Monday, July 10, 2006

The ghost of Janawad

This report in The Hindu today caught my eye: No chargesheet filed yet in Janawad scam case. In case you are stranger to this name, Janawad is a village in Rajasthan, immortalised by a jan sunvai organised there by Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in April 2001.

I was working with Seva Mandir in Udaipur district then, and had hopped on a mini-bus along with a bunch of other Seva Mandir workers for the two-hour ride to Janawad in neighboring Rajsamand district. Most had little idea what to expect, though all had heard of MKSS and its aggressive campaign. MKSS, which owes its success to its rather well-known leader Aruna Roy, had been organising jan sunvais in various places in Rajasthan to expose corruption in panchayat-organised works. The 2005 Right to Information (RTI) Act passed by Parliament last year has been generating a lot of interest in development circles lately; the Rajasthan government passed its own RTI act in 2000 which generated a similar amount of excitement and MKSS was trying to make the best of it.

The venue of the jan sunvai was a giant shamiana erected on a vacant field near the panchayat office in Janawad, and when we arrived there by late morning there were already a couple hundred people from Janawad and neighboring panchayats seated there. MKSS had invited a few officials from the district administration and a retired judge to form a panel; they had also requested all panchayat officials to attend and as far as I remember none did. Over the past few months, MKSS volunteers had used RTI to painstakingly collect panchayat documents related to construction contracts, muster rolls etc.

The sunvai itself was a stark affair. Shankar Singh, a MKSS volunteer (the one mentioned in the Hindu report) with a quick wit and a big smile, would read out details of panchayat works that were reported as completed and invite people to come to the dias and verify those claims. The results were shocking - invoices for dam construction where none existed, muster roll entries for people who didnt exist and so on. At the end of the day, it seems almost everyone associated with these development projects from elected representatives to PWD civil engineers were guilty of corruption and the few district officials there promised action. I remember reading in Dainik Bhaskar a couple of months later that FIRs had been filed against a few officials....I didnt keep track thereafter, till I read this report today morning.

Enthusiasm about the new nationwide RTI is understandable, as evident by the flood of RTI success stories in the media lately, but this study of Rajasthan's six-year old RTI law is instructive. The Rajasthan law was flawless. The prosecutor had impeccable credentials. Then why didnt Janawad work?

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