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Promoting Freedom Of Information
Vasu Reddy from Chicago
Aruna Roy is an ex-IAS officer that was the featured speaker on October 31, 2004 in a gathering organized by FDRI and Building Bridges Forum. Ms. Roy represents an organization called Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (“MKSS”) from Rajasthan, India. The event was a small gathering for about 50 people, which was organized on the Sunday afternoon in Darien Village Library in the suburbs of Chicago. My curiosity took me to this meeting along with my uncle and aunt, and I was trying to understand the meaning of Information Freedom and what this lady was offering as a solution to obtaining the information freedom to the Indian poor.
Living in the USA and bombarded with information on TV, newspapers, magazines and (my favorite) Internet made me wonder how India can achieve the information freedom that we in the USA take for granted, and when it happens what will people do with it? As I have some experience with availability of information and it doesn’t necessarily mean there is value to it. We seek to find information that is necessary to understand the dynamics of people and politics, world and our surroundings and issues and problems that concern us.
Aruna Roy was very eloquent and speaks constantly of every aspect of the Indian society. There was a small video shown displaying misuse of village level projects. A number of instances we all are familiar with were documented, including the mixing of inappropriate amounts of cement, and not spending the true value of projects and how people were seeking information from the head of the village, and failing to obtain the information. The video claims that 90 billion Rupees is allocated for rural development in India and only 15 billion Rupees is actually spent on development. If it is true the reality in developmental spending is less than 14% of the money paid by the Indian taxpayer. In any time and country 86% or more money vanishing is enormous. Perhaps this may be a good enough reason for information freedom.
My initial reaction was that this is nothing new, and its not just in India but happens everywhere. While I listened to Aruna Roy, I was trying to figure out the cost of making information available freely and accessible to all people of India. Thinking of the resources available to me made me first wonder what would it cost to make such detailed information available. Need for communications, need for media, need for access, updates, cost of storage and maintenance and simply who will fund the entire requirement to freely available information. Ms. Roy equated the privilege of free information to the masses with development, which is true. She was not sure capitalistic market and privatization will solve the issue of free access to information, as the private investment will be specific to return on investment and vested with its investors. Ms. Roy said, “I am not for privatization, but the government must be transparent to me”.
By the time she was done with the pitch to the audience, I had a series of questions but never got a chance as the meeting started late and we had to close the forum on time. Aruna Roy started the meeting saying, “Necessity in India today is to talk about real democracy”. During the course of her discussion, several quotes including, that her forum is promoting “economic well being, secularism and humanism” and “informed choices based on free information”. She also stated that the forum is promoting, “minimum wage movement leading to freedom of information”.
After thinking of information freedom I listed out the following:
1. Do we need information freedom and what do we do with it?
2. Does India forbid information access? Is this any different from other democracies including the USA?
3. How will people react to such transparency in a society where people don’t even want to put money in the bank? What will be the impact of free information in a society that is still deeply traditional?
4. Who will pay for the cost of it? And can India afford making free information normal process? And should they do it?
5. Can certain portions of information be accessible to anyone who seeks the information, rather than everything?
6. How possible it is to have complete and free information?
It is true that rumors and innuendo create situations such as recent Gujarat violence and couple of decades ago the violence against the Sikh community when Mrs. Gandhi was killed. Communal violence, property disputes, caste or religious atrocities are primarily based on fear, which is fueled by misinformation. Educational records, birth certificates (FYI, I did not have one until I needed one. All the details were written by the family and priest), marriage certificates, property records, estate matters and many things can be easily catalogued and stored for easy access. People can pay a fee for obtaining information for due causes.
While it is necessary to have free information access that facilitates informed choices and decisions, the implications are also extreme in a society like India. Do you want to know the details of your neighbor? Why it takes away the fun of guessing and gossip. Do you think Rekha is 50 in year 2004? Why do you really want to know how old she really? It is absurd to have private and privileged information to be available to others. India is a very open society with still huge families and friends. Modernization in India has not brought the life style changes that are individualistic. In the USA I really don’t care what my neighbor looks, or what their business is. In India I still know everyone who lives in my colony and perhaps in the town, and know all his or her details even without free information.
Ms. Roy’s argument of information availability to informed choices is absolutely true, in a professional or proprietary decision-making. Every country including the USA has its share of practices that will involve cooking the books. The degree at which might vary depending on the country and place. India and its states must adopt to a minimum of government organizations being transparent at all levels. Villages to the large metropolis should make the official decisions public and make the information free. If the rural development or local funds are at stake, 100% of the people must have 100% of the information. Electoral processes, budgeting, appropriations, economic and tax issues, political decision making process and property rights are some of the issues to be absolutely made public without any reservations. How they will be made public and what medium is beyond my comprehension.
Supporting access to personal information in India may be a tricky process. What may be a valuable idea can become dangerous information. India first needs to adopt a lot of simple measures such as accounting every one of its citizens. Social security to individuals is an absolute necessity. Although my experience is limited, the last time I was renewing my passport in Chicago, they had to charge me a lot of money to send my passport to Houston and take several days and two trips to Chicago to get the passport renewed. The reason for the time and expense at my cost was that I had a home in Florida and the address so reflected in my details, and Florida renewals for Indian passport was Houston’s Raj. After years of thinking of this, it still don’t make sense to me why I could not do it in Chicago, as both Houston and Chicago are not in India, and I was at an Indian consulate outside of India, and that too in person. This can be avoided at least with the Indian bureaucracies outside of India. Makes no sense why all Indian consulates cannot simply verify the details, collect the old passport and issue a new one.
Ms. Roy’s initiatives are commendable and required. Free information typically means informed choices. Informed choices along with transparent accounting are essential elements to successful of spending of public and private dollars. The government cannot mandate every aspect of accountability by enforcing laws, the society which self polices and monitors the accountability is important to ensuring the money is spent on what it is budgeted for. Outside of making information accessible, it is also necessary that the country and its people practice accountability, thereby making the process transparent. If the rules apply only to the others and not me, and if everyone feels that only they are being subjected to accountability, any number of laws will not work.
Governments at the state and central levels can adopt laws that encourage free information and transparency. It is up to the people to respect the law and also the rights to free information in making decisions.
Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (“MKSS”)
MKSS was founded in 1990. The organization was initially formed with a struggle for community land, and subsequently working on minimum wage initiatives. The current drive for The People’s Right to Information is being actively pursued by MKSS at state and central government levels.
Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (“MKSS”), Village Devdungri, Post Barar, District Rajsamand – 313341, Rajasthan, India. Phone: 91-2909-243254, Fax: 91-2951-250180 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Imtiaz Uddin of Building Bridges and Kasi Paturi of FDRI together sponsored the event through their respective organizations. Mohan Jain of India Development Coalition of America and Ratnam Chtoori of North South Foundation were also in the audience.
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