Aruna Roy, the prominent political and social activist who spearheaded the campaign to institute the Right to Information Act in the 1990s, is an ardent critic of the anti-people and exclusionary policies of the first and the second United Progressive Alliance governments.
A recipient of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for community leadership in 2000, she heads the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathana (a trade union of workers and peasants) in Rajasamand, Rajasthan, and is also a member of the Central Employment Guarantee Council.
In an e-mail interview to Frontline, she talked about the decreasing social expenditure and lack of political will to implement properly inclusive policies and schemes. Excerpts:
How different is UPA-II from UPA-I as far as spending on social infrastructure goes?
UPA-I had the National Common Minimum Programme as a clearly mandated set of commitments to the people. It was in this context that the intent of the government could be monitored. It also gave space for focussed intervention by civil society so that its views could be incorporated into policy.
UPA-II has a haphazard, ad-hoc and incoherent policy framework for social infrastructure and, therefore, it is difficult to monitor both policy and expenditure.
Funding for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme saw only a marginal increase in Budget 2010. Has UPA-II got a free hand to revert to its policy of liberalisation in the absence of the Left parties' role in the government? Or is it the improvement in the global economy that makes economic logic for the government to spend less on social schemes?
The NREGS is demand-driven. The government will have to make available as much money as there is demand for work. But the government has not taken steps to institute processes that will enable rural workers, who are crippled by the obvious limitations of awareness, literacy, etc., to register their demand for work with the panchayat. This is, perhaps, one of its biggest failures.
In this context, the government has to be proactive and make the programme run effectively. A specific example is the fact that there was no attempt to energise the NREGS when there were drought conditions in parts of the country last year. The passive role of the government needs to be questioned.
The problem with the NREGS now is the freezing of the wage at Rs.100. With inflation and spiralling prices of essential commodities, real wages are reduced drastically. There is no real voice of protest against the wage policy. The demand for linking the wage under the MGNREGS with the CPI [Consumer Price Index] should be a political agenda both in the context of the NREGS and others schemes.
Early this year, you and Jean Dreze backed out of the Central Employment Guarantee Council (CEGC) sammelan citing lack of political will in addressing the actual issues relating to the implementation of the employment guarantee scheme. Do you feel social schemes such as the NREGS and the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) are not working the way they were planned?
Neither Jean Drèze nor I left the CEGC. We continue to be members.
I had questions at that time, about the functioning of the council, including the issues raised and about its seriousness in addressing policy issues, for which it has been constituted. The nature of discussions and the time allocated for them were areas of special concern. The Ministry has failed in its responsibility to allow and facilitate the CEGC to perform its statutory mandate under the Act. For instance, so far even the CEGC's executive committee has not been constituted.
UPA-II came to power on the strength of the RTI Act and the employment guarantee schemes of its previous term. What are the dilutions proposed in the RTI Act? What do you think are the political reasons for this?
The RTI Act has been under attack since 2006. At that time support from civil society groups, the Congress' alliance partners and some top leaders of the Congress prevented its amendment. Since then there have been repeated efforts to cripple the Act. The DoPT [Department of Personnel and Training] seems to have persisted in pushing the same agenda forward in different forms.
The resistance to transparency and accountability comes from the colonial mindset of the top echelons of the bureaucracy and now the judiciary, which have pressured the system to protect secrecy and fight the logic of accountability. The political executive seems to be supporting the RTI by default. The most conservative parts of the state seem to find this new culture of transparency least acceptable.
Following are specific issues relating to the proposed amendments:
Introducing an exemption for so-called “vexatious and frivolous” applications.
We strongly believe that it is impossible to come up with definitions of ‘vexatious' and ‘frivolous' that are not completely subjective and consequently prone to rampant misuse by officials. We also feel that it is a hollow promise to have legislation for ensuring ‘transparency' and encouraging ‘accountability' in governance that excludes the basis on which a decision is taken. Would it be fair to judge a decision (or the decision-maker) without knowing why such a decision was taken, what facts and arguments were advanced in its favour, and what against? Can one hold a government (or an official) accountable, just on the basis of what they did (or did not do) without knowing the real reasons for their action or inaction? We, the people of India, already directly or indirectly know the decisions of the government, for we are the ones who bear the consequences. What the RTI Act facilitated was a right to know why those decisions were taken, by whom, and based on what advice. This right is the bedrock of democracy and the right to information, and it cannot be separated or extinguished without denying this fundamental right.
Excluding from the purview of the RTI Act access to “file notings” and the decision-making process, this time by excluding “discussion/consultations that take place before arriving at a decision”.
Neither of the [two nationwide] studies [on the implementation of the RTI], despite interviewing thousands of PIOs [public information officers] and officials, has concluded that the occurrence of frivolous or vexatious applications is frequent enough to pose a threat either to the government or to the RTI regime in general. Certainly no evidence has been forthcoming in either of these studies that access to file notings or other elements of the deliberative process has posed a major problem for the nation. On the contrary, many of the officers interviewed have candidly stated that the opening up of the deliberative process has strengthened the hands of the honest and sincere official.
Do you see a lack of political will in addressing the problems concerning the implementation of the MGNREGA and the NRHM? Why?
UPA-I passed progressive and path-breaking legislation for the poor and the marginalised. But UPA-II has failed to focus and cope with the mammoth demands these progressive pieces of legislation have made on the executive. The reason primarily lies in not evolving systems for accountability and monitoring. The passive response to issues of massive corruption unearthed through the NREGS, even in a well-performing State like Rajasthan, is a failure of governments to introduce systems and take cognisance of proven examples of corruption. The governments (Andhra Pradesh not withstanding) display their lack of intent in not addressing these issues.
You are a strong advocate of food security. What are the problems associated with the proposed Food Security Bill? UPA-II's Communal Violence Bill and Right to Education Bill have also been criticised as not having enough teeth.
The fact is that the government is not creating platforms for consultations and dialogue with campaigns on a sustained basis to reflect on these important and complex policy initiatives. The history of the last decade has brought in the possibility of a more participatory system of making policy. It is to be noted that the RTI at one level and the NREGS at another have widened the possibility of people's participation in evolving policy.
The vision documents that are now being drafted are supposed to spell out the objectives of achievement for each Ministry. But the government is well into its second year and by the time the agenda is debated and concretised it will be almost the end of its term.
The political will of UPA-I seems lacking in UPA-II.
The accountability infrastructure, which will include provisions for independent ombudsman, penalty, grievance redress and anti-corruption, which is important to meaningfully realise the rights guaranteed under the second-generation legislation, has been absent completely. It is apparent that this is an act of commission rather than omission. I am afraid that rights without remedies will only provide rhetorical value to the important claim to have addressed these basic issues.
Industrialisation is becoming one of the priorities of UPA-II. The past six months have witnessed increased displacement and protest movements, as in the case of Vedanta in Chhattishgarh and Posco in Orissa .
The schizophrenic nature of India's development agenda has been obvious for all to see. On the one hand, we are addressing the concerns of the 60 per cent through the RTI, the NREGS, the Forest Act, the Right to Education, etc. Whereas, on the other side, there is the relentless pushing of the other agenda of development, displacement, violence, silencing all voices of democratic questioning, rationality, pushing democratic rights out of the agenda and using state violence.
The government cannot exist in this dilemma forever. Unless the state re-establishes its basic commitment to the due process of law, respects democratic rights and affirms its accountability to its people, the questions emanating from the state's relationship with the protesting people (as in the case of Posco) and with political dissent will jeopardise its relationship with the poor and marginalised people and civil society groups. The government cannot abrogate its own commitment to constitutional responsibility.
For many of us, the NREGS and other entitlements empower the people to take stands and to make democratic institutions work for themselves and for the larger good. They are not one-off schemes, but play a very important role in strengthening and deepening democracy. It will be incorrect to say that the government is not addressing basic issues such as employment and education. They are, however, tardy in implementation and have no political strength to push them.
The RTI Act was slated to become the biggest watchdog of Indian democracy. With criticism against UPA-II growing, what role can the Act play in checking the government at a higher level? Do you propose a joint action or movement at this juncture?
The RTI has impacted a huge range of vital decision-making and policy – BT Brinjal, the attempt to amend the RTI Act, implementation of programmes such as the MGNREGA, health, public distribution and scores of others. It is probably the most owned and used Act in recent years. Even those of us who trace its trajectory cannot appreciate the entire canvas. From villages of rural Rajasthan to New Delhi, the RTI Act is recognised as a tool of democratic empowerment.
This is not to lessen the various problems with implementation. First among these is the very sluggish implementation of Section 4 of the RTI Act (proactive disclosure of information by the Ministries and departments), the problems relating to the commissions, the lack of training of PIOs and the staff implementing the Act, and the persistent effort to amend it, among other things.
The reaction of the judiciary to the RTI Act is typical of a colonial and closed system of governance. While there is no quarrel with safeguarding space for the independent functioning of the judiciary in the realm of judicial decision-making in the courts, in relation to administrative matters – such as appointments, assets declaration and corruption – the judiciary is on a par with other agencies.