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Posted at: Oct 21, 2015, 1:00 AM; last updated: Oct 20, 2015, 10:33 PM (IST)

A weapon for justice & equality

RTI — the three-letter word is a new entrant into rural vocabulary
A weapon for justice & equality
NREGA remains vulnerable and manipulated.

SOME English words, or rather abbreviations, have set up home in rural India. They have done more. They propel life there. The most important and pride-instilling  among these, without question, is “vote”. Another very prominent among these, and chilling, is FIR. 

The piece of paper that is born in police stations, under the shadow of crime and violence, called  First Information Report, is a household word in our villages. It is, of course, men who know and use the term more than women. They would, for domestic violence, that hardly perennial among male-engendered crimes, hardly gets  no FIR-level notice in our villages. Not the intimidation and worse suffered by the members of the Scheduled Castes, especially women, either.

Be that as it may, FIR is as well known in rural India as it is in towns and cities, not in its expanded form, but in its terse abbreviation. Ranging from the theft of personal effects and of livestock, encroachments, trespass, battery and assault are the common subjects of FIRs. And, when it occurs, murder. That cannot be hid and gets its FIR swiftly. 

What does not, and is unlikely in the foreseeable future, to lead to FIRs being filed in our villages is a form of dishonesty. We may call it cheating. This is the rampant manipulation of our social security nets by the village’s big guns. And this manipulation, this exploitation in broad daylight, is invariably done in collusion with ground-level officialdom. 

The enrolment of our villages’ entitled poor in the schemes that have been devised for them is a gilded moment. It is the moment when entitlement turns into preferment, a right into a favour. And this favour is exercised by the very persons we have regarded as the very symbols of decentralisation. The terms APL and BPL, by which those above and below the poverty line are defined, are as well known now in our villages as FIR. As is NREGA. There are villages where the APL and BPL lists and the NREGA muster rolls  are a true reflection of the economic status of the man or woman. But it is also true that in countless villages the most nuanced exercises that have gone into the definition of the APL and BPL populations of India are overtaken by another exercise. And this goes not by income or nutrition but whimsy and caprice. 

I was privileged to be present at a drought-hit village in Haryana on October 15, when Yogendra Yadav, who was on a nationwide tour of the country’s drought-hit districts, on behalf of the Jana Kisan Andolan and Swaraj Abhiyan, posed a question to a group comprising small land-owning kisans and some khet mazdurs.  “How many of you hold APL cards, how many BPL cards and how many the cards for the utterly destitute?” Not one responded to his question. This was surprising in a group that had, until that moment, participated enthusiastically in the discussions. Why was it suddenly so silent? Yogendra then asked, “Are you silent because many of you who should be APL card holders have got BPL and even the cards meant for the wretchedly poor and destitute?” The group burst into laughter. “Ji, ii…baat vahi hai.” The honesty was touching. And then a young man, taking the mike from Yogendra’s hand, said in chaste Hindi, “Sir, the fact is that we have to plead to join NREGA and have to work as domestic servants for the rich and influential…”

The IPC has sections for cheating. But will any FIR be filed about this form of deceit? Extremely unlikely. And so NREGA — another phrase now very well known in rural India —and the availing of the public distribution system remain vulnerable, remain manipulated.

The most valuable insight came a minute later. The same young man said he had used the RTI to document the reality. The three-letter RTI is a new entrant into India’s rural vocabulary. And how it has caught on! It is a weapon, a weapon for establishing more than the Right to Information —the right to justice. And to equality.

I accompanied Yogendra to the house of a farmer who had, less than a fortnight earlier, committed suicide owing to the failure of his new experiment with Bt cotton crop. A pestilential blight, stimulated by the prevailing drought, had done his crop in. The loan he had taken in the hope that the commercial crop will give him the bonanza his old bajra crop could never have, was now suddenly, a crippling burden. The possibility of his recouping the money spent on his daughter’s marriage earlier in the year was gone.  And so, suicide. 

Can the RTI question the private company that promotes Bt cotton on why it does not advise farmers about pest-control? No. Can the RTI question a village about its social practices such as dowry and expensive weddings? No. Can it ask questions about the whys and hows of drought, famine, climate change? Of course, not. But it can do some other things, vital things. It can question the administration on what it has done or not to blunt the sharp edge of drought. It can demand to know how much it has spent, or not, on preparing the village for the drought that holds half or more of India in its parched grip.

I am saying this from that ‘reliable unreliable’, namely, the memory of old conversations: Some very smart alec had managed, at the height of the Bengal Famine of 1943, to get a menu card from the Governor’s House in Calcutta and a prominent newspaper carried it on the front page with reports of the famine’s toll. That was RTI of a kind. A particularly devastating kind. I am not recommending any such keyhole expose but I believe RTI applications should be filed nationally in district after district to ask for information about drought relief, drought planning, drought mitigation —  short, mid and long term. There should be a cloudburst of RTI applications on the failure of the nation to address the failure of the monsoon. 

A day earlier, I had been privileged to join an event organised in Delhi of RTI completing 10 years. Aruna Roy, the undisputed founder of the RTI movement, and Wajahat Habibullah, former — and first — Chief Information Commissioner, spoke with Harsh Mander and Om Thanvi to a large audience of the young and old on how RTI has come to stay. Habibullah said RTI was our Republic’s sartaj because it empowers the common insaan and gives him the right to question the highest in the land, as also the smallest functionary.  RTI certainly has become part of India’s life. As much as the right to vote has. No one can ever take it away. But as with the vote, it too can be manipulated, can be weakened by throttling it in red tape, responding to it in technical legalese to bury the truth, and by not allowing its legitimate infrastructure to come into full play. 

And through violence.

As many as 45 RTI activists have been killed in the last 10 years. Killed? Unbelievably, yes. For asking difficult questions, questions that can lead the trail of graft and crime to unimaginably deep and equally unimaginably high levels. It is good our villages that now know of RTI so well. As with our freedom, we celebrate RTI’s anniversaries thinking of innocent blood spilt. Difficult though that is, we must think of that sacrifice with renewed determination and hope.

 —  The writer is a distinguished professor at Ashoka University

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