The Right to Information India's Struggle against Grass-Roots Corruption

By Roy, Bunker | UN Chronicle, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

The Right to Information India's Struggle against Grass-Roots Corruption


Roy, Bunker, UN Chronicle


India is the largest democracy in the world. Despite a bewildering variety of religions, cultures, languages, food habits, customs and traditions, the ballot box keeps this country together.

Immense problems such as extremes of wealth and poverty still prevail because of the caste system in rural India, but there is respect and fear for the power of the vote. However, there are still millions today in the nearly 600,000 villages who are not yet on the voter's list and have no rights. The economic planners, policy makers and the so-called experts sitting in Delhi and the State capitals are ignorant of ground realities and hopelessly out of touch with the situation in the villages.

Strange are the performance indicators of government officials, whose buzz words are transparency and accountability. Anyone who manages to spend the money budgeted and allocated is considered efficient, so the mad rush to show that the amount has actually been spent at year's end is simply solved by falsifying receipt vouchers and muster rolls on a colossal scale. Thousands of schools, dispensaries, roads, small dams, community centres and residential quarters have been shown to be complete on paper, but in reality are incomplete, inhospitably unutilized and abandoned.

There is no transparency and no accountability at the local level where it counts the most. Poor citizens cannot go up to the lowest government functionary and ask how much and for what purpose money is being spent in their village. They have no right to ask for detailed information on expenditure because that is where the corruption begins--making false receipts and vouchers running into millions of dollars.

The general conviction among the over 300 million living below the poverty line is that the public exchequer is being looted, and that the money earmarked for development is going into the pockets of the rich and the powerful. From the highest echelons of Government to the lowest village functionary, the lawmakers and law enforcers are often also the law breakers, and no one in the Government can touch them. Rajiv Gandhi, as Prime Minister of India, once lamented helplessly that out of every rupee spent for development only 17 per cent actually reached the poor.

It takes years for donors and policy makers to wake up and realize what is happening. What is needed is not stronger laws, stricter punishment or more visits to the villages to supervise officials and look into accounts books. Nor will recruiting more experts and re-employing retired bureaucrats help when too often they have been the problem in the first place.

However, a powerful answer has been found by a grass roots movement operating in one of the most backward regions of India. In the early nineties, a mass-based organization calling itself the Mazdoor (Labour) Kisan (Farmer) Shakti (Strength) Sangathan (Organisation) (MKSS) started working in one of the most neglected areas of Rajasthan. Meeting their basic needs with modest public contributions from the community, the core group started living in a small mud hut in the village of Devdungari. Just off the national highway to Udaipur, the villagers could well have been living in the nineteenth century--the way millions of poor people still live in rural India.

The MKSS prepared no project proposals, received no foreign funds, recruited no staff and attracted no visitors, thus making it difficult to classify and slot them. All they did was walk from village to village asking simple questions: did the people know how much money was coming to their village for development and where it was being spent? These were simple questions the poor could understand but had not dared to ask.

The MKSS went to the Government Block Office, which administers development funding in about 100 villages, to request detailed information on development expenditure. They were told they had no right and there was no government rule allowing any villager to demand such information--and get it. …

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