Friday, June 23, 2017

Activist Nikhil Dey: To make RTI really effective, we need an accountability law for public servants National: Friday, June 23, 2017.
For 30 years now, social activist Nikhil Dey has been active in movements advocating for the rights of workers, farmers and marginalised citizens. Through the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, Dey and his colleagues Aruna Roy and Shankar Singh have campaigned to bring in the Right to Information Act, the Right to Food Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.
On June 13, however, Dey found himself sentenced to four months in jail by a Rajasthan court in a 19-year-old case of alleged assault. In a verdict the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan termed as a “miscarriage of justice”, the district court in Kishangarh convicted Dey and four other activists for assaulting Pyarelal Tank, the former sarpanch of Ajmer’s Harmada village, and his family. They have also been convicted on charges of trespass.
Dey and the Sangathan have denied the charges. They have claimed that it was the sarpanch and his relatives who had attacked Dey and the other activists when they went to Tank’s house on May 6, 1998, to ask for panchayat records of funds that had come in for various public schemes. While the activists chose not to file a police complaint at the time, Tank filed a case accusing them of assaulting him. The case was closed a month later but reopened in 2001. The Sangathan claimed that the sarpanch dragged the case on for years by bringing in a series of false witnesses.
Last week’s conviction was an unexpected and an unpleasant surprise for Dey. For now, the conviction stands suspended as the activists have appealed against it.
While Dey chose not to discuss the case and his conviction on record, the 54-year-old activist spoke with about the status of various welfare programmes in rural India, the shrinking space for democracy under the Narendra Modi regime and why India needs a law on accountability for public servants.
It is three years since the National Democratic Alliance came to power. How has this regime fared so far compared with the previous government?
The social sector has become much worse today. There is hardly any imagination about how poverty, farmers, vulnerable groups can be dealt with. Before winning the election, the NDA openly attacked rights-based approaches and after they won, they have only talked of empowering people in the market. They said they didn’t want a system based on doling out benefits to people – that has been their approach, in their own words.
Today, their programmes for rural development have flopped. The one big thing they have pushed is enrolment for Aadhaar (a 12-digit biometric-based unique identity number that the government wants every citizen to have), which they claim has improved delivery of benefits. But in Rajasthan, the only state that has made biometrics compulsory for access to rations, we have seen that 30% of the eligible population is not able to get food grains. That is huge exclusion even if Aadhaar enrolment has been a huge success.
We are also seeing the tragedy of Swachh Bharat in the way it is being implemented. In rural India, they have offered Rs 12,000 to each household for building a toilet – an amount that is too little even for the poor. Besides, states like Rajasthan lack water for toilets. But they [government officials] have been going after people, saying they won’t give out rations, pensions or Nrega work to those who don’t have a toilet at home. They have been chasing people who defecate in the open in the mornings, humiliating them. Swachh Bharat is a programme that has to be implemented persuasively, but they are forcing it upon people. This is a tragedy.
What is the status of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Right to Information in the country today?
When the NDA came to power, there was little funding available for Nrega initially. But then we had drought years and the government realised that Nrega was the only way to address people’s distress, and they eventually started investing more money in it. But today, Nrega is in a very sad state. Even though there is a lot of money, it is not being used properly. There is no enthusiasm for second-generation reform.
The RTI is not in bad shape but that is entirely because of the people, who have incredibly carried on despite facing threats and death. Six to eight million people use RTI every year. Still, by now, more than 10 years after the RTI Act was enacted, the government should have put out a lot of information in the public domain on its own so that the people did not have to use RTI to inquire about the most basic things.
And even now, in the case of most RTI queries, the first appellate authority just defends the government, which is an indication that this regime does not really take the law seriously. Even the UPA government tried to attack the RTI, but the NDA has done nothing to implement the Lokpal law or the Whistleblowers Protection Act, both of which would support the RTI.
In general, there is much less democratic space in the country today. There is an atmosphere of fear among Dalits and other minorities.
What is the focus of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan today, after all these years of activism?
We have spent many years fighting for laws like the RTI and the Right to Food, which we see as entitlements. But implementation is getting more and more challenging. So we are now fighting for an accountability law which would be like RTI part two. We need a law that holds politicians and bureaucrats accountable for not performing their roles properly, with financial penalties. So far, only government departments can initiate enquiries and impose penalties but this would be a citizen-centric law, through which citizens can initiate enquiries.
We have written a draft accountability law and are now travelling across districts campaigning for it. We are trying to prepare a people’s manifesto that we will use to engage with all parties.