The caravan rolls on

A book review of, “The RTI Story : Power to the People”

“Ek chidiya, anek chidiya (One bird, several birds).” These are the sing along lyrics of the musical animation, “One, Many, and Unity” broadcast on Doordarshan decades ago. Once popular among children, the feature with its buffered graphics and analog sound depicted the power of collective action. Narrating the story of a flock of birds who band together, escaping the net of a poacher, it made many children rhyme along with joy and laughter. This may have seemed amusing to elders as a cartoon to be viewed, though not practiced. But if we pause for a moment, and consider the possibility of our moral stunting not being a natural outcome of maturity, we would be left with the power to affect positive social change.

To the delight of many this story of idealism in thought and practice can now be found in the non-fiction section of bookstores across India. The outlines of a progressive movement for greater government accountability emerge from the narration of Aruna Roy and the MKSS Collective’s recently released book titled, “The RTI Story: Power to the People”. This is a remarkable feat for several reasons which despite the title, explains much more than the birth of the Right to Information Act. It’s story starts in 1987 within the fragility of a mud house of in Devdungri, a village in Rajasthan. Rather than an indicia of poverty, used to demand legitimacy, the village signifies the strength of lived experience, one that becomes necessary in the eighteen years during which a national movement for RTI builds to a fever pitch.

While the journey begins with a desire of a few who have forsaken city comforts, it almost immediately finds fellow travellers breaking down social barriers of class, caste and gender. The participatory basis of this movement is not a cloak, where a few leaders assert the implicit virtues of an internal democracy, but is real structural inclusiveness, existing in thought and practised as a physical fact.

As stated by the authors, “[c]ontrary to the popular narrative of single heroes being inspired to define a path, the poor peasants and workers gave birth not only to the struggle, but also to the ideology and form it took. We believe that poor people think, and think as well as the literate do..”. The leadership of the poor emerges naturally from the narrative style of the book which credits individuals who are farmhands, labourers and even village poets. Rather than focussing on their identities as framhands, labourers and village poets, it focuses on their desire for greater fairness, a better life and the ingenuity and craft they use to build a national movement.

One of the most heartening aspects of the book is the implicit modesty of the campaigners. As we turn the pages, we notice an incremental cadence of a national movement gather pace with time. Small efforts limited in purpose, rooted in reality and catering to immediate ills build towards a larger goal. The goals of a movement for transparency start from practical, tangible demands for payment of minimum wages and access to job cards for workers maintained by their government contractors. This brings realisation, that welfare reforms need to be rooted in the realities of the indigent.

Policies which are designed to benefit the marginalised cannot remove them as stakeholders from the process of its formation. While the libraries of calm and comfort spur our intellect, committee rooms facilitate expert deliberation, the policy proposals of such environments when done to the exclusion of a jan sunwai (village hearing), will continue to be handicapped in their real world applications. Effective application of state policy requires the advocacy, conversation, leadership of women, dalits and the chronically poor. A natural outgrowth of these community efforts is the incremental process, in which over time a collective by the name of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) is formed.

Early parts of the book narrate MKSS’s demands for transparency focussed within Rajasthan. These bring modest success, coming first as a trickle of information before building to a flood. Constant negotiations which start from district officials, end up reaching the floor of the State Assembly, soon catching the attention of journalists from the metropolis who become campaigners for the right to information movement. Greater partnership between the village and the city, brings one of the most significant turning points of the RTI Story.

It demonstrates a tactical agility when the campaigners are able to draw strength from the grassroots of the hinterland to the towering jamun trees of central Delhi. Scaling these heights becomes possible with the formation of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), that brings together numerous civil society organisations and collectives such as MKSS, Satark Nagrik Sangathan, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative and many others. It helps in the drafting of a law through the aegis of the Press Council of India that goes through several rounds of consultation and metamorphosis until it is finally enacted in 2005.

Earlier this month, Bhimsain Khurana, the creator of, “ek chidiya, anek chidiya” passed away leaving us what seems like a reminder of the days past. A legacy of idealism, seemingly overdone and preachy in times where basic human morality and kindness are viewed as weakness. Coming at this tenuous moment where transparency and public accountability face grave threats, the RTI Story provides a compelling antidote to contemporary cynicism. The campaigners themselves acknowledge growing threats to greater accountability and transparency.

Towards the end, they remark that their journey continues, “log jugte rahe caravan badhta gaya” (people kept joining in, the caravan kept advancing). One can almost imagine this being said by a grinning child oblivious to the power of these words.

(An edited version of this review was published in the Indian Express on May 12, 2018).

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