“So long as these records remain hidden, we will always be called liars.
These records must be visible, if we are to prove the truth, and if we are to survive.”
At a time when social change initiatives are judged by the scale and sustainability of their impact, this account of the genesis, evolution and journey to success of the Right to Information campaign in India should be required reading for all change-makers, aspiring and veteran alike. The detailed narration of the thought processes, choice-making, painstaking effort and relentless persistence that went into co-creating this community-led campaign provides a rare, insider view of what it really takes to make change happen.
The book provides a ring-side view to it all – the first conversations that defined the goals of the campaign, the choice, for instance, to eschew philanthropic support, the meticulous planning, deliberation, analysis and iterative learning that underpinned the patient strategy of building support one community at a time, to the importance of building a campaign on foundations of love and joyfulness.
The immediacy is enhanced by the fact that the book draws not just on campaigners’ memories, but also on contemporary reports and news. Itvividly describes the challenges, and benefits, of demonstrating to ordinary citizens the relevance of what some might label an esoteric cause, catalysing and enabling creativity and participation from those often written out of their own histories, providing space for diverse views and modes of engagement, while staying true to deeply held values of justice, equity and democracy.
From the first ‘Jan sunwai’ or public hearing in December 1994 through the many obstacles and feints by officaldom at every level, the campaign focused as much on building a constituency for change as on advocating legislation. This is a key differentiator from more top-down policy advocacy resulting not only in real political pressure from village administration to governments at the state and national levels, but also growing support from intelligentsia and media as well as an implementation ready populace once legislation had been successfully passed. The contrast is particularly marked when one compares this campaign with those in states like Tamil Nadu, prompted by pressure from international financial institutions like the ADB, World Bank or IMF.
The renewed threat posed by amendments just rushed through parliament will test, yet again, the resolve of civil society and citizens to ensure their right to information and require renewed mobilisation at all levels. The outcomes may well determine not only the fate of this law but citizens’ faith in democracy. As one activist expressed it: “Jung jaari hai! (The battle continues.)