Right To Information Act is two years old. In Meghalaya, thanks to it’s vigorous Right to Information Movement; this legislation is having powerful effects. One way to gauge its effect is to look at the fear and irritation it is generating within the ranks of the governing elite of politicians, bureaucrats, technocrats, contractors, and professional development peddlers. The ruling elite fears RTI because it knows that its position is secure only if the system of governance remains shrouded in secrecy and an insurmountable distinction remains etched between two immutable classes of people – the Ruler and the Ruled. For a two year old, RTI is proving to be a child that respects no niceties of this powerful secret tradition.
In Meghalaya, in the first year of RTI (2005-2006) itself, at least 300 applications were filed – almost one application a day. These applications could be broadly divided into two categories. First category of questions dealt with the promises of development and inexplicable lack of it in reality. The second set of questions interrogated the abuse of power and systems of patronage that the Meghalaya ruling class has perfected.
If you listen to Meghalaya’s ruling elite lament of underdevelopment of the state, it may seem that the underdevelopment of Meghalaya is rooted only in its Historical, Geographical and Financial disadvantage. These disadvantages may be a fact, but the ruling elite of Meghalaya has never made any serious attempt to transcend these. It has instead, with its begging bowl, used the discourse of underdevelopment to develop its own powerful privileges. It has ensured development for itself and underdevelopment for the majority. Sample these random evidences gathered through use of RTI.
–A lady in Smit asked an RTI question about the status of her application she had made for a house under Indira Awaas Yojana and found that although the house had been sanctioned and paid for she had heard nothing about it.
–Young students from Ri Lyngam looked through the documents about their local government hospital and saw regular payments being made to a doctor, whom only very few of them had ever seen and that too in Shillong, indulging in a flourishing private practice.
–A non existent road is constructed, finished, paid for and even repaired in Jaintia Hills
–A ‘famous’ NGO runs many non-existent Educational Guarantee Scheme centres under SSA scheme.
–Health department finishes up its budget by buying medicines at exorbitant prices benefiting the distributors and usurious drug manufacturers rather than the poor who return without essential medicines from government hospitals. It buys for instance, albendazole, deworming medicine for Rs. 10 per tablet, whereas it can be had for 90 paise.
–In Sohra, Diengling (more to come I assure you)– people are discovering that thieves are representing us.
Even if these random examples are anything to go by, RTI has removed corruption from the realm of drawing room gossip and privileged hearsay. By establishing a Right, it has given us an opportunity to puncture the bubble of lies and point out the falsehood of the dominant ruling ideology. By the very fact that it is we the citizens who are uncovering corruption, RTI is creating an active citizenry, a citizenry that resists corruption rather than just curse it.
All this also points to that other truth, the truth the elite have hidden from us. The cause of underdevelopment of Meghalaya lies not in lack of money but in its corrupt distribution. And we need no central minister to patronisingly inform us of that. It is the common citizens who are discovering the real nature of corruption and underdevelopment. Corruption is not an outcome of ‘sinful’ human nature but is denial of a right, an entitlement, a house, healthcare, education, 35 kgs of ration rice. Corruption is the citizens not being allowed to know what their entitlements/rights are.
Every time we see the members of the ruling elite misusing their position, like sending official cars to pick up their children from school or using official privileges to host lavish weddings (or sponsoring PCOs), we know that public money is being wasted. This wasted money could have bought medicines, food or shelter for the poor. Every time we find jobs are going only to the relatives of the ruling elite, we know that this can be done because the procedure remains in the dark. But with RTI, we can now unmask these secret rituals of the Ruling Elite. We can now easily translate expensive cars, lavish lifestyles, monstrous mansions into their real equivalents. They are nothing but embodiment of the stolen entitlements of the people. What the elites call envy of the disadvantaged is nothing but the legitimate anger of the people with the robbers who have stolen lives and dreams.
Unmasking Patronage & Privilege
With increasing marginalisation of traditional livelihoods and support structures, State Systems have emerged as the dominant focus of socio-economic lives of the people. This overwhelming presence of the state in the lives of the people has meant that anyone who is anyhow associated with the STATE, becomes a petty tyrant unto himself or herself. The only relationship possible with these tyrants is one of patron and client. Moreover, the mysterious multiplicity of systems in existence for awarding of jobs and contracts, projects and loans, schemes and benefits, only allow for leakages, patronage and abuse of power at the cost of disillusionment and alienation to many. Sample these:
–The unemployed find out qualifying in competitive exams have no value in Meghalaya, it pays to be related to the officers and politicians.
–Politicians and bureaucrats spend people’s money on individual pleasures and comfort, like using ambulances as private vehicles, or taking trips for private purposes.
–Institutions like the NEC dispense money only to the powerful and well connected.
–Officers posted in rural areas make just token appearances on market days.–
–Contracts are based not on your skill in construction but your skill in networking.
These secret rites of back scratching and dispensing of privileges are considered almost imperial rights of those in Authority. The ruling elite demands servility and deference from the citizens almost as their legitimate reward. But, secrecy and class hierarchy on which these rites of authority are based, are contrary to the democratic ideal. In democracy, hierarchies of the old are dispensed with in favour of an all powerful and equal citizenry, i.e. US. It is not the Prime Minister or the Chief Minister or the MP or MLA or (if they had any illusions) Civil Servants who are the supreme rulers of India but its citizens. Or, in the words of the constitution, we – the people are the ‘sovereigns’ of this country. It is we who made the Indian state and it is we who shall rule this country. So the We would not only point out that the Emperor and his courtiers have no clothes but also that democracy has no place for the trappings of Emperor and his court.
It does not surprise us therefore, that most of the applications under RTI are coming from villages, working people, the poor and disadvantaged. Questions are being framed by the kind of people who the elites have always dismissed as ‘unthinking masses’. Those do-gooders, leaders, conscious opinion makers, ‘think tankers’, the happening people who were quick to rue corruption, have suddenly shut up. The supposedly ignorant majority speaks while the garrulous elite minority intellectualises in cynicism.
Right to Information has finally forced the public sphere to engage in debates based on facts. In this debate, those asking the questions are going to be subjected to the same standards of ethical behaviour as those they are asking questions of. This means that many will be held accountable, and this may even include the very people who usually decry corruption. And that probably explains the silent irritation of the heroic elite who once upon a time manufactured anti-corruption campaigns. Campaigns, however honourable, yet merely meant altering the balance of power between competing but equally anti-democratic factions; one corrupt political dispension replaced by another. It is now the same elite who pathetically dismisses this politics produced by RTI, by ascribing short-term political ambitions to those asking questions. In their arrogant ignorance they seem to forget that even if using RTI ensures electoral wins, the winners too will be subjected to questioning under RTI even before they can get comfortable with their new found positions.
RTI has begun a process where the citizen’s frustrations can finally get directed at the system that has stolen their power and not remain trapped in benign cursing of Individual’s greed or pessimistic observations where ‘corruption’ becomes a universal human condition from which there is no escape. RTI is also showing the futility of searching for heroes to clean up the system on our behalf. Unlike one-shot medicines that the elite is so enamoured of, the Right to Information is compelling us as citizens to collectively search and act for alternatives. It is encouraging us to participate more overtly in the politics of governing ourselves.