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Staying informed keeps democracy alive

Jul 25, 2010

For good and effective governance there is need to stay engaged in the democratic processes, says Arvind Kejriwal, RTI champion. Though India has adopted an open information culture, there are many roadblocks in the implementation of RTI Act.

Arvind Kejriwal is an Indian social activist and crusader for greater transparency in Government. He was awarded Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership in 2006, for activating India's Right to Information movement at grassroots.

He set up the Public Cause Research Foundation on the 19th of December, 2006 along with Former Journalist Manish Sisodia and TV producer and writer Abhinandan Sekhri to ensure that our society becomes more inclusive and that real power rests with the common citizens of India.

OneWorld South Asia: An IRS officer turned Information crusader, what inspired you to lead a movement that exposes the vast scale corruption and irregularities in Indian governance.

Arvind: It didn’t happen overnight. It was a slow process. In the year 2000, I started taking interest on issues of corruption and slowly and gradually I got more and more involved with people’s struggle for justice and finally I quit my job. So, it was a long journey but self-inspiring.

The journey is not quantifiable. It is a continuous battle between opposite personalities.

OWSA: What are the challenges you faced to make it a people’s movement and where has it reached now?

Arvind: The biggest problem is that people have become cynics and have given up. They think that nothing will work and here comes the most challenging role - to transform their cynicism into a ray of hope. They have stopped engaging in democracy. For instance, a few days back in Ahmedabad, an RTI activist got killed; no one seems to be protesting about it except the media. Unless people participate in democracy, democracy will not work.

Today we have the Right to Information Act and at the same time we are also witnessing a clampdown on the champions of the RTI movement, where one after another activists are getting killed which did not happen earlier. Everyday there are more issues about implementation, and new problems are coming up and we try to engage with them.

OWSA: Over the years, India has made its mark as a leader of RTI in the South Asian region. What are the factors that helped India to adapt to an open information culture?

Arvind: To say that India has adapted to the open information culture is too big a statement to make. But I can say that there is a huge enthusiasm related to RTI. This could be for many reasons, one of the reasons is that it has come from a long people’s movement and therefore, people have already started participating in it in different parts of the country.

Second reason is that, before it came from the centre, there were already nine states where this law was already there. So, there was already some culture of using RTI.

Third reason is because we have one of the best laws in the world.

OWSA: How do you think the Right to Information Act could aid in dealing with issues of poverty and climate change?

Arvind: Because RTI is about information and people seek information about various government schemes like ration, employment, old age pension, widow pension etc. These are issues of survival. On a bigger level people also want to know about their land acquisitions, their displacement. So, when RTI reaches these people, it helps them considerably.

OWSA: Don’t you think that the information is not enough?

Arvind: I agree with you, that information is not enough. But it is the beginning of the journey and there is much more needed to be done on the basis of the information.

OWSA: How do you see the RTI contributing in strengthening grassroots democracy and ensuring transparent and accountable system for the delivery of services and benefits under government schemes?

Arvind: RTI is critical for the ‘existence’ of democracy. If you don’t have information, how do you work? With the information, the people can fight corruption, they can expose corruption, they can engage in democracy. Initially you just get information, after that you have to participate in governance. Till now, democracy used to be from election to election. That goes for five years and then there is absolutely no say. What RTI did was it gave the power to question the government in these five years. Now you can go out and say that you want to participate in the governance.

OWSA: Your organisation People Cause Research Foundation has instituted RTI Awards, and a popular media channel, NDTV has also joined to honour those who have strived through the RTI to make India better.

a) Could you tell us more about the awards and the selection process of RTI commissioners, information officers?

Arvind: Actually the RTI award was instituted to honour those people who keep the flag of RTI flying. Idea was that as far as the information commissioners are concerned, its widest message was (a) to scientifically evaluate their performance on a year to year basis.

It was meant to encourage those officers, normally 99% of the cases who deny information not because they want to hide something but because they are culturally oriented to say no. To encourage them to start acting in favour of transparency. And if you don’t get information, you might be penalised under RTI. You have to choose.

So, RTI was initiated to encourage good practices in information commission and also to encourage good officers.

b) How will it aid the campaigners who have to fight long battles to find justice?

Arvind: RTI will help in a way that it will bring about the struggle in the national scene. Hence, it strengthens the voice .Recognition and if their work is known, it gives credibility to the entire work. .Thus, it will strengthen their struggles at the local levels.

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