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150 serious attacks on RTI activists since 2005: Aruna Roy

By Diva Arora

The Whistleblowers Protection Bill and the Grievance Redress Bill have become victims to the more high-profile and politicised Lokpal debate, says Aruna Roy in this review of generation-next legislations introduced and pending in India

 

Aruna Roy, social activist and founder of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), who has been instrumental in seeing two significant legislations introduced in the country – the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) and the Right to Information Act (RTI) – reviews the performance of these two bills and the mixed response and criticism of them in recent times. She also discusses the Whistleblowers and Grievance Redress Bill, which she says have been put on the backburner thanks to the Lokpal agitation.

In addition to all the other criticism of the MGNREGA, Sharad Pawar has asked the government not to allow MGNREGA schemes during the sowing and harvesting months because of labour shortage. What is your response?

One has only to look at the employment figures in various states to understand that most MGNREGA work takes place only in the lean agricultural season. Also that the average falls far below the 100 days entitlement. This is therefore one of the many unfounded criticisms of the MGNREGA  from a class of people whose interests are hurt with its impact on the wages of agricultural workers (historically underpaid), and the increase in their bargaining power. No worker, given a choice, wants to reduce his days of work by using up the 100 days when alternative work exists. Similarly, there is no evidence to show that agricultural productivity has reduced due to the MGNREGA. It is true that labour is demanding higher wages, and the large farmers and contractors are affected by that. It is time to give the agricultural sector more resources and attention in terms of better minimum support price etc, instead of trying to get the agricultural worker to bear the burden of the crisis in agriculture.

The MGNREGA also attracts criticism from the urban middle class in India because the Act is aimed at altering the socio-economic conditions of the rural poor. Every labour problem is blamed on the MGNREGA! This response from the mainstream is unfortunately not based on statistics and fact, and this is borne out by the independent studies released by the PMO recently. To tell the truth the biggest fear is that the MGNREGA will release the poor from the clutches of socio-political control and oppression.

That may be so but there is little doubt that MNREGA is riddled with corruption at many levels.

I believe that in percentage terms, corruption under the MGNREGA is far less than in other large programmes of poverty reduction being implemented by the government. In fact, MGNREGA ironically, is beaten for its virtue, of being able to expose corruption and ask for accountability!     

People have been exposing corruption on a regular basis. In fact, in many states, panchayat officebearers and the bureaucracy have stopped implementing the programme because they feel it does not allow them to extract money from the programme with impunity.

Nevertheless, corruption under the MGNREGA must indeed be tackled on a priority basis, for in the end it is the poor worker who suffers the most. It is also the same worker who fights this oppressive system every day. For this, supervisory structures under the Act at every level must be strengthened, and responsible officials held accountable. Social audits must be institutionalised in every state. This is the only way in which corruption can be dealt with adequately. The state of Andhra Pradesh has recovered Rs 30 crore of defalcation from those guilty of corruption through social audit.

The charge is that activists like you are forcing the government to push for public exchequer spending in `unprofitable' areas. This has ballooned government expenses, fuelling inflation. What is your response?

The government, unlike the private sector, is not supposed to run on the doctrine of ‘profit’. It is the duty of the government to provide the basic minimum to its citizens, and it is the right of citizens to demand this from the state.  If the government does not ensure basic education, health, and minimal economic security, what is its role? This spending, in comparison to other much higher costs, for instance spending on defence, or even tax cuts (given to industry), is minimal and it is absurd to link inflation to this.

India has amongst the lowest tax to GDP ratios in the world, and we are allowing huge profits to the corporate sector at great cost to our health as a nation. On the contrary, as many economists acknowledge, it was the large numbers employed under the MGNREGA which prevented India from a crisis situation during the economic global recession. Employment of the rural poor has also increased the purchasing power of the rural poor.

The MGNREGA is a legislation for the right of the poor to work, the first and only one of its kind in the world today. It has the capacity to dramatically alter the socio-economic condition of the rural poor in India and make decentralised planning and development a reality as it strengthens and empowers local bodies of self-government. For the first time in the history of India, minimum wages have started to become a reality. The bargaining power of the poorest workers, peasants and landless agricultural workers has increased dramatically. As a result, they are able to fight for, work with, and live with far more dignity. This has also led to the freeing of many workers from bondage, it has decreased levels of distress migration. It has increased purchasing power at the very bottom. A large percentage of MGNREGA workers today are women, which has positively changed power dynamics within families because under the MGNREGA they are entitled to the same wage rate as men. The MGNREGA has also altered caste equations in villages. There have thus been several other observable positives.

The limitations of the MGNREGA Act have largely been in its implementation. To begin with, because of lack of information, people are not aware that they have the right to demand work. As this is the most basic trigger to make the NREGA function, this limitation has led to reduced work under the MGNREGA and reduced budgets. There are also other problems in implementation such as delayed payments. Localised planning of work and assets is also an area which requires a lot more thought and training, even though recently there has been an expansion in the kinds of work under MGNREGA. Therefore, the support MGNREGA should receive from the vast number of the poor it benefits is qualified by their poor outreach, their own complaints about poor implementation, and a mainstream media that caters to the needs of a consuming population of the affluent and the middle class.

Why do you think attacks on RTI activists are on the rise?

Attacks on activists are part of a deeply worrying trend where anyone challenging the power nexus of corporations-states-big money is brutally silenced and clamped down upon. I do believe attacks are on the rise as the stakes for which they are fighting are also increasing. Resources are limited and there is more and more private capital searching for investment.

An NGO like the Jan Chetna Manch has been working in Chhattisgarh to ensure environmental compliance and monitor water pollution and social impact issues of different development projects being proposed in Chhattisgarh. Legislations related to mining, land acquisition, environment laws and other extractive industries are heavily dependent on environment impact assessments and social impact assessments being conducted in a free and fair manner. Activists on the ground work to mobilise and spread awareness to facilitate independent public hearings on projects on which crores of money rest. To be doing this kind of work against huge corporate giants like Jindal requires tremendous courage as they are under a great deal of threat.

This has resulted in a series of violent attacks on RTI users across the country.  In this context, we think it is important that a strong and effective Whistleblowers Bill (Public Interest Disclosure and Protection for Persons Making the Disclosure Bill, 2010) in parliament must be passed immediately.

The RTI Act came into force on October 12, 2005, and to date, serious attacks (killing, harassments, assaults) on RTI users totals 150. More than 15 have been fatal attacks. This risk that RTI users face must be taken seriously. As soon as there is an attack on a user, the State Information Commission must declare suo motu on their website all the information that the threatened user had applied for. The central and state governments must also institute effective mechanisms for providing protection to RTI users and anti-corruption crusaders.

Why do you feel the Whistleblowers Protection Bill and the Grievances Redress Bill are being held up? What consequences will this have on RTI activists?

Unfortunately both the Whistleblowers Protection Bill and the Grievance Redress Bill have become victims to the more high-profile and politicised Lokpal debate. In fact, the NCPRI sees Whistleblower Protection as independently and immediately important to enact. Regardless of how long it takes to pass the Lokpal Bill, RTI users and other whistleblowers continue to face immediate threat to their lives. While the India Against Corruption (IAC) team felt that only the Lokpal can provide effective protection to whistleblowers, the NCPRI saw whistleblower protection as part of a basket of measures and wanted it passed separately. The Whistleblower Bill that has been passed in the Lok Sabha and is pending in the Rajya Sabha is not in our opinion a perfect piece of legislation, but we feel that it should be passed so that RTI users and whistleblowers within the system have some legal protection. We strongly feel that the potential of even one life protected or some attacks prevented make it imperative that this bill be enacted immediately.

The Grievance Redress Bill is also less controversial than the Lokpal, and will potentially have a far-reaching and lasting impact on issues of accountable governance. The current bill which has been sent to the Standing Committee has many fine provisions and with a few amendments, it can really be another legislation that empowers the common person to enforce accountability. In many ways, it is the next generation law that can build on the initial successes of the RTI. In fact this law will help reduce the pressure o the RTI, as in the absence of a grievance redress law many RTIs are filed as a means to redress grievances.

Non-passage of these two laws indicates how partisan our political climate has become. These are two legislations on which there should be no opposition from any political party. The government needs to make their passage an immediate priority and put them up for enactment in the monsoon session. The opposition must support the passage of both laws because as the RTI has shown, political workers themselves are amongst the most frequent users of transparency and accountability legislations.

What are your views on the trouble within Team Anna?

The switchover from a campaign to a party will bring about a different set of dynamics. Anna Hazare’s team has decided to become a political party because they want to bring about total revolution in the country. I now believe that the passing of the Jan Lokpal Bill will be dependent on their winning the elections.

But I must emphasise that social movements help bring about greater transparency and help introduce greater accountability in the government and that is also very important.

Infochange News & Features, August 2012