|Lasani is a small
village which is part of Rawatmaal panchayat (village council) in
Rajasthan's Ajmer district. According to the panchayat records, Rs. 56,000
was recently spent to construct water channels linking the village talab
(pond) with the fields. The water channels, however, exist only on paper.
This is one of many shocking revelations
that emerged at a recent public hearing (jan sunwai) led by the Mazdoor
Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), a people's organisation working in the
region since 1988. The public hearing is one of the means used by the MKSS
in its struggle to ensure the people's right to information. One aim of
the campaign is to root out corruption at the local level and demand
accountability from the development establishment.
The public hearing, held on 19 January
1998 in Surajpura village, focused on development works in Surajpura. It
began with a puppet show dealing with the abuse of development funds by
village leaders, politicians and government functionaries. Hundreds of
women and men participated in the hearing. Some of them had participated
in development works as labourers or masons, and had seen corruption from
close quarters or even been cheated themselves.
During the next few hours, 23 development
works recently completed in these panchayats were examined. These works
included the construction of anicuts, culverts and checkdams; latrines and
bathrooms; schools and other types of community buildings. The examination
began with MKSS activists disclosing detailed information on each item of
development work. This information had been obtained earlier from the
village panchayats and cross-checked through visits to work sites and
enquiries in the villages. Predictably, panchayat leaders had shown some
reluctance to part with information, but in the end they had no choice but
to co-operate. The Government of Rajasthan recently recognised the
people's right of access to official documents at the panchayat level: a
gazette notification now entitles any member of the public to a certified
photocopy of these documents at a nominal price. This landmark legislation
is itself the result of a sustained campaign led by MKSS, which culminated
in a 53-day long dharna (sit-in) in Jaipur in June-July 1997.
As the activists took out file after file
and invited participants to present their testimonies, excitement built
up. Soon a wide range of frauds were identified. To mason Dood Singh's
surprise, his name was found on the muster rolls of two different works
for the same period, while he had not even received his due wages for one.
Bhanvri Singh, a labourer, stated that she had received only Rs. 300 as
wages, as against Rs. 570 shown in the muster rolls against her name. The
crowd was suitably amused when the name of Devi Singh, a man who had died
30 years ago, was found on the muster rolls.
The 23 development works examined over
the day accounted for a total expenditure of Rs. 33 lakhs (1 lakh =
100,000 Rs./1£=64 Rs.). Of this, it was estimated that at least Rs. 5
lakhs had been siphoned off by various people in complicity with the
sarpanch (head of the village council). Of this amount, one third was
accounted for by fake bills for the purported purchase of cement.
A remarkable feature of the public
hearing was its constructive and orderly tone. The participants though
often angry, did not lose their temper. Their was no hint of compromise
with fraud, nor was the hearing confrontational. This constructive
atmosphere had much to do with the effective way in which MKSS activists
played their role of moderators.
The sarpanches (including two women) of
the five panchayats were present. Since their signature is required for
all items of development expenditure, they were considered to have an
inescapable responsibility for the frauds identified. The fact that the
sarpanches had joined the public hearing without coercion was itself
significant. On earlier occasions they had often ignored invitations. One
possible reason for this change is the success of another public hearing
held a few weeks earlier where one sarpanch returned Rs. 50,000 in cash in
front of the crowd and agreed to return another Rs. 50,000 in two
instalments. This gesture made a tremendous impression in the area. The
sarpanches who came on January 19 probably felt that there was no way out,
and that co-operating with the process was in their own interest.
The reactions of the sarpanches were
varied. Some of them attempted to challenge the accusations of fraud. In
other cases, they agreed that fraud had taken place, but blamed others for
it. In some cases they accepted that they had failed to ensure honest
implementation of works, or even admitted personal involvement in frauds.
At the end of the day, the sarpanches agreed to cooperate with the
follow-up process of recovering misappropriated funds. Some of them even
promised to return money themselves in cases where their personal
responsibility had been established. For instance, the sarpanch of
Rawatmaal volunteered to return Rs. 56,000 appropriated in the name of
non-existent water channels.
These may seem like small victories but
their symbolic significance is far-reaching. All over rural India, scores
of small development works have been undertaken in the name of the poor.
The main beneficiaries of these schemes, however, are not the poor but a
network of contractors, bureaucrats and village leaders who are looting
public funds for private gain. There is also a connection between this
development scam and the corruption of the electoral system, whereby local
leaders are allowed to misuse public funds in return for delivering votes.
The casualty is not just development but also democracy.
Against this background, the right to
information campaign is an opportunity for ordinary citizens to break out
of the vicious circle of collective apathy and individual hopelessness.
Aside from being a practical weapon to eradicate corruption at the village
level, the public hearing is a creative exercise in government for the
people by the people. It is a small but significant step towards the
transition from representative to participatory democracy.
Frontline, 6 March 1998,