FILM: Right to Information

30 June 2004

BACKGROUND NOTE ON THE DOCUMENTARY ON THE RIGHT TO INFORMATION MOVEMENT IN INDIA

The MKSS has had a series of films made to document various aspects of its work. The most successful campaign run by the MKSS was the Right to Information campaign. The campaign had a modest beginning as an effort to document that the Government of Rajasthan was failing to pay minimum wages to workers engaged in employment generation programs. When government officials were asked by the MKSS to explain their failure to pay minimum wages, they claimed that the wage rolls and the Project Engineer’s Measurement Books showed that the correct dues had been paid to the workers in question. When the MKSS demanded to see these records, access was denied to the organization under the terms of the Indian Officials Secrets Act of 1923, which made even the most innocuous government record a secret that could be withheld from the public. Faced with an unresponsive bureaucracy, the MKSS sought judicial remedies. Though courts in India have given landmark judgments in favor of minimum wage claimants, the process of filing a case and obtaining a verdict often takes a long time-in many cases up to 10 years.

While the case was pending, the MKSS also began looking for alternative platforms for redressal of such issues. Sympathetic officials began providing some records to the MKSS; these records showed that there was systemic corruption in development projects undertaken by the government. Not only were workers being denied minimum wages but the records also showed that large sums of money were diverted from projects as a result of blatant fraud. Names of non existent workers were listed on records, and bills for non-existent purchases were used by a nexus of elected representatives and government officials to fraudulently obtain funds from development accounts.

To provide a forum in which these findings could be presented to the public – particularly to villages that were ostensibly benefiting from public employment schemes — the MKSS began to organize public hearings called Jan Sunwai. A Jan Sunwai is a forum where accounts of public expenditures on development works in a village are accessed, collated, and distributed among villagers. On the day of the public hearing, a panel of eminent citizens is invited to chair the hearing. The media, government officials, local elected representatives, and all residents of the area are invited to attend the hearing. A formal discussion is held on each of the projects and development expenditures involving the villagers (who are the workers in question) and the officials. Jan Sunwais proved to be extremely successful in allowing villagers to articulate their problems in light of evidential support of their claims. The conduct of these meetings led to disclosures of large scale corruption and the government was forced to take corrective action.

Building on the success of the Jan Sunwais, the MKSS began to press for the need for legislation allowing people access to all forms of government information. The MKSS organized a number of protest marches, sit- ins, and demonstrations attended by villagers from around the state and supported by a cross section of urban and rural civil society groups. Through these efforts, the National Campaign for Peoples Right to Information was formed; this group subsequently led the struggle for right to information in other states of India. The struggle of the MKSS and its partner organizations was rewarded in 2000, when a law guaranteeing the Right to Information was enacted in the state of Rajasthan. In 2002, the Indian Parliament passed the National Right to Information law.

The MKSS has organized dozens of public hearings in different areas of the state on many different issues. Many of these hearings have been documented-videos of several hearings are available from the MKSS. One such documentary was made by Anurag Singh and Jharna Jhaveri. Their film, entitled “Right to Information: A Film on Corruption and Leakages in Rural Development Works and Their Control, won the first prize at the Anti Corruption Conference film festival in Prague in 2001 and the second prize in the category of documentary film-making at the International Film Festival in Mumbai. This film was also shown to the Standing Committee of the Indian National Parliament that was established to examine the right to information legislation considered by Parliament. The film has also been shown in numerous national and international conferences on transparency and accountability.

The documentary shows people speaking in Marwari-the regional language of Rajasthan. It has been subtitled in English. However given contextual and cultural aspects treated in the film, even the subtitling might not be enough to enable viewers to understand some of the finer points of the documentary. This note has been prepared in an effort to explain some of the cultural contexts present in the film.

THE DOCUMENTARY

As the documentary begins, a series of socio-economic statistics are shown on the screen along side typical scenes village life. In the background, a song composed (Note 1) by the MKSS is being sung. The lyrics of the song describe the dismal state of affairs in the villages where the powerful (the politicians, the bureaucracy, and the rich) exploit the poor. The song exhorts the people to speak out against such exploitation.

The scene shifts to Aamner village in Central Rajasthan where a villager (Trilok Singh) is being interviewed by a member of the MKSS. Trilok Singh is asked about the building next to which he is standing. He explains that it is a Dharamshala (Note 2) – a community resting house. Trilok says that he was present in the village when the structure was under construction but that he did not work on the project himself. When asked whether he is satisfied with the structure, he replies that if others find it acceptable, it is also acceptable to him.

The dharamshala was made at a cost of Rupees 50,000 (Note 3). The walls of the dharamshala have been very poorly constructed as can be seen when they are scraped. Though it is claimed that cement was used for construction, it can be seen that the quality of the cement is so poor that it can almost be mistaken for limestone.

In the next scene, MKSS members visit a canal site and interview a villager there. When asked whether a canal was built on that site, the villager becomes agitated and says that it is obvious that no canal was built there. The villager claims the entire work scheme was a fraud and is only one of several “ghost works” in the village.

In the next scene, a village girl (Vimla) is interviewed in the village of Rawatmal. She worked (Note 4) on building a school and a bridge in her village. She said that although she had worked for 1 month and 8 days, she had not been paid at all for her work.

The scene shifts to a public hearing in the village of Lassani. As explained earlier, the MKSS conducted a series of public hearings in various villages to demand the right to information. In this scene, Nikhil Dey (an MKSS worker) is reading out the contents of a government file. In the background, one sees members of the panel who are adjudicating the public hearing. Nikhil announces the name of the project under consideration is “the canal work”. The file shows that of the Rs 80,000 sanctioned for the scheme, Rs 56,440 was ostensibly expended to construct the canal. The file includes 5 muster (labor) rolls totaling to Rs 23,040 spent on the labor costs. The balance amount is said to have been spent on materials purchased for the work. Nikhil enumerates the different materials shown in the accounting records as having being used in the project, including 78 trolleys (Note 5) of stone, 18 trolleys of sand, 16 trolleys of gravel, and 40 trolleys of cement. This method of announcing the materials in terms of trolleys rather than tones/kilograms serves the purpose of allowing people to easily recollect (even after several years) and verify the quantity of material that was brought in for the project.

One of the villagers (Bhagwan) then comes to the mike and says that even when a few stones are brought into the village, people notice it. The records are obviously false if they show that so many trolleys of stones had been brought into the village for use at the canal. Nikhil then points to the file and mentions the names of various people who had ostensibly signed the documents, including the Sarpanch (the village head-an elected leader), the Block Development Officer (a government official in charge of a large area (Note 6)), and the Gram Sewak (the village secretary and extension officer). He also shows the Measurement Book (MB), which is an engineering record maintained by the Junior Engineer (JEn). He questions how the JEn would have measured a non-existent canal.

In the next scene, Santosh Mathew, an Indian Adminstrative Services (Note 7) (IAS), officer is interviewed in his office. He is asked for his opinion on the scams that are being discovered through the Jan Sunwais. He replies that there are three scenarios under which scams occur in India. He illustrates this by giving an example of 10 tons of steel being required for a building project. In the first case, the fraud would involve needing 10 tons, using 10 tons, but booking 20 tons as being consumed (in this case, 10 tons would be usurped. This he says is the safest way of conducting fraudulent activity as the fraud does not endanger the building under construction. The second type of fraud is one in which 10 tons of steel are needed, 8 tons are used, but only 10 tons are recorded as having been used; in this case, 2 tons have been fraudulently usurped. Here he says people might have some suspicions that corruption has occurred but generally would not protest due to the difficulty of proving fraud has occurred. In the third scenario, 10 tons of steel are needed, only 3 tons are used, but 10 tons are recorded has having been used; in this case, 7 tons have been fraudulently usurped and the building is in danger of collapsing due to poor construction. He says that the kind of corruption being exposed by Jan Sunwais represented this third scenario and that such corruption was a really small percentage of the total scams occurring in the country.

The scene shifts back to the Jan Sunwai. Shanker Singh (an MKSS worker) is on the mike and he calls for Kesar Singh. When Kesar Singh comes to the mike, Shanker reads out from the file and tells him that his bullock cart was used for a drain building project. Kesar replies that this was not possible as during the period when the project was ostensibly being implemented, he was in Kathiawad (a region in the neighboring state of Gujarat). He also says that he has not owned a bullock cart for over 16 years so it could not possibly be his cart that was used. He says that the records seem to be absolutely fabricated.

In the next scene, Ramkaran (a volunteer with the MKSS) is shown holding a list in his hand. He is in a village and meets a woman there whose name is on the list; her name is Sarjoo. The list is a government record of all the people in that area who have been allotted a toilet (latrine) under a government scheme to provide toilets (Note 8) to poor households. When asked about the toilet she ostensibly received, Sarjoo replies that no toilet was built in her house. She said that this was the first time that she was being told about a toilet having been allotted in her name. A neighbor intervenes and replies that someone else must have forged her signature and taken the money allotted for the project.

The scene shifts to another village where Nikhil, Shanker, and Vijay (all MKSS workers) are sitting with a muster (labor) roll in their hands. A villager (Ratan Singh) stands in front of them. When asked whether he can sign, he replies in the affirmative. He is shown his own name on the labor roll and the corresponding thumbprint (Note 9). He says that that is not his thumbprint as he signs and does not use a thumbprint on labor rolls. Additionally, he says that the print looked more like a finger print and not a thumb print, which would be much bigger. This scene illustrates how a worker’s name can be wrongly put in the rolls and his signature/thumbprint can be forged.

In the next scene, Shanker Singh is walking along with a woman towards her house. He asks her whether she knew that she had been allotted a house under the Indira Awaas scheme (Note 10). The woman replies that she did not know about having been allotted a house. In government files, she has been shown as having received the Indira Awaas. In reality, the Indira Awaas is allotted to the rich and powerful. The woman is a widow with 3 small children; her eldest son is 5 years old. Shanker asks her whether she is receiving a widow’s pension from the government. She replies that she had never received any pension. Shanker replies that she is entitled to receive a pension under the government widow pension scheme until her son turns 18.

The scene moves to the house of a rich villager. The villager admits that his house was constructed under the Indira Awaas scheme. When asked whether the whole house was constructed under Indira Awaas scheme, he replies that that apart from Rs 10,800 that he received under Indira Awaas, he invested Rs 90,000 of his own money towards construction of the house. The picture shows how large his house is.

The scene moves on to another Indira Awaas allottee. He is asked whether he had to bribe anyone to get the Indira Awaas allotted to him. He replies that he paid Rs 1000 to receive this entitlement.

Then, the scene shifts in front of the house of another Indira Awaas beneficiary-this time, the beneficiary is a woman. When asked whether she had to pay money for to receive the allotment, she said that the Ward Panch-the head of a village ward-took Rs 3000 from her. She said that not only was he involved in the deal but the pay off included the Tehsildar (the Block Revenue Officer) and the BDO (Block Development Officer). She names the ward panch as being a Mr. Nain Singh.

The MKSS team next meets Nain Singh. He has an Indira Awaas allotted to him. In addition to this, Nain Singh has also had the village community center (Note 11) built in his own residential compound. Nain Singh escorts the MKSS team into his house. It is a palatial house (by rural standards). Nain Singh points to two rooms in his house which he claims were built under the Indira Awaas scheme. The scene shows how large his house is, and that it includes floor tiles and whitewashed rooms-all unaffordable luxuries for the truly poor (who are the intended beneficiaries of the Indira Awaas scheme).

In the next scene ,Shanker and other members of the MKSS team meet people in Umarwaas Panchayat. Shanker tells a villager that a public hearing is to be conducted. He says that in the hearing, discussions will revolve around the accounts and expenditure spent on development in that area. The goal of the hearing is to determine if funds and programs intended to benefit the poor have actually reached them or if they have been fraudulently usurped by others.

One of the villagers whom the team meets talks about how corrupt the local officials are. He says that the village head asks for bribe money when anyone approaches him for official assistance. When complaints of this nature are taken to the authorities, they refuse to take action and in many cases refuse even to meet the complainants. If a person persists in reporting a complaint, officials could send thugs to beat up and intimidate the complainant. The man says that the police too are complicit in this corrupt system. When asked by the MKSS members what the solution to this situation might be, the man answers that the only solution is to combat corruption. When queried about how corruption can be combated, the man says that the corrupt officers should be dismissed from their service and sent home without pensions and that all their corrupt earnings should be destroyed. He says that to enable the corrupt to be caught, the government should recognize and provide support and protection to people who file complaints of corruption.

In the final section of this documentary, the MKSS pad yatra (walk/demonstration) is shown. The pad yatra shown in the film is one of several initiated by the MKSS demanding enactment of the Right to Information law. Shanker is seen with a group of MKSS members who playact and sing one of the most popular campaign songs of the Right to Information movement. The song follows a pattern wherein Shanker tells the common man what he thinks they might need. He offers them large houses, luxury cars, pepsi cola, alcohol etc. They refuse all the materialistic dreams that he offers them saying that as poor workers, these things have no meaning in their lives and that only the rich and corrupt can possess such luxuries. Shanker is amazed at their foolishness and asks them what work they do. They reply that they are daily wage workers who depend on government work during times of famine. Shanker asks them whether their names are on muster (labor) rolls and whether they get paid the minimum wage. They reply that they don’t get paid. To this, Shanker tells them that he has finally realized what the people really need. He tells them that what they need is documents, records, copies of the muster roll, bills, vouchers etc. showing their entitlements. To this, the workers join in enthusiastically saying that that is exactly what they need — they need the Right to Information.

Notes

1. The MKSS uses songs to communicate with its audience. The MKSS frequently develops campaign songs by adding relevant lyrics describing the current struggle to folk songs and devotional songs with which local people are already familiar; as a result, villagers find it easy to join in singing the songs.

2. The concept of dharamshalas is a very old one in India. They were built by kings in earlier times to act as resting houses for people traveling from one place to another who needed a room in which to spend the night. Generally, anyone could stay in such dharamshalas upon payment of a minimal fee. Construction of dharamshalas are often undertaken using funds provided through government-sponsored programs.

3. One dollar is worth approximately Rupees 45. Generally, in Rajasthan, a village (panchayat) could expect to receive between Rupees 400,000 and Rupees 1,000,000 worth of works through schemes sponsored by the central and state governments annually.

4. It is very common for women in Rajasthan to be employed in intensive physical labor at development sites. In fact, given the high migration of men to other states in search of work, it is a common sight to see works being built by an almost exclusively female labor force.

5. A trolley is a cart around 10 feet long, 5 feet wide, and 3 feet deep. It is pulled by a tractor and used to carry different materials to a work site.

6. India is divided into 32 states. Each state in turn is divided into several (20-40 approximately) districts. Districts are sub-divided into 8-10 blocks. Blocks are divided into 8-10 Panchayats (made of several villages). Each Panchayat has an elected head called the Sarpanch. The Panchayat is sub-divided into 8-10 wards. Normally a ward would include 80-100 families.

7. IAS officers are the most elite bureaucrats in India. From the start of their career, they are in charge of the administration of large districts of land.

8. It is estimated that more than 70 percent of Indians do not have access to formal toilet facilities in their houses. While in the smaller isolated villages this is not a problem, it is a major problem in areas where population pressure restricts access to private places in forests and fields. Under a special welfare scheme, the government provides for free toilets to certain poor beneficiaries.

9. As a large percentage of the labor force in India is illiterate, these people are unable to sign labor rolls. Instead, their thumbprint is used to certify receipt of payment. Forgery of thumbprints is relatively easy and commonly used as a form of corruption.

10. Indira Awaas is a central government sponsored welfare scheme named after the former prime minister of India, Indira Gandhi. Under the scheme, beneficiaries (generally very poor people) are provided with free housing. The scheme involves payment of around Rupees 20,000 in installments to the beneficiary for construction of a one room house. Over the years, this scheme has been grossly misused to benefit rich people and/or funds have been fraudulently usurped from the scheme.

11. The community center in a village serves as a meeting place where people meet. It is a public place for use by all. It is built under a development scheme of the government.

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