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No beating about the bush.
The soldier-turned-social reformer has grabbed the national headlines in the past 24 hours with his campaign for an effective anti-corruption law. But very few are aware of the die-hard Gandhian’s nearly four-decade long struggle to improve the lot of common people from his village in Maharashtra and his continuing agitation for good governance that has succeeded in bringing about citizen-friendly laws in the state
From the Yadavbaba Temple in Ralegan Siddhi, a village in western India's Maharashtra state, to Jantar Mantar in Delhi, is a four-decade long story of soldier-turned-social reformer Anna Hazare's commitment and tenacity in exposing corruption in public office that has often put the government on the mat and compelled it to make people-friendly laws.
A true Gandhian, Anna (as he is fondly called) has through his peaceful struggle, using the non-violent weapon of fasting, succeeded in getting some revolutionary laws legislated in Maharashtra. Most of his hunger protests have been undertaken at the Yadavbaba Temple where he lives, and sometimes at the Azad Maidan in Mumbai. (He has not visited his family house in the past 35 years.) So, it's perhaps only a logical sequence that he has now stepped up on the national stage, to become an instant icon of the nation, and especially for our youth.
As a soldier, Kisan Bapat Baburao Hazare was posted at the Khemkaran border in the 1965 Indo-Pak War. He was the only survivor in an enemy air attack that killed all his fellow soldiers on 12th October of that year. That's when he felt that God had a purpose for him and he decided to dedicate his life to work for the people. Anna also took a pledge to remain a bachelor.
He started work in the gallis (bylanes) of his native Ralegan Siddhi, troubled by the plague of alcoholism among the villagers, their dire poverty, the barren lands and the consequent large-scale migration of people to urban centres. In this situation, Anna stayed calm, and driven by a passion to make a difference, he encouraged fellow villagers to adopt five commandments: A ban on alcoholism; a ban on cattle grazing; water conservation; family planning; and shram daan (voluntary physical labour). And he was able to make a big difference, very quickly, and transform Ralegan Siddhi into a sterling model village that even Mahatma Gandhi would have been proud of.
The people built bunds that collected rain water and were crucial in making the village an agricultural hub within a few monsoon seasons. Together with the other commandments, the village soon became a model to be emulated by others, drawing hundreds of visitors from across the country and even around the world, who came to learn and even today draw inspiration from the incredible social and economic transformation.
It was during this process in Ralegan Siddhi that Anna experienced first-hand the malaise of corruption in government offices, how the concentration of power in the gram panchayat (a body of a handful of elected representatives), instead of the gram sabha (the people's collective), resulted in corruption and unfair decisions, and led to increasing injustice and poverty among villagers. He realised that fighting corruption at all levels and making people-friendly laws was the only way. Thus began a relentless campaign under the banner of 'Bhrashtachar Virodhi Jan Andolan' (Citizens' Crusade against Corruption). This led to a series of exposes of bureaucrats and ministers that often embarrassed the Maharashtra government and compelled it to introduce better laws.
Anna's best-known crusade was for the introduction of the Right to Information (RTI) Act in Maharashtra. Aruna Roy was spearheading the RTI movement in Rajasthan. Anna felt that the Official Secrets Act of 1923 that the British used to loot the country, must be struck off and be replaced with a transparent system that could only happen through something like the RTI. For this, he undertook a hunger protest at Azad Maidan in 2003, which culminated in the implementation of state RTI Act. But the legislation was toothless and again he campaigned and succeeded in setting up an expert citizens' committee to strengthen the law. Subsequently, much of this became part of the national RTI Act that came into force on 12 October 2005.
Not many will know that Anna was also instrumental in working out the Prevention of Delay in Discharge of Official Duties Act, against red tapism, which was enacted on 25 May 2006. He was angry that upright government officers were transferred, sometimes within months of being posted to a place, whereas some corrupt and favoured officials were cosy in their postings for 10, even 20 years.
He was also furious over government officials sitting on files that contained important public proposals and decisions. He fought tooth and nail for a law whereby a government servant must clear a file within a specified time and that transfers must take place only after three years. The Prevention of Delay in Discharge of Official Duties Act provides for disciplinary action against officials who move files slowly and also enables monitoring officials who stay too long in a post, or in a department, and for involvement in a corrupt nexus.
Anna also campaigned between 1998 and 2006 for amending the Gram Sabha Act, in order that the people (meaning the villagers) have a say in the development works in their village. While the state government refused to bend to his demand, it had to give in due to public pressure. As per the amendments, seeking sanction of the gram sabha (collective of villagers, and not just the few elected representatives in the gram panchayat) for expenditure on development works in the village is mandatory. In case of expenditure without the sanction of the gram sabha, 20% of gram sabha members can lodge a complaint to the chief executive officer of the zilla parishad with their signatures. The chief executive officer is required to visit the village and conduct an inquiry within 30 days and submit the report to the divisional commissioner, who has powers to remove the sarpanch or deputy sarpanch and dismiss the gram sevak involved. Anna was not satisfied, as the amended Act did not include "the right to recall a sarpanch". He insisted that this should be included and the state government relented. Recently, Anna joined hands with Arvind Kejriwal, the renowed RTI activist, to bring in a stronger Area Sabha Bill (at the moment it is still toothless), so that citizens in urban areas will have a say in the expenditure undertaken in their ward. A three-member committee has been set up by the Maharashtra government with Mr Kejriwal as one of the members. Public consultations are in progress.
Here is a run-down of some of Anna Hazare's major campaigns.
Liquor Prohibition Policy: Anna realised that alcohol addiction of the breadwinner in the family affected the woman of the house who was usually left to fend for herself and the children. He appealed to the government to bring in a law, whereby prohibition would come into force in a village if 25% of the women in the village demanded it.
In July 2009, the state government issued a government resolution amending the Bombay Prohibition Act, 1949. As per the amendments, if at least 25% of women voters demand liquor prohibition through a written application to the state excise department, voting should be conducted through a secret ballot. If 50% of the voters vote against the sale of liquor prohibition should be imposed in the village and the sale of liquor should be stopped. Similar action can be taken at the ward level in municipal areas.
Thereafter, another circular was issued, making it mandatory to get the sanction of gram the sabha for issuing new permits for sale of liquor. In some instances, when women agitated against the sale of liquor, cases were filed against them. Anna took up the issue again and in August 2009 the government issued another circular that sought withdrawal of cases against women who sought prohibition of liquor in their villages.
Curb on sand extraction for developmental works that is destroying rivers and the environment: The sand mafia is notorious in Maharashtra, and it has the blessings of leading politicians of the state. Anna appealed to the government that this loot of natural resources must stop as it is leading to falling water levels and turning fertile lands into deserts.
After regular correspondence with the government and a series of meetings, the state government issued a government resolution in August 2009 that empowered gram sabhas to decide on sand extraction and that auctions should be held in front of the gram sabhas, with the attendance of the tehsildar, police officer and talathi being mandatory.
Use of biometric system to monitor attendance: Officers and staff at various government offices do not attend office on time, which causes inconvenience to people. Anna demanded the introduction of a biometric system to deal with the problem. Accordingly, on 28 July 2009, the state government ordered that a biometric attendance system should be installed at all government offices. This would help monitor attendance and speed up administration.
Warranty tenure of road works: The zilla parishad undertakes road works on which it spends crores of rupees every year, but most of these works are of poor quality, due to rampant corruption. Still, no contractor is taken to task for low quality work.
Anna Hazare's campaign resulted in the government issuing a special circular in July 2009 that requires zilla parishads to put up boards giving information of the road works, such as the contractor's name, the date of commencement of work, the total expenditure, the date of conclusion of the work and the warranty period. The contractor is held responsible for repairs of roads during the warranty period to ensure quality of work.
Now, with Anna Hazare demanding a joint committee for the Jan Lokpal Bill, it is unlikely that the central government will be able to ignore this much longer. For, he is one face in the country with a crystal clear image. And he is one who will not give up till he has achieved his mission for the good of the people.
Where does the private sector in India stand on corruption, is the question being asked at Jantar Mantar—so will it please answer it? The politicians are silent, but why is India Inc not logging in?
Rallies and demonstrations are not new for those of us who live and work in Delhi, and by those standards, Anna Hazare's "India against Corruption" March from Rajghat to India Gate and thence to Jantar Mantar earlier today was a minnow in the field of much bigger events of the political procession sort. But if as an astute observer of the street scene in and around Delhi this correspondent can say one thing at the beginning of this report-this movement is likely going to snowball like nothing ever did before in the recent past, with the possible exception of the Mandal agitation. If you are in or around Delhi, then hop on to a Delhi Metro train, ride to the appropriately named "Patel Chowk" station, and go meet the man people are calling the "Second Gandhi".
Corruption is nothing new to most Indians, especially readers of finance magazines. Nor are the after effects of bribery. Truth be told, there is a well-known and practised school of thought within private commerce in India at all levels which encourages corruption and bribery as a means to keep competition away, and that is about as straightforward as it gets, on why any attempt to curtail corruption is usually sabotaged from within-the idealists amongst us don't have a chance. Especially if we haven't tried our hands at any dhanda in our lifetimes. Especially in newly liberalised India.
It was not always so.
Before Independence, at least, the domestic private sector in India joined hands with those seeking freedom by political means. Corruption wasn't the issue. Dominance was. And they got it after 1947. Some would say this was by way of a quid pro quo-as decades of licence raj and restricted competition came their way. Sweet rewards after John Company handed over the keys to the select few approved of by the new rulers. There wasn't really any need to be corrupt or give bribes-our private sector, such as it was, owned the game, the playing field, the umpires, everybody. They made their own rules too, and then called it "Bombay Club", remember?
Then along came "liberalisation". Enough said. Suddenly the stakes were higher, and a whole lot of new players landed up, while the older lot flew in to Delhi to fight court cases on "privacy". After having blown steam through the spout on everything including everybody else's privacy for decades, the pot was now calling the kettle black.
And so, when by right, domestic private enterprise as a victim should have been seen out there on the streets condemning corruption, we have the amazing sight of observing and noting that they are doing nothing of the sort-even as they are visiting, not too far away, a Joint Committee of Parliament or something like that, on the very same subject. A Tata or an Ambani, even a Birla or a Bajaj, could have easily dropped in to lend support to a movement against corruption in the neighbourhood, right? Maybe a Bharti, a Singh, anybody?
Wrong. However, those who did try to join, and were then seen sulking on the sidelines as they had not been invited on to the dais, were a whole lot of people who could easily be identified as political hangers-on. Whether fat and in white karat-pyjamas or fit and svelte in jeans and t-shirt, there were more than a few political types who looked as though they were waiting to be invited. And were roundly booed off. However, despite it, some tried.
Of these, Sharad Yadav went on stage to loud protests, and an unidentified person trying to refer to a leader from the NCP was given the Kalmadi treatment when he took his boss, Sharad Pawar's, name. Bad day, overall, for Sharads at Jantar Mantar. Next, some random BJP functionaries arrived, and then stood quietly in the background, while their leader then gave quotes on television from some other location. What the BJP did about corruption when they were in power at the Centre is well known-the Lokpal Bill didn't make much progress then, either. Ram Vilas Paswan's group was seen at the periphery too. No dice.
Sarcastic comments about Manmohan Singh, oblique references to High Commands, and then of course-the favourite flogging horses. Arvind Kejriwal knows how to work a crowd now, and his main agenda was to take on Sharad Pawar and Kapil Sibal, while asking people to pray for Anna Hazare's health. Kiran Bedi, on the other hand, tried to work the numbers-if we were not so corrupt, we would all be rich, said she, while she led us into prayer. And then there was some pandemonium, as assorted political sorts tried to come on stage, and were denied by a Swami Agnivesh playing monitor. On the sideline were stern posters from M/s Baba Ramdev of Patanjali and M/s Sri Sri Ravi Shankar of Art of Living. Actually, in a way, they were the corporates present!!
It then became even hotter, and the mass of people supposed to be on hunger strike started looking at the food stalls doing brisk business not too far away-after all, with dozens of television crew vans and hundreds of media and plenty of uniformed and plains-clothes types, all keeping an eye on each other, something had to be done as the speeches got repetitive. (There is a catchy tune, though, which reminds one of the same tune used for the lap of victory done by the cricketers a few days ago).
And then, suddenly, the swish set arrived. This follows a typical pattern-the mouthpieces from the out of power and "opposition" parties join the party, the same old same old chiffon and georgette low-navel display types land up to be quoted and also to see and be seen, a few off-duty television anchors who have nothing to do with anything land up and preen around, the television media hankers for bites before sunset, and after some time the crowd goes home for dinner to get swayed by the television anchor fresh from her toe and nail pedicure making it, once again, a bi-polar debate between the "secularist centres" and the "religious right" with the "left leaning" and the anti-corruption rest brought in for humour.
But not this time. For the first time, probably, this has been an Internet-driven assembly. On a national basis. The crowd was just about a few thousand strong at the Jantar Mantar in Delhi. But there were thousands and lakhs more all over the country, logging in and posting from small outposts you haven't even heard of. And lakhs online.
The first Internet-based movement, against corruption, has arrived in India. And, from our point of view, the private sector had better take a stand soon-one way or the other. Stand up and be counted.
If you are in or around Delhi, do your bit for the anti-corruption movement. A short walk away from a Metro station, go there, do something for the supporters, carry a few bottles of water or some home-cooked food for those not fasting, as they stand guard over a frail 73-year-old man trying to make it a better country for all of us. And if you who are reading this and are from the private sector, then a banner in support will mean a lot-try it?
And if you are on the Internet-then just log in.
While the RTI Act states that only those private organisations which have “substantial” funding from the government come under the purview of the RTI Act, in cases where these entities are in partnership with the government, it is possible to get necessary information. The Pune-Mumbai Expressway toll matter is a sterling example
With municipal corporations, state and central governments increasingly opting for Public Private Partnerships (PPP), transparency could take a beating, as private organisations have been given an opportunity to duck under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. The Act says that only if private organisations are "substantially" funded then they come under the purview of public domain. Who's to decide what is "substantial funding"? And here's where private bodies take cover and refuse to give information.
A sterling case is that of the Ideal Road Builders (IRB), a private agency which collects toll fees from most of the highways in Maharashtra, including the Pune-Mumbai Expressway. It is impossible to procure information regarding the data of toll collection. However, in such cases, since their partnership is with a government body, the citizen can get access to such information from the government organisation.
Strangely, the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC), the government body in this case which is mandated to monitor whether IRB is collecting toll honestly or is cheating people, itself has not monitored the revenues of the IRB, despite appointing an independent engineering consultant, STUP Consultants Pvt Ltd, headed by RY Deshpande. However, thanks to citizens demanding this information under RTI, the MSRDC was compelled to request the IRB to send the data of toll collection, year-wise. When this writer conducted inspection of files under Section 4, one of the officials confessed that they had only recently asked the IRB to supply information due to pressure of RTI queries, otherwise they had nothing to do with the information. The fact is that it is binding on the MSRDC to do proper auditing of the toll revenue collected by IRB and gauge whether it is usurping more profits than what it is supposed to get.
Similarly, Metros that are being "forced" upon citizens in several towns and cities across the country, without proper planning, are mostly constructed by the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC). Here too, the DMRC is a private body and any query under RTI is denied. In the case of the Pune Metro, the DMRC has disastrously planned the metro and submitted a shoddy and superficial Detailed Project Report (DPR). Despite the project report not satisfying the Pune Municipal Corporation's (PMC) terms of reference and it not abiding by the central government guidelines while making the DPR, the PMC's general body and the administration has blindly passed the project. It now lies with the state government, which failed to allot finance for it in the current budget. The scandal of this Rs10,000-odd crore infrastructure that is going to add to the chaos of the already congested roads in Pune and become a heavy tax burden for citizens for many years, came to light due to the RTI invoked at the PMC. Thus, in private-public partnerships one can get access to public documents by putting a query to the 'public partner'.
However, as per a high court judgment, co-operative banks do not come under the RTI. A few years back, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) declared that co-operative banks do not come under the purview of the RTI Act. At that time, the Gujarat State Cooperative Bank Ltd, which is an apex institute of co-operative banks, had sought the opinion of the RBI. The RBI stated that since co-operative banks come under the Co-operative Act of the respective states and not under any parliamentary statute, they are not public authorities as defined by the Act.
According to Shailesh Gandhi, central information commissioner, the Company Law gives significant rights to those who own 26% of the shares in a company. Perhaps this could be taken to define the criterion of "substantial finance".
"Subclause d(i) and (ii) together mean any non-government organisations which are substantially owned, controlled or financed directly or indirectly by the government would be covered. Thus aided schools and colleges are public authorities, as also any trusts or NGOs which have significant government nominees; or companies where the government either owns substantial stake, or has given substantial finance, are directly covered under the RTI Act. The substantial finance can take into account tax incentives, subsidies and other concessions as well.
Elaborating further, Mr Gandhi states, "There is some confusion about the words owned and substantial finance. This confusion is evident in the various decisions of the information commissions. Let us look at the words carefully. "Public authority" means any authority or body or institution of self-government established or constituted, … and includes any
(i) body owned, controlled or substantially financed;
(ii) non-government organisation substantially financed, directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate government."
The finance could be either as investment, or towards expenses, or both. The way in which the words have been placed, indicates that perhaps (i) relates to investments and (ii) relates to the running expenses.
"Thus every institution which is owned by the government is clearly covered. By any norms, whenever over 50% of the investment in a body lies with any entity, it is said to be owned by that entity. Since bodies owned by government have been mentioned separately, the words 'controlled' and 'substantially financed' will have to be assigned some meaning not covered by ownership. Thus it is evident that the intention of Parliament is to extend the scope of the right to other organisations, which are not owned by it. No words in an Act can be considered to be superfluous, unless the contradiction is so much as to render a significant part meaningless, or it violates the preamble. Therefore, it becomes necessary to consider a situation where an entity may be controlled by the government without ownership or substantial finance. Such a situation exists when a charity commissioner or registrar of societies appoints an administrator to run the affairs of a trust or society, or a court liquidator takes over administration of some body.
Thus concludes Mr Gandhi: "It is therefore obvious that as per Section 2 (h) (i) 'a body …substantially financed' would be a body where the ownership may not lie with the government, nor the control. Hence, clearly the wording 'substantially financed' would have to be given meaning at less than 50% holding. Company law gives significant rights to those who own 26% of the shares in a company. Perhaps, this could be taken to define the criterion of 'substantially financed'. The finance could be as equity, or subsidies in land or concessions in taxation.
"Similarly some definition is required where the State provides money for the running expenses of an institution as covered under (ii). Presently, aided schools and colleges have all clearly been accepted as 'public authorities', though there appears to be no clarity in the matter of NGOs and other organisations which are receiving significant amounts of finance.
"The key approach and philosophy of the RTI Act appears to be that since the State acts on behalf of the citizens, wherever the State gives money, the citizen has a right to know. In my opinion, if the money given for the running expenses is over either 20% of the running expenses, or Rs1 crore, the body should be considered as receiving 'substantial finance' and is covered in the definition of a 'public authority'."
Putting up information in the public domain, especially where infrastructure is concerned, is very important in the case of roads. The Economic Survey of India estimates that over the next five years (the survey was of February 2008) the investment needs in physical infrastructure will be $500 billion, out of which the share of the private sector will be $150 billion-odd, which comes to over 30%.
It is time to know the truth, as the truth involves us all!
(Vinita Deshmukh is a senior editor, author and convener of Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She can be reached at [email protected].)