"This is the second freedom struggle. The first was against the white sahib, this one will be against the brown sahib”, said noted anti-corruption crusader Anna Hazare on 4 December during an interview on the state of the Right to Information (RTI) laws. Hazare’s views were being recorded for a Marathi video documentary in the making on RTI.

The noted activist had earlier spoken at a function organized by the Hum Janenge RTI users e-group at the Pune Kendra of the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. On 23 December, the UPA government tabled the RTI Bill (proposed national legislation) in Parliament and sent it to a standing committee. The bill, which proposes a crippled information commission for enforcement, is likely to reach a vote during the budget session commencing on 25 February.

Hazare warned that that if the Central bill modelled on the Maharashtra Act is delayed, he would mobilise support from among like-minded citizens all over the country and launch an agitation, just as he had done in Maharashtra earlier. He also commented on the Maharashtra situation itself, asserting that defaulting officers must be penalised and disciplined.

Excerpts from the interview with Anna Hazare.

On the Maharashtra RTI Act

Pic: CAAM, farmedia.org It cannot be denied that it would curb corruption to a large extent. But the main objective of bringing in the Act is to ensure clean and good governance and thereby strengthen democracy. The end user in villages cannot enjoy full benefit of numerous government schemes. Of a rupee sanctioned, barely 12 paise reach the beneficiary in the hut. When the end user starts the right to information, at least 70 paise will reach. Besides, the quality of work will not be compromised upon.

Maharashtra has the strongest RTI legislation in Asia. It is also being implemented well. There are various reasons for this. Maharashtra has a rich tradition of people who had dedicated themselves to the cause of the society and this tradition continues even today.

I recently toured 26 districts of Maharashtra. Many people told me they have been getting information under the RTI and that transparency in governance is seeping in. Of course the Act still has some deficiencies. These are being removed. Nearly 1200 district-level officers have been trained. Their mindset has changed. Now the government has to train taluka and village level officers. All this will take some time, but once RTI becomes a part of the culture, the poor will get the real taste of freedom.

On difficulties faced during enforcement of the MRTI law

We have a good Act in Maharashtra, though there are some deficiencies. Public Information Officers (PIOs) are not designated in many places, they do not display boards in front of their offices, the appellate authorities are not identified on boards wherever they exist, not every requisitioner gets information during the stipulated period of 15 days, the appellate authority does not penalise defaulting PIOs.

There is no provision for any action against an appellate authority (AA) who defies the provisions of the Act. We spoke to the chief secretary and the chief minister and demanded that defaulting appellate authorities must face disciplinary action. The CS has issued a stern circular warning asking AAs to abide by the provisions. Things have begun improving since then.

We will take a constant review of the implementation. I have asked the government to hold the district collector responsible for a monthly review. Let him call PIOs and AAs and get details on how many requisitions have been received, how many have been given information, how many appeals have been filed, how many have been disposed of, how many PIOs have been fined.

The divisional commissioner should take a review of collectors’ reports every two months and then the state monitoring council should take a review of the reports from divisional commissioners. I have told the government, if it wants to improve the dismal state of the state’s economy, it must pave way for transparency.

On the central RTI Bill

"We will give them (the Centre) one chance, failing which just as we had to agitate for seven years to get a strong RTI in Maharashtra, we will have to launch an agitation in New Delhi."
-- Anna Hazare

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Maharashtra’s experiment is being followed up in New Delhi. The draft of the bill is ready. It was prepared with MRTI as the model. Yet, I have learnt that a few officials are trying to put spokes in the early passage of the Bill. We will not allow this. We will write to Sonia Gandhi, prime minister Manmohan Singh, home minister Shivraj Patil calling upon them to convert the Bill into an Act. We will give them one chance, failing which just as we had to agitate for seven years to get a strong RTI in Maharashtra, we will have to launch an agitation in New Delhi.

No such agitation is directed against any particular government. These are waged to strengthen democracy and ensure justice to the poor. Gandhiji and Vinoba have taught this to us. If the national level RTI (Act) is delayed, some of us from across the country will come together, give a chance to the government to amend its ways or launch an agitation if it is found unavoidable.

On possible difficulties in implementing the central law

Whatever difficulties we have faced at the state level are likely to crop up when the central law is enforced. The rulers are not going to easily change their habits, (they haven't), for 56 years. They regard themselves as owners, dictators – especially the bureaucrats. They are not prepared to part with the powers concentrated in their hands and decentralise.

It is possible that information will not be given during the stipulated time frame, or it may not be correct and complete. One cannot say if the appellate authorities will do their job properly. But after all one has to overcome all such hurdles and move ahead. This is the second freedom struggle. The first was against the white sahib, this one will be against the brown sahib and we will have to wage this struggle with the same spirit as we waged the first one.

Of course, I don’t consider the bureaucrats as anyone alien. They are our own. But their mindset has to change. We have seen in Maharashtra that many trained bureaucrats finally realised that it was their duty to share information with the people. We will have to strive for similar change of mindset at the national level. Once the mindset is changed, bureaucrats will join hands with people and RTI will forge ahead.