The most disturbing thing about Jharkhand-based NGO worker Lalit Mehta’s murder — presumably at the behest of the local contractor-politico-administrator nexus — is that it is merely the tip of a dangerous iceberg. The Times of India (June 8, 2008) has reported a string of incidents from across the country where whistle-blowers, anti-graft crusaders and people carrying out social audits of the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme have been intimidated, badly beaten up and even killed.
This, when the credo of the central government is transparency, is indeed ironic. After all, the Congress-led UPA does not tire of touting the Right to Information Act as the leitmotif of its political agenda. But the business of legislation is only the beginning of politics, not its end.
The Congress should realise that it has merely taken note of people’s passive aspiration for greater transparency by enacting the RTI law — a key feature of its 2004 election agenda. It can and must be translated into active political will by enabling the participation of local communities in the day-to-day affairs of governance. Participatory politics is bound to reduce social isolation, and thus existential vulnerability, that whistle-blowers suffer from. It would also ensure that law-enforcement agencies are more pro-active in protecting their life and limb. Such popular will would also ensure that the Congress-led UPA’s agenda of transparency remains electorally viable.
The RTI Act will not automatically yield accountability. That can only happen when information accessed with its aid is integrated into a cogent political programme for mobilising people to engage the state in order to make it more amenable to public control. It is precisely the deficit of such politics that is responsible for the poor awareness about the RTI Act.
Chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah has, in a recent interview, blamed the government for having not done enough on that score. He is not entirely right. It is up to the Congress party, not the government, to create that awareness through programmatic political action. Otherwise, its much-vaunted attempt to democratise its organisation would be a charade.