RTI links the lowest common denominator with the idea of democracy, says activist Aruna Roy

In an amber lit, cosy space at the G5A Foundation for Contemporary Culture in Mumbai, RTI activist and author Aruna Roy unveiled her latest book titled 'The RTI Story: Power to the People' along with activist and former Central Information Commissioner, Shailesh Gandhi. The book launch was a partnership between Literature Live! which is a platform for literary events and Roli Books, the publishers. Wrapped in an eco-friendly bag, the book was unveiled by the activists to a packed room and an enthusiastic audience.

The book contains accounts of a long journey and the struggles which the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI) and the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) faced to campaign for the right to information and a transparent democracy in practice. Retired IAS officer and diplomat Gopalkrishna Gandhi, who has penned the foreword, also mentions the constant risks faced by people who dare to speak out.

 RTI links the lowest common denominator with the idea of democracy, says activist Aruna Roy

File image of Aruna Roy

After the unveiling, both the activists were invited on stage for a conversation about India's biggest people's participatory movement which resulted in the formation of a rights-based law that is the Right to Information Act of 2005. Shailesh Gandhi told the audience the book rightly conveys the origin and shaping of the RTI movement. Gandhi quizzed Roy about how the movement began and Roy recounted the time when members of the MKSS started a dharna in a small town in Rajasthan, Beawar. MKSS was fighting for minimum wages for labourers who were told that they did not exist on the records, in spite of working for eight hours. She recalled how small Dalit farmers realised the futility of hunger strikes and the urgency of demanding records which would remove the 'liars' tag they'd been labelled with.

"Due to the movement, they began to understand where the fault lines are or more accurately, where to pinch the system. All the stories and experiences in the book have come from living and being with the people. We were fighting for the records to come out. That's how the concept of RTI was born," stressed Roy.

When asked about the significance of Beawar in the RTI movement, Roy lit up and described how the town got together and joined the campaign against corruption and the right to information. In 1995, after the government failed to give access to bills, vouchers and photocopies despite assurances by chief minister Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, the campaigners gave the government a whole year to make good on its promises. But when government still failed to do so, the campaign moved with a huge rally to Beawar's market place, where a dharna began.

"For the 40 days that we sat there, the whole city got together with us. People gave us keys to their homes, we collected cash in small amounts, the dharamshalas opened so there was access to bathrooms, the grocery sellers would give us vegetables and somebody would buy us water. But the story I like best is, the female member of the local corporation who came to me and said, 'You better win this and achieve right to information. Hum toh satta khele hai, par mera paisa tumhare upar hai!'" Roy finished as the audience burst into laughter.

When probed about the key players in shaping the RTI Act, Roy stated how the principles were shaped by the struggle but the law was drafted by legal experts. She recounted how the first draft was made in the IAS academy where she was invited by NC Saxena and Harsh Mander, after which the rough draft was presented to the press council. Roy also mentioned the involvement of activists, journalists, trade unions and other campaigners who were approached for comments on the RTI draft document.

Gandhi asked Roy about the present state of the law, and she replied with an analogy of a Sufi dervish's ascetic dance where the dancers spin with one arm pointed at earth and the other at the sky. "RTI is kind of like that, it links the lowest common denominator with the idea of democracy. It helps to understand governance and educates citizen's on how to make the government function."

But she also went to say how the systematic interference with our country's institutions by the current government is worrisome and the silence from the citizens about accepting such opaque and secretive functioning even more so. "What are we afraid of? It is as though out of 100 people, there are two bullies and 98 people are silent because everyone thinks everyone else is a bully!" she exclaimed.

Towards the end of the conversation between Gandhi and Roy, she explained how independence and transparency in various Commissions is paramount for democracy. The duo then opened the floor for questions from the audience. Roy pointed out how fighting to protect the Constitution is must and expressed admiration for BR Ambedkar's foresight about how there'd be divisiveness at every level unless the weaker sections of society were protected.

In her parting note, she urged young people to look at issues in depth and marvelled at India's efforts to maintain democracy. "India has got democracy to work against all tides, and our rights-based laws have drawn global attention," she said. "We have no need to look at numbers, after all only 70 people started the Dandi March with Gandhi and it became a nationwide movement!"

Updated Date: Jun 21, 2018 09:09:29 IST