The Right to Information (RTI) law has strengthened real democracy in India because it asks for a share in everything – in decision making, in information seeking, and in governance. It is fundamentally asking for both, transparency and accountability at all levels of government.
This was the core message shared by Ms Aruna Roy, the Indian social activist and a pioneer of the RTI movement, who was in Colombo this week as a special guest at Sri Lanka’s RTI week activities. She visited at the invitation of the Ministry of Finance and Mass Media.
Former civil servant turned civil society activist, Aruna Roy is a co-founder of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathana (MKSS), a social and grassroots organisation for the empowerment of rural workers and farmers. As a major civil rights movement in India, it played a crucial role in India adopting its national level RTI law in 2005.In 2011, the TIME magazine included her among the 100 most influential people in the world.
In Colombo, Roy spoke at three events: opening of the RTI research symposium, an event for RTI trainers, and the government’s national observance of RTI Day (September 28) held at the Nelum Pokuna theatre with over 1,000 public officials and other invitees.
Tracing the accomplishments of RTI since 2005, she said: “In India, our complexities are such that it’s nearly impossible to make an issue universal. [Yet] the success of RTI is that it has been uniformly accepted by the entire country. That’s why around six million Indians use it every year by filing RTI applications.”
RTI users in India come from every walk of life, all social classes, and from all states, “including places like Kashmir, Manipur, and the North-eastern states, where the Armed Forces Special Powers Act is imposed which does not allow the basic liberties that the Constitution has guaranteed. Even in those states, RTI has been used. In areas of conflict where there is Maoist trouble, RTI is being used,” she added.
The main lesson from India is that, within a few years, “RTI has become a universal norm that is deeply appreciated by people as a critical factor in ensuring fair, decent and ethical governance.”
At the same time, Roy cautioned that citizens and RTI champions need constant vigilance to ensure that RTI law is not diluted or reduced in scope.
“There is a persistent narrative which is underground, which is always critical of the RTI,” she said. “Today, in India, they are busy trying to reduce the power of the RTI law. The government is seeking amendment after amendment to reduce its power. The latest is that they want to reduce the power of the Central Information Commission (main appellate body),” she noted.
Encouragingly, these moves are being resisted by civil society groups and ordinary citizens all over India. “It is the six million citizen users of RTI who are blocking the (Indian) government from being completely aggressive in taking away the powers the RTI law gives us.”
At the grassroots, meanwhile, RTI activism has also become hazardous for some citizens using it in the public interest. “In some areas, RTI users face threats, assaults and other kinds of harassment. We know that over 70 citizens have been murdered for their RTI activism – some of these incidents go unreported in the mainstream media,” Roy said.
Roy paid a glowing tribute to these victims — and to millions of Indians who continue to use RTI in an increasingly polarised society where public interest is under siege from vested interests.
Indeed, RTI has always been a collective accomplishment – as documented in a new book, The RTI Story: Power to the People (Lotus/Roli Books, India, 2018) that Aruna Roy co-wrote with her MKSS colleagues. The book, which came out in April, has done exceedingly well, she said.
“I am one of the huge army of Indians who helped bring about RTI,” she told a Colombo audience. “In a country like India, it can never be a lone battle. In all the civil society battles, we play many different roles. And I would like to play tribute to all my village friends – this book is the history of ordinary people, who are always sidelined because they are never featured by anybody.”
Roy has always recognised the collective nature of the people’s movement for the right to information. In 2000, when awarded the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay award – known as Asia’s Nobel Prize — she immediately dedicated it to the ‘ordinary’ people (both women and men) she works with.
In a speech to Sri Lanka’s civil society activists, she said: “Wherever we come from, we in civil society are one family. We share the same concerns — which is to live in better, ethical and just societies. To live where justice is not elusive, but justice is the norm. Where equality is the norm.”
She also had some advice to fellow travellers in Sri Lanka: “We in civil society are often accused of being negative – every time we go and face persons in authority, they ask us ‘Why do you always come in adversarial positions?’ And I say to them the adversarial positions are a necessary starting point. It’s like, questioning is the beginning of knowledge. It’s the beginning of a better country. We learnt this from the Buddha — that questioning is important, and that rationality is critical to our way of thinking.”
In that speech, Roy shared a quotation from the South African writer and poet Jeremy Cronin: “Our role in a democracy is to speak truth to power. We must make power truthful, and truth powerful.”
And that’s the business of RTI all over the world, was Aruna Roy’s parting advice to Sri Lanka’s activists for democracy and governance.