While Arvind Kejriwal is being hailed as an astute politician, leading a relatively new political party, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) and; bringing it impressively back to power in Delhi in the state assembly elections for the third consecutive term, his seed of social commitment is in his prolific use of the Right to Information (RTI) Act and spreading public awareness about it.
The late Prakash Kardaley, former resident with The Indian Express often recalled how it was a young government officer, Arvind Kejriwal, who had brought to his notice a small news item in a Hindi daily that a law to empower citizens to receive information from government offices was in the offing. It alerted Mr Kardaley to the potential of the RTI act and he went on to become an integral part of its journey at the state and central level and a stalwart of the RTI movement.
So, when the Delhi Assembly RTI Act came into being in 2001, Mr Kejriwal, had floated a social forum called ‘Parivartan’ where he empowered citizens in his free time.
Quite admirably, he would walk through slum and chawl clusters with a mike amplifier in hand, calling out for those who do not have ration cards or are not getting their rightful ration with the card to learn how to deal with the issue.
He would then guide them on filing RTI applications. Soon, hundreds of applications reached the food and civil supplies department, which was quite shocked at this citizens’ demand. The department responded positively.
Arvind Kejriwal’s effort had thus helped hundreds of people obtain duplicate ration cards or get their monthly rations.
He also used RTI to streamline power connections and water supply.
At that time, his mentor was Aruna Roy, noted activist and former IAS officer, who had pioneered what was known as the freedom act in Rajasthan.
Mr Kejriwal, along with other RTI activists, also steered a campaign that was started the noted Maharashtra based activist, Anna Hazare, against the Congress government’s proposal to delete file notings from the ambit of the RTI Act. Thanks to the unity and tenacity of RTI activists, who fought this campaign together, the move was dropped.
When the central RTI Act 2005 was implemented, Mr Kejriwal led a sustained battle against privatisation of water supply in Delhi. He took on the World Bank and the Delhi Jal Board (DJB) to fight a hard battle through Parivartan.
Here too, he used the RTI Act to obtain voluminous documents – over 9,000 pages of correspondence between the World Bank and DJB of biddings, DJB’s correspondence with the state and central governments as well as reports of various consultants.
The RTI documents revealed that more than 60% of the funding by the World Bank would go into paying salaries and fees of high profile consultants who would script the basics of water usage in Delhi, thereby making water supply expensive for Delhites.
The documents also revealed that the World Bank was pressuring the Delhi Jal Board to select a particular consultancy firm for the job. The alumnus association of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi and IIT Kharagpur too held a press conference urging the Delhi government to withdraw the World Bank loan, but to no avail.
Arvind Kejriwal also whipped up a mass public campaign along with Aruna Roy. Buckling under pressure, the DJB was forced to withdraw the collaboration.
With his award money from the Ramon Magsaysay Award, Arvind set up the Public Cause Research Foundation (PCRF) to build emergent leadership. The Foundation had also done valuable research in the use of RTI in India. It is rather inactive today.
In 2017, the Delhi government with Arvind Kejriwal as chief minister, became the second state after Maharashtra, to start an e-portal for filing RTI applications.
He had then said in a press conference that if all governments decide to upload all relevant information that affects people’s life in the public domain, there will be no need fro the RTI act and will help improve transparency.
This portal is exemplary in terms of transparency as most of the documents of various public authorities are uploaded and are easily accessible to public.
Something that Mr Kejriwal loves and swears by!
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.