The brazen corruption of the high and the mighty may grab headlines, but for ordinary people it is the ubiquity of everyday corruption that weighs heaviest. And that demoralizes. Arvind Kejriwal, founder of India’s Parivartan, understands this, which is why his campaign for change begins with the small things.
As a tax officer with the Indian Revenue Service, Arvind Kejriwal became aware of the many powers that tax officials held over private citizens and how easily these powers could be abused. Indeed, at the tax department, one expected to pay bribes as a matter of course. With a few kindred spirits, Kejriwal began to strategize about how to bring an end to this. In 2000, he founded Parivartan, meaning "change." Parivartan appealed to the tax commissioner to make the tax department more transparent and less capricious. When this failed, it filed Public Interest Litigation directing the department to implement a five-point transparency plan. Eventually, Parivartan held a nonviolent protest, or satyagraha, outside the chief commissioner’s office. Threat of another protest with the press on hand convinced the tax chief to implement the reforms.
Meanwhile, on leave from his job, Kejriwal stationed himself with other Parivartan members outside the electricity department. There they exhorted visitors not to pay bribes and offered to facilitate their dealings with the department for free. Since then, Parivartan has settled 2,500 grievances with the electricity department on behalf of individuals. Some seven hundred more have benefited from the group’s "Don’t pay bribes!" campaign at the tax department.
Under the Delhi Right to Information Act of 2001, every citizen possesses the right to inspect government documents. Kejriwal put the new law to use in Sundernagari, a New Delhi slum where Parivartan was working among the poor. First, the group obtained official reports on all recent public-works projects in the area. Next, it led residents in a "social audit" of sixty-eight projects, stirring the community to action with neighborhood meetings and street plays. Then, in a large public hearing, the residents presented their findings and exposed misappropriations in sixty-four of the projects-embezzlement to the tune of seven million rupees! Today, in Sundernagari, local committees monitor public-works projects block by block, and no project may begin until the details of the contract have been made public.
The Indian government provides subsidized rations of wheat and rice to poor people through neighborhood ration shops. Records acquired by Kejriwal for Sundernagari revealed high levels of theft in the system. In one area, over 90 percent of the grain ration was being skimmed off by shopkeepers in collusion with certain food department officials. When Parivartan investigated this, one of its team members was savagely attacked. In protest, more than five thousand residents of the community held a month long "rations fast." This and a mass rally riveted public attention, and foot-dragging officials finally moved to clean up the system.
Now in its seventh year, Parivartan has only ten full-time members. Although Kejriwal sometimes takes on larger issues such as the successful 2005 campaign challenging a water-privatization plan for New Delhi, he has no plans to expand. He prefers to coordinate Parivartan’s efforts with other like-minded NGOs across India.
Thirty-eight-year-old Kejriwal reminds Indians that the boons of collective action, such as the honest delivery of services, have already been paid for through taxes. Citizens are entitled to them. The spirit of his movement was aptly captured by the women of Sundernagari as they rallied to protest cheating in neighborhood ration shops: "We are not begging from anyone!" they chanted. "We are demanding our rights."
In electing Arvind Kejriwal to receive the 2006 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership, the board of trustees recognizes his activating India’s right-to-information movement at the grassroots, empowering New Delhi’s poorest citizens to fight corruption by holding government answerable to the people.
The Honorable Chief Justice, Chairman and Trustees of the Ramon Magsaysay Award
Foundation, distinguished guests, fellow Awardees and dear friends.
I bring you greetings from India, the world’s largest democracy.
I am humbled to be a part of such a distinguished gathering, and am mindful of all the very accomplished people who are part of the family of Magsaysay awardees. Ordinarily, my own credentials would not stand up to the scrutiny of this group, but I take heart from the fact that I stand here today not on my achievements but as a representative of the movement for the people’s right to information, that is thriving and growing in India. This award does not belong to me. It belongs to the entire Right-to-Information movement in India. It belongs to every individual who has fought for transparency in governance. Some of them even faced violence and risked their lives. I stand before you today on behalf of all of them.
Enactment of the Right to Information law has ushered in a new era in Indian democracy. In a democracy, people are the masters and the governments exist to serve them. But the situation is reverse in practice. Right to Information has tilted the balance of power in favor of ordinary people.
Starting from a small village in the state of Rajasthan, this movement to empower the common people and make them the real masters in a democratic polity, is now sweeping the country. It is catching the imagination of people in the rural and the urban areas, of the poor and the rich, of the educated and the illiterate, and of the privileged and the oppressed. They all see it as a new awakening, a fresh way of solving the problems of poverty, of hunger, and of disease which have plagued our country, and many other countries of the world, for hundreds of years. They are joined together, for they see this not as a battle between the government and the people, but as a historic battle where good people within and outside the government join hands to battle the corrupt and the apathetic.
It is a fight for justice, for surely “when people go hungry, it is not food, but justice, that is in short supply”. It is this movement for the right to information that has, in a short span of a few years, challenged the very basis of bureaucratic patronage and corruption that has plagued our society for centuries. The right to information has been widely understood--in cities, towns and villages, by housewives and shopkeepers, by executives and students, by workers and labourers--as our right to demand accountability from the government: you spend OUR money, you give US OUR accounts. And YOU are paid from OUR money, so YOU answer to US.
Right to Information has emerged as an extremely powerful tool in the hands of ordinary people to fight injustice and corruption. It has given voice to the voiceless. Nannu, a very poor labourer, got his food card without bribes within a few days when he used Right to Information. He was harassed for three months before that. Triveni, another poor woman living in a slum in Delhi, started getting her subsidized food from the government after she used Right to Information. Her food was being siphoned off before that. Right to Information has brought hope to all such people. It has given them the strength to be able to fight injustice.
Prem Sharma, who is 74 years old, got his passport the day he went to file his RTI application, though it had been denied to him for six months, because he refused to pay bribes. Use of RTI led to roads being made and repaired only for the first time on the ground, though for years they were being made and repaired on paper. It has led to honest officers being protected and the corrupt ones being prosecuted. But, most important of all, it has led the people of India to feel empowered—perhaps for the first time in their long and colourful history—empowered to stand up and demand answers of the government. It has energised the nation and, even as we speak, this energy is spreading like wildfire across the cities, towns and villages of India. It is this movement for the right to information, that I represent as I stand here. It is on behalf of these thousands of people across India, and my immediate associates in Parivartan, that I accept, with great humility, the award that you confer on me today. As a great statesman once famously said: “They are the lions, I only have the privilege to be called upon to roar for them”.