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Is knowledge power? The Right to Information Campaign in India

By: Amita Baviskar

The National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) was formally launched in 1996 at a gathering of more than a hundred activist organizations.  Campaign leaders described their goals as ‘transparency in public life, empowerment of people, deepening of democracy, and fighting corruption and malgovernance’. Their primary focus was to campaign for a national law on the right to information.  On October 12, 2005, the central government led by the Congress Party made operational a national-level Right to Information Act that applies throughout the country to central, state and local government institutions. The Act is a major milestone in the Campaign’s ongoing struggle.

The recent successes of the NCPRI are all the more impressive because its constituent organizations belong to that most marginal political group – ‘people’s organizations’ that are neither NGOs who draw on donor funding, nor formal political parties.  How were these small localized groups able to sustain a long-term campaign that resulted in opening up the public sphere, enabling popular participation that made the government more accountable to ordinary citizens? What strategies of networking did they use to expand and consolidate their sphere of influence? How were they able to win over neutral groups and neutralize hostile ones?

I shall examine these and other questions about what the NCPRI has accomplished and the challenges that it continues to face by

(a) outlining a brief history of the campaign;

(b) analyzing the reasons for its success; and

(c) discussing its limitations.

I have used detailed interviews with activists and scholars affiliated with the NCPRI to construct an oral history of the campaign and some of its constituent members, both organizations and individuals. Our conversations examined particular events that were critical to the campaign’s organization and efficacy, as well as conjunctures that created significant breakthroughs in terms of ideology and mobilization.  I have also focused on two organizations that have been central to the NCPRI: the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan that started the RTI movement in rural Rajasthan and the Delhi-based Parivartan that went on to become the campaign’s leading activist group on issues affecting the urban poor, to chart the changes in their practices and perspectives. I also draw upon interviews with activists and analysts not associated with the NCPRI who have a different view of its activities. Access to secondary sources – newspaper records, press statements, government orders – supplements fieldwork which involved attending RTI workshops, public meetings, and conventions.

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Uploaded on: Dec 09, 2015
Year Published: 2007
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