We have many Messiahs but are people willing to lead the change?

Yesterday, Aruna Roy was present at ISFiT and shared her experience in combating and challenging corruption through the ‘Right to Information’ mechanism. Roy is known for her efforts to fight corruption, and for supporting government transparency. She is also the founder and leader of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan. I liked the way she emphasized that you can make a difference and bring about a change… let no one else tell you differently. Even His Holiness Dalai Lama said, “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.” And we all know what a mosquito does. *laughs*

Seeing an Indian as part of the discussion and plenary session at ISFiT 2015 was a proud moment for me. As Aruna Roy spoke of her ways of RTI interventions, I was taken back to a news article I read two years back and it was about a lot of unsung RTI activists that have brought about significant changes in their communities and helped eradicating spurious people from their jobs. RTI is currently the most fundamental law this country has seen as it can be used from the local panchayat (a unit of local government) to parliament, from a nondescript village to posh Delhi, and from ration shops to the 2G scam.”

It took India 82 years to transition from an opaque system of governance, legitimized by the colonial Official Secrets Act, to one where citizens can demand the right to information. The recent enactment of the Right to Information Act 2005 marks a significant shift for Indian democracy, for the greater the access of citizens to information, the greater will be the responsiveness of government to community needs.

Right To Information is derived from our fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 of the Constitution.  As Abraham Lincoln said, “Democracy is the government of the people, by the people, for the people.” Democracy revolves around the basic idea of Citizens being at the center of governance. Thus, public opinion is very centric to it’s existence. If we do not have information on how our Government and Public Institutions function, we cannot express any informed opinion on it. And the freedom of the press is an essential element for a democracy to function. It is thus obvious that the main reason for a free press is to ensure that Citizens are informed. Thus it clearly flows from this, that the Citizens Right To Know is paramount.

The Act and its rules define a format for requisitioning information, a time period within which information must be provided, a method of giving the information, some charges for applying and some exemptions of information which will not be given.

In 2011, a veteran social activist and anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare ended his 12-day fast. A stalwart of the RTI movement, the 74-year-old Gandhian’s campaign for a strong anti-corruption agency in the country, or Jan Lok Pal, galvanized tremendous public support with citizens coming out on the streets of Delhi, Bangalore, and other cities to voice their anger and discontent over mounting corruption in the country. Anna Hazare led the crusade of anti-corruption campaigns and for long, he stayed in the news as the face of the fight against corruption but there are many others who are fighting the system with commitment, except that they have been doing it away from the limelight.

“I’ll bring out the illegalities of Governments said S R Hiremath, who is 70 years old and takes the RTI fight on environmental issues.

“RTI helps the poor fight exploitation” said Simpreet Singh, who is 34 years old and an RTI activist fighting housing scams.

Hari Chand Arora is a 62 years old and banker turned advocate and RTI activist and believes that RTI is the only way to eradicate corruption.

“We are trying to mobilize the masses,” are the words of Akhil Godoi, who is an RTI activist and a peasant leader.

Anand Rai is a doctor who used RTI to stop illegal drug trials and believes in a fight to the logical end.

Shiv Prakash Rai’s efforts have led to the dismissal of spurious teachers and is a farmer with 1000 RTI interventions.

Varsha Deshpande is a lawyer and women’s rights activist who said : “I don’t want to be a messiah. People should lead change.”

Then, there are people like Bhaiyya Jee who is 88 years old and has worked in a range of areas from consumer rights to educating destitutes and rehabilitating lepers.

Their stories are worth a read here. The lesson is clear : “Only by empowering the ordinary citizen can any nation progress towards greatness.” By enacting the Right to Information Act 2005 India has taken a small but significant step towards that goal. The real Swaraj (self government) will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of capacity by all to resist authority when abused.

India has been placed second after Serbia in a list of 95 countries, including US and UK, after scoring high on the legal framework of the Right to Information (RTI). India and Slovenia share the second spot in the list prepared by Centre for Law and Democracy, an international human rights organization based in Halifax, Canada. The RTI Rating is one of a number of attempts to assess the quality of access to information systems, based on the highest international and comparative standards. A perfect legal framework would score 150 points. However, no legal framework in  the world is perfect, and even the model laws AIE and CLD have rated have fallen just short of a perfect score. Serbia currently has 135 points, or a score of 90 percent, while India and  Slovenia have 130 points (87 percent), demonstrating that very high values are possible.

This is an indicator that international standards have developed and the laws have got stronger. At the same time, there is still a lot of room for improvement. Despite all odds and facing threats and attacks, the fight to combat corruption is on. We have a lot of Messiahs already but are the citizens collectively, willing to lead and be a part of the change?

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