejriwal, as Leader of the newly-formed Aadmi Party (Common People’s Party), had recorded a stunning victory at the Delhi state election, beating the longstanding Congress Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit. He had polled 39,883 votes as against 16,780 for Dikshit who had been Chief Minister for 15 years. Going back to Kejriwal’s visit to Colombo, that morning he addressed a seminar TISL had arranged for senior officials of the Inland Revenue Department. The theme of the seminar was ‘Towards a public service with integrity’.     Crusading against corruption Kejriwal himself had joined the Indian Revenue Service after graduating as a mechanical engineer. Serving at the Income Tax Commissioner’s office in Delhi, he had realised that much of the corruption prevalent in government was due to lack of transparency in the process. While being a bureaucrat, he started crusading against the corrupt practices and was instrumental in bringing in a number of changes to increase transparency in the tax office. He formed a Delhi based citizen’s movement called ‘Parivartan’ while in service and after a few years he quit government service to work fulltime in the organisation. He campaigned for the Right to Information (RTI) Act which was passed first in Delhi 2001 and at national level in 2005. He then spearheaded the awareness campaign for RTI across India for which he was awarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2010. He used the RTI Act to equip individual citizens with the power to question the government. Through ‘Parivartan’ he promoted participation in governance by the people.     Right to information While in Sri Lanka his keynote address at the presentation of the National Integrity Award was on right to information. Glancing through my notes, I remembered how, addressing a full house at the BMICH committee room B, he described RTI as a very powerful tool in the hands of ordinary people in India. “In the post-independence period, it has empowered them in challenging bribery, corruption and injustice,” he said. He quoted what the Indian Supreme Court said on right to information. “The Supreme Court said that one cannot speak and cannot express oneself unless he or she knows. People pay taxes; even a beggar in the street pays tax when he goes to buy a cake of soap .The people are the masters. They have a right to know how their money is utilised. In a democracy the people being the masters have a right to know how their servants function,” he summed up what the Supreme Court said. He traced the history of the struggle in India to get the RTI Act passed. Under the leadership of Aruna Roy, an IAS officer, the campaign began in the streets of Rajasthan in 1990. The people started demanding minimum wages. Although the people had to be paid a minimum wage of Rs. 22, the farmers and peasants were paid only Rs. 11 per day. When the officers insisted they were entitled to only Rs. 11, the people demanded to see the master roll. They were told it was a secret document. The demand for the inspection of the master roll became a fully-fledged campaign with several organisations joining the struggle. The final result was the RTI Act being passed. Keriwal’s address was an eye-opener to the audience. Before he left Colombo he addressed the media on the subject.     First big test Last week, ‘The Washington Post’ published a lead story a few days before the Delhi election under the heading ‘India’s anti-corruption party faces first big test in New Delhi’. It said: “At a recent rally, supports of an upstart Indian political party waved brooms in the air – a signal they are ready to clean house – danced in the dusty, sun-dappled street and chanted ‘end corruption’. A clamour rose when the party’s leader, a slight man with glasses named Arvind Kejriwal, arrived in the back of an open sport-utility vehicle. As he greeted supports, they pelted him with marigold blooms and chanted ‘Keriwal, Kejriwal.’” “Kejriwal, 45, was a little-known tax inspector turned-activist just three years ago, before he spearheaded a series of hunger strikes and exposes of India’s rich and powerful that won widespread support,” is how the newspaper introduced him. He is the ‘man of the moment’ with everyone, stunned by his victory, watching how his party will plan to face the general election next year.