The Right to Know is the Right to Live: Profile of a Remarkable Peoples’ Movement in India that Links Information to Livelihood

30 June 2004

The pioneering right-to-information work of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in India has won remarkable victories in the struggle against corruption, both at the village and national levels, according to the latest case study posted today by the freedominfo.org virtual network of international openness advocates.

Compiled and edited by MKSS member Vivek Ramkumar, a visiting fellow with freedominfo.org, the case study includes essays by MKSS founding members Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey on the movement’s history, and by Ramkumar on MKSS’s most recent openness work in the Indian elections, as well as a 15-minute streamed-video version of an award-winning documentary film on the MKSS, an MKSS photo gallery from recent public hearings and other activities, an illustrated PowerPoint presentation summarizing the MKSS experience and a bibliography of MKSS published documents.

MKSS pioneered the right to information movement in India and is among the best examples in the world of a grassroots movement that has been successful in demanding increased transparency and accountability in government. Through the right to information campaign, MKSS and its partners demonstrated how government information could be leveraged by ordinary citizens to enhance their participation in governance and decision making and thereby improve their own lives.

Comprised mainly of peasants and rural workers and based in the village of Dev Dungri in Rajasthan, MKSS works to shape government policy so that it meets the needs and aspirations of poor, rural constituents. The organization has effectively combined democratic dissent and direct action, including demonstrations, public marches, and rallies since its founding in 1991. In addition to the Right to Information campaign, MKSS has also been at the forefront of campaigns in its home state of Rajasthan for the right to work (to obtain legislation guaranteeing employment for rural workers), and for the enactment of various electoral reforms (MKSS helped to establish the Rajasthan Election Watch group). MKSS is perhaps most renowned for its creative conduct of Jan Sunwais (public hearings), which served as the platforms through which MKSS members and constituents first exposed corruption in public development projects in rural communities in India.

1. ESSAY: Fighting for the Right to Know in India by Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey

Two of the founding members of the MKSS review the history of the right-to-information movement in India and the role and the experiences of the MKSS, particularly through its conduct of Jan Sunwais (public hearings) which served as the platforms through which MKSS members and constituents first exposed corruption in public development projects in rural communities. This essay was originally written as part of the Indian National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information and is also available in their web site at http://www.righttoinformation.info.

2. POWERPOINT: Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan-Union for empowerment of peasants and workers by Vivek Ramkumar
Created by a three-year veteran of the MKSS for U.S. audiences, this Power Point presentation on the MKSS outlines its organization, activities, funding sources, and the MKSS experience with the right-to-information movement in India. Due to the large file size of the Power Point presentation illustrated with photographs we have also included a plain version for use by those who do not have high speed internet connectivity.

3. PHOTO GALLERY of the MKSS selected and edited by Vivek Ramkumar
These photographs from various campaigns and activities of the MKSS were mostly taken during 2003-2004, and include brief captions describing the events and people involved. The photographers included members of the MKSS as well as freedominfo.org‘s Thomas Blanton during his visit to Rajasthan in January 2004.

4. FILM – Right to Information: A film on corruption and leakages in rural development works and their control by Anurag Singh and Jharna Jhaveri
This 15-minute documentary film provides an audio-visual report on the right-to-information campaign in India and the experiences of the MKSS – including striking footage of public hearings and a soundtrack with some of MKSS’s famous songs. The detailed 40-minute version of this film is available for sale in DVD format from the MKSS.

5. ESSAY: Beyond Democratic Rights and Electoral Reform Campaigns: Challenges Facing Non-Party Political Movements by Vivek Ramkumar
This essay by an MKSS member and former activist examines the political challenges facing non-party movements like the MKSS that are reaching the limits of reform possible through traditional democratic campaigns and electoral reform campaigns. Lessons learned from the MKSS right to work campaign, the campaign for a peoples’ manifesto, and the Election Watch campaign launched by the MKSS prior to the Rajasthan state assembly elections in 2003 – all have forced the MKSS to consider a new role in the arena of mainstream politics, which in turn raises fresh questions and challenges.

6.  BIBLIOGRAPHY of MKSS Writings, Articles, and Other Reports

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