We must know

Published: Friday 31 May 1996

THE struggle for people's right to all information relevant to their lives is intensifying worldwide. While some countries have accepted it as fundamental to the human rights issue, most - even those who have partially accepted this - have restricted the right to a greater or a lesser degree. No regime is today ready to allow unhindered access to all information, fearing a complete image crisis: there are too many skeletons to hide in each cupboard. In developing countries like ours, it is the struggle to find out where the 85 paise out of every rupee, meant for the poor and underprivileged and yet not reaching them, is going.

However, some developments in India and abroad are encouraging. In April this year, under immense pressure from the Majdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), and facing the general elections, the chief minister (cm) of Rajasthan, Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, belonging to the Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party, accepted the villagers' right to information about developmental problems (Down To Earth. Vol 4, No 24). It was, however, a partial victory.

For a year now, Shekhawat has been promising the villagers the right to examine every document relevant to developmental projects. Adding to this already radical measure, the cm has been promising that they would be allowed to photocopy the documents too. When the MKSS finally made this an eve-of-election issue, the CM must have realised that it would be a political harakiri to renege at that point. So the right was granted, but the rider was, the right to photocopy was not. A photocopied document can be used to take legal action against erring officials, if need be. The state government, facing the wrath of the bureaucracy, went for the halfway house: information, yes; evidence, no.

So, the task only starts here. The dharna (sit-in) for the right to photocopy has been going on since the last month, and the venue has now shifted from Beawar town to the state capital Jaipur. There is a need for NGOs in other states to take this up and build up a national-level campaign.

The MKSS'S struggle is to force open the doors of ethical governance through the power of information in the hands of the people. None of the political parties "I be willing to go too far on this. Their village power bases lie with that crucial figure, the sarpanch (village headperson), who controls the vote bank. The sarpanches are the ones who will be directly affected, for their very real financial 'black' bank from corrupt practices will be destroyed if the right to information comes through and is utilised intelligently by the people and their representative organisations.

_ Thus, the NGO sector has to take up this issue on its own. This is even more relevant today, when under the combined onslaught of liberalisation and globalisation, natural resources of the people are coming under increasing threat. Each of the constituents of this concept of the right to information - traniparency, social audit and accountability - 'have very widespread implications. The real struggle is to push for a legislation with teeth, because halfway houses, like the one provided by the Rajasthan government, will only frustrate people; half measures always do.

Take for instance the attempt made earlier this year by the Union ministry of environment and forests, to empower local communities with the right to access information regarding hazardous industries (Down To Earth, Vol 4, No 19). But the moot question is, why. only hazardous industries? Under the Land Acquisition Aci,, all those whose property is being acquired for any developmental project, have a right to question the public purpose under which the land is being acquired. But people cannot question a project if they do not have the relevant information regarding it.

Even internationally, the need for transparently is being felt, and a conservative agency like the World Bank too, under intense public pressure, has taken a significant first step towards making information public through its "Disclosure of Operational Information Policy, 1994". But our government, ever ready to provide all information to international funding agencies, never tires of finding excuses for not providing the same information to our own people, for whom- it is supposed to be working. One of our own reporters was once refused common meteorological data collected by the Bhaba Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai, on grounds that these were state secrets... the air and water of our land!

One international NGO has drafted a comprehensive piece of legislation, "Public Participation and Access to Information". Its attempt is to get the draft adopted by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) general assembly to be held this November. To ensure the safe passage of the draft, the IUCN has already started lobbying with its own members and others. It is high time Indian NGOS got their acts together, too, on this issue. Eighty five paisa out of every rupee is not a small matter. It is the tax payer's money and the tax payer's health and future which is at stake; so, the person on the street must know. Information is our birthright, and we must have it.

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