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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Resisting the RTI

The political parties who have now been made accountable under the RTI will not easily give up and the legal battle may be contested till the bitter end in the higher courts.
In their public postures, however, they have taken the line that they are already furnishing information to other agencies like the election commission and the income tax; they can be inundated by frivolous petitions; the confidentiality of political decision making can be misused etc; it is not possible to maintain records .The legality of the order should better be left to the courts because that is where the legality of the order of the CIC will be decided.
A brief examination of the performance of the Act so far may light up some areas of the debate.
The RTI Act made available to the common people all the information that could be made available to the members of legislatures and members of the parliament. Suddenly the amorphous, undifferentiated, impersonal information potentially accessible to or already in the inert keeping of our public representatives is being mined by RTI seekers to seek a measure of control over their destinies. The master key to force open the secret vault called bureaucracy which had for long eluded the citizenry become available to all and sundry. The accountability scene is undergoing a magical transformation.
RTI activists, autodidacts, and public spirited people are using this as a tool to map the objective reality of their particular situations against the given big picture. People at large nourish fairly sound attitudes based on instinct and memory but they lack a coherent account as to how their local environments of oppression are located within the larger economic or socio-political realities. In order to be able to derive maximum advantage from this legislation, people all over the country are raising themselves to levels of awareness commensurate with their particular situation, are acquiring uncanny legal skills and are extending their circle of influence to initiate a potentially transformative movement. Antonio Gramsci would have approved of these “organic intellectuals”.
Where does my little postage stamp of a village figure in the double digit growth story of Bihar? To find out Sanjay Sahani, Ramkumar Thakur and a motley group from a nondescript village called Ratnauli in Bihar demanded the information about the implementation of MNREGA in their panchayat. It is but natural that the custodians of all those little bureaucratic lies that collectively go to make the official truth should feel threatened. Ram Kumar Thakur had to be simply put away. But killings are not the norm; slapping of false cases is the standard tactic as the RTI groups have claimed and even the pioneering RTI activist Shiv Prasad Ray was subjected to this fate.
The formidable bureaucracy which had expressed fears of its misuse have realized its subversive potential. So they have taken to something akin to a civil disobedience movement, a strategy of passive resistance against army of information seekers under RTI demanding information as varied as the lifting and disbursal of PDs grains to the amounts of travelling allowance drawn by the civil servants. They just remain silent. Or pretend imbecility. If you ask for information A they furnish B and in some cases no relief could be had even from the information commission. Or they wage semantic guerilla warfare; they ambush you with an ambiguity of meaning. So there is no frivolity involved here. It is a deadly serious business.
There are some other democratic dividends as well. RTI has created a new and thriving public sphere. Village chaupals, hamlets with cyber cafes, small towns - quite different from the traditional city centric public sphere, salons, coffee houses, universities, think tanks and media clubs are the new hubs of activity. Debates on development and public issues are becoming livelier because the range and depth of their information has increased considerably and citizens are acquiring a better understanding of how things are done. The RTI is materializing a “public that is living up to instantiate and ideal of public reason”.
So should the political parties feel bothered by unnecessary duplication of work or is there an apprehension in the political minds that the information furnished by them, say the accounts of laughable sums of money spent in their election campaigns by candidates could be put to rigorous scrutiny by an army of local volunteers? Everyone knows that the figures are meant just to get past the Election Commission which has neither the time nor the wherewithal to verify them in every particular. But in the hands of the masses it can transform the whole scene. How many taxis were hired, who printed the publicity material, who set up the pandal and for how much? The right to information becomes purposive, goal directed hence an effective tool of accountability; in the statistical keeping of the Election Commission it is merely grist for the academic researchers’ mill for drawing broad general conclusions.
In the absence of transparency and internal democracy politics has largely become the skill of intrigue among a narrow group of those closest to the instruments of power. Mendacity and cynicism in political discourse - "they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it" has become a sad fact of our lives. So what is at stake here is not the fear of being submerged under frivolous queries, nor is any one afraid of being asked about their internal affairs - the nation has already an unsolicited surfeit of it. RTI is ushering in some kind of a direct democracy and that is a terrifying idea.