True News|Jun 14, 2005 3:06 PM| by:


For a democracy to amount to more than a mere ceremony of elections, it must have dynamic media, courts and laws. India has a reasonable set of these. But that’s not enough. A democracy further needs leaders who will marshall these resources to serve people. For over a decade, pioneers like Aruna Roy in Rajasthan and Anna Hazare in Maharashtra have striven for just that, after zeroing in on denial of information as democracy’s most crippling disease.

Lack of transparency creates the musty environment in which vermin of oppression thrive. Due largely to the efforts of Roy and Hazare, India has begun to evolve Right to Information [RTI] laws.

Even that is not enough. What a maturing democracy needs are ordinary people who believe they have the power to make laws stick; people like Arvind Kejriwal and his team at Parivartan in Delhi.

Development puzzle

Arvind excitedly protests the focus on him. “I am but one of my team,” he says. True, but since we must begin from somewhere, his life is a good place to do that.

Nothing in his background foretells what he has become. He was born in Hissar in Haryana in 1968 and knew no deprivation at all, as his father was a well employed engineer. Arvind went to the prestigious IIT, Kharagpur and graduating in 1989, joined Tata Steel. Within 3 years however, he was a restless man.

“While at IIT I noticed government service was an option many students considered,” he says. “I won’t say we were all driven by great social concerns, but deep inside was the vague feeling that one can make a difference from within the government.”

Arvind was to make a difference in a most daring way, but that’s for later. He appeared for the public services examinations and as he waited for the results, took himself away to Mother Teresa’s and Ramakrishna Missions. “I spent some months travelling in Bengal and the North East. I began to realise how backward these parts were. Was it just poverty? Then why my own Haryana, where there is no poverty at all, is backward with illiteracy and male chauvinism?” He had no answers yet to what holds back a community from development; but he had a good set of questions. And that’s always the best way to start.

Babu mole

In 1992 he joined the Indian Revenue Service [IRS] and was posted in the Income-tax Commissioner’s Office in Delhi. Within months, he began to be aware of the silent, collective extortionist machine that his department was running. Citizens were being denied the services that were their right. By withholding information, the department kept the public in darkness as to where their cases stood.

Rights existed on paper. But the process to access them was muddied by the civil servants. It is this that led to corruption, dependencies and backwardness. The malaise is not poverty of incomes but that of information. He now recalled the paradox of Haryana and the North East and understood what was common between them.

What he discovered was not some great, subtle truth. It was obvious to anyone who thinks things through. The difference that Arvin Kejriwal, IRS, made was that he decided to do something to fight back the system he himself was a part of. He turned a mole.

Sprouting slogans

In Kailash Bhoruka a Chartered Accountant and Col Pandey, Indian Army [Rtd.], he had two able co-conspirators. Arvind taught them the rules, the ways of the department and the procedures. They met in secret and evolved a strategy. Thus began in the year 2000, an association christened, Parivartan [Change].

They decided to focus on five small doable areas. They also distinguished between mutual corruption and extortionist corruption. “When two people agree and indulge in give and take corruption it is very difficult to fight it. On the other hand, most people are routinely extorted for small, important services like getting the refunds that are their due, getting a PAN number allotted, getting authorities to act on appeals won etc. We decided to begin here.”

With Kejriwal prompting from the wings, a Parivartan team called on the Chief Commissioner of Income Tax. They presented a couple of simple suggestions to bring in transparency: for each application for a service, let there be a serial number, let applications be processed only in a strict queue and let the queue be published. In other words, remove the power of random picking. The Commissioner seemed open to the suggestions. Parivartan then publicised all over Delhi asking citizens not to pay bribes but to approach Parivartan with their applications which will be processed transparently in a queue. They collected 400 such applications and went back to the Commissioner.

The fight in the corridors

They found he had turned hostile. He berated them for putting up banners and slogans that implied that his department was corrupt. He then asked the Parivartan team to leave. They did, but not to disappear. Instead, they petitioned the Public Accounts Committee, the Vigilance Commissioner and Manmohan Singh, a politician of renowned honesty. Under pressure, the department cleared the 400 applications and promptly went back to its old ways.

Arvind muses: “The bureaucracy succeeds by tiring you, hoping that you will give up. Often we do. If at first we don’t succeed, we wilt and blame the system. We must learn to fight in the courts, the offices and streets”. Parivartan filed a public interest litigation seeking direction to the department that it implement a 5-point transparency programme.

By now their ranks had swelled. They had a rudimentary office with a phone. Manish Sisodia, a journalist with Zee News got the media to cover Parivartan’s campaign. The Commissioner finally, reluctantly filed an affidavit in the court saying that an internal order had been passed along the suggested lines.

Kejriwal the mole, knew it was a lie. There was no such order. On 3rd July 2001, thirty volunteers of Parivartan sat in a peaceful satyagraha in the corridor outside the Chief Commissioner’s office, seeking a copy of the order he had sworn to have issued. Pressured, he met them, made vague promises and sought a little more time. Finally, under threat of a larger group of volunteers offering satayagraha with full media in attendance, the Chief Commissioner was broken.

Lessons learnt

On the July 13, orders were issued to departmental heads. By Jan 18, 2002 most of the suggestions had been implemented. Parivartan had scored a success, albeit a small one for which so much time and energy had to be expended. But that’s the Indian reality. Out of such small battles are systems in a democracy reformed, inch by inch.

By now Arvind Kejriwal had unmasked himself. He has since used every provision of the service rules to go on long leaves in order to work openly for Parivartan. He has been without a salary for three years now, running his family on his wife’s earnings.

Parivartan has a free-wheeling structure. It is not an NGO nor a body registered with any authority. It is a mere Association of Persons, the loosest form permitted by law. It does not accept corporate funds, let alone foreign ones. Kejriwal says there are private donors for their costs. [Still, GoodNewsIndia would urge readers to extend their support.]

It has a small core team of four modestly paid workers, most of them residents of Sundernagari and Seemapuri slums. Rekha Kohli, 26 is the publicist. Chander is the original phone boy, now looking after the office. Rajiv Sharma, 30 is a master strategist plotting campaigns. And finally there is 21 year old Santosh, a product of the slums, a great street organiser and campaigner for rights. They decide on the salaries they will take, beneath a ceiling of Rs 6000 per month.

The team realised how hard and long battles can be and the results so minuscule. Unless there was a campaign for fundamental, systemic change to make the bureaucracy more easily accountable, citizens will always weary and give up.

The right desire

Over a decade before Kejriwal, Aruna Roy too had quit the civil services realising, “the biggest crisis we face today is dwindling participation of people in the democratic framework and a system of governance cloaked in secrecy and devoid of accountability to the people. The right to information would give big leverage to the people.” He considers her his hero and her campaign for a true RTI law with sincerity and teeth, his own ultimate goal.

It’s an indication of the power of information that the bureaucracy has fought on every front to deny it to the people. However, since a democracy forces public positions, politicians have had to offer mealy mouthed support; they then quickly turn to bureaucrats to draft toothless policies. Thus the much celebrated Freedom of Information Bill, 2003 was a still born baby, which did not even come into force. Nevertheless, some states have, under duress, enacted reasonable laws which citizens can use. Not content with them, India’s several activists have come together to fight for citizens’ right to information; they have formed an umbrella organisation called the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information [NCPRI].

Using Delhi’s basic RTI law, Parivartan took on the electricity board – Delhi Vidyut Board – and the public food distribution system [PDS] for the poor. Borrowing from Aruna Roy’s jansunwai [public hearing] model, Parivartan worked Sundernagari’s streets to expose cover-ups by contractors and collusion by elected officials. They began to get people’s mind share and asked them to use the RTI law to file queries.

Making do and biting through

There is a trick to the way these queries must be framed, if they are not to be rejected on first reading. Diminutive Santosh strode the narrow streets and helped fill hundreds of RTI applications on behalf of consumers denied rations. The focus was on raising awareness and increasing participation. Parivartan also collaborated with the Indian Express in Delhi to awaken citizens to the rights they had.

Delhi’s PDS is a 3000 shop network through which enormous public money is looted by diverting subsidised food stocks to commercial interests. People had no means of verifying the flow of stocks. Parivartan’s street plays, awareness camps and corner meetings caused a barrage of applications for information to be made under Delhi’s RTI law.

“The RTI laws that exist today are weak in three areas,” says Kejriwal. “There is no penalty for evading reply, there is no appellate authority to go to if an official stone-walls, and there are far too many exclusions under which information may be denied. NCPRI has been campaigning for a new law to replace the old Freedom of Information Act. We have been promised action by the present UPA government headed by Manmohan Singh. After all, it’s a promise they have made in their manifesto.”

In December, 2004 a law with teeth was a mere glimmer of hope. Parivartan’s efforts in the meantime were angering the racketeers. Applicants got neither prompt nor usable answers. On the other hand inspectors, armed with these complaints, pushed retailers for higher bribes to cover them. The cost of corruption was going up. The team waited for that high cost to make retailers realise it was more profitable to play honest. But something else was waiting to happen.

On December 29, Santosh was on her beat of Sundernagari’s streets. An unidentified man materialised, slashed her throat and disappeared in the crowd. People scooped their darling and raced to a hospital. As the tiny girl lay close to death, anger and impatience rose. After several days, Santosh came through, reborn as it were, heralding major changes in the country.

Delhi Chief Minister Ms Sheila Dikshit got pro-active and met Aruna Roy and Arvind Kejriwal to discuss ways to clean up the PDS. They decided to make Sundernagari a laboratory. A new Food Commissioner threw open the stock books for public scrutiny. Penalties up to Rs.5000 were announced. They had won. Kejriwal admits things have changed and people feel in control. Santosh merely smiles, an uncelebrated heroine ignored by the educated classes. A self serving media-house however, put her through the indignity of an unequal race to elect a social hero.

But the labours of little known Indians like Santosh are greater than any of ours in significantly changing India. In early May, 2005 the Union Cabinet decided to repeal the old Freedom of Information Act as the first step in inducting a new RTI Bill in its stead. The bill is headed the right way in that appellates will be created and some punishment for non-compliance will be provided for. There is to be a nationwide network of Information Commissioners to ensure flow of responses to citizens’ questions.

With advancing technology and rising awareness people will take back governance and fashion it. Because everyone at some time or the other needs information, one day, all of us will have the right to it.

Contact Parivartan

(Published with kind permission of where you will find many positive stories on India.)