New book on RTI an ode to unknown soldiers of the struggle

rti-story Cover of 'RTI story' by Aruna Roy

The Right to Information Act is probably the only law whose peculiarity is that it holds the government accountable on behalf of the people, while rest of the laws govern the citizen. The RTI law was implemented after a 15-year tussle with governments at the state and the centre.

The RTI story - Power to the people by Aruna Roy and the MKSS Collective, (Roli Books, Rs 495), is in that sense a socio-historical documentation of the period that led to passing of the Act. The documentation is stored mostly in Aruna's home in Tilonia, Rajasthan.

"The idea behind the book was to bring out the people, the voices behind the struggle. In the RTI struggle, we had maintained records from the very start. This book is based on those records we meticulously maintained," said Aruna Roy.

The first chapter of the book documents the beginning, when heightened levels of social opression by those in positions of power led to a social unrest and formation of the Mazdoor Kisan Sangharsh Samiti in Dev Dungri, Rajasthan.

This was when former IAS officer Aruna Roy, along with Nikhil Dey and others, started the roots of the movement in central Rajasthan in 1987. It soon spread to a long struggle by the MKSS for the poor and opppressed in the region, with slogans and songs. 

'Hamara paisa, hamara hisab' was the slogan that marked the struggle for RTI. "The RTI campaign was truly democratic and constitutionally defined. The focus had always been on some individuals like us, whereas there were innumerable people who contributed to making this a pro-poor  and people's law," said Roy.

"I realised that was doing a great disservice to the history of RTI," she adds. This book is a record of people and the strength of their spirit, protesting against authorities to get their due, and prevent corruption in their names.

One such person is a 64-year-old dalit and woman sarpanch, who fought against feudal and male-dominated opppression to be elected sarpanch herself. She later taught herself to read, write and use the computer, while also struggling to enforce the RTI law.

The book, however, is not complete. "The appeal mechanism under RTI is the weakest link," said Shekhar Singh, founder of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information Act and RTI expert.

Aruna regrets the fact that she could not access important documents on the RTI movement, at the Nehru Memorial Library and Museum. "I wanted it to be a people's thesis, backed with proper documentation," says Roy. "But the NMML disappointed us."

Several people joined the movement, their rustic intelligence, common sense and wisdom coming into play to make the RTI movement stronger. The stories of the unprivileged who were part of the movement is what Roy has captured in this book.

She also captures the disappointments, starting with the first Congress-led UPA government seeking to amend the RTI Act, 2005, months after passing it. The book also gives a sense of direction for the RTI Act, and just like the Act, a second version of the book, too, is likely.

"Another political battle is imminent to protect the RTI in the current political climate in India. People of India need to be extremely careful that their rights under Article 19 of the constitution do not get diluted," says Roy.

Article 19 of the Constitution relates to freedoms granted to a citizen of India. The RTI Act formed on the basis of Article 19 (a) of the Constitution of India, which guarantees right to freedom of speech and expression. The movement, however, could be carried out based on powers in Article 19 (b) & 19 (c) related to peacefully assemble and right to form associations or unions.

The RTI Story was launched from Beawar, Rajasthan where the struggle first started. A hindi edition of the book is likely in the next few months, and to be released from Bhim Rajasthan, where the first struggle for RTI took place. And in all likelihood, that book launch too, like the one in Delhi, would be devoid of wine and cheese and replete with slogans and songs by the MKSS collective.