Information power imperative

Democracy is not yet dead

Published: Friday 15 September 2006

-- every once in a while, India demonstrates that its flawed democracy is actually driven by the people. Elections are, of course, the pre-eminent event for people to send out their message. Deliver or perish is the signal sent out time and again. It's just not delivery of services, though that is very important. It's also the delivery of the basic tenets that determine whether or not we shall live in a public sphere that is shaped by principles of accountability. That is why Indira Gandhi was voted out of power in 1977, after the excesses of the Emergency. And that was why Rajiv Gandhi's monumental majority in Parliament, and the not inconsiderable goodwill that accompanied Mr Clean, went out of the window in 1989, when he was seen to have had his finger in the till in the Bofors deal.

This time around, people power has not waited on the exigencies of the hustings.A widespread protest involving celebrities, professional activists, including Arvind Kejriwal, who has won one of this year's Magsaysay awards, and ordinary people, has forced the government to rescind its utterly ludicrous plans of amending the Right to Information Act. The plan was to keep file notings outside the purview of the act, which would have fatally hobbled people's right to know what is going on within the labyrinthine corridors of power. The argument is that these notings constitute the heart of the modus operandi of the government.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that the government has backed down, there are rogue departments within it that continue to explicitly discountenance the law of the land. The department of personnel and training insists, and the case has been made in cold print, that it will not allow the public access to file notings. Having backed down in the face of an overwhelming outcry, the prime minister must now bring this department to heel.

The victory of the information movement is especially good news for environmentalists, who have struggled for a long time to ensure that development and industrial projects are subjected to mandatory procedures like impact assessments and that a high degree of transparency attend the internal processes involved in clearing them.

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