By Mamta Jaitly, Womens Feature Service
It was from the state of Rajasthan that the Right to Information (RTI) movement emerged as an idea that went on to capture national attention. But few panchayats (local self-government village bodies) in the state have used the RTI to change the lives of people as effectively as Vijaypura in Rajsamand district.
Vijaypura, which roughly translates as “victorious region”, has, in fact, emerged victorious on two fronts. It has been able to implement the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) with a degree of transparency, accountability and efficiency, rarely witnessed elsewhere. What is less known is that it has also been able to help many single women living in extreme penury to derive real benefit from the government’s food and social security schemes, something they had not been able to do all these years.
In fact, Vijaypura panchayat could well be a model for how India can work towards achieving its targets under the UN Millenium Development Goal 1, which seeks to pull people out of extreme poverty and halve the number of those suffering from hunger. Its performance is particularly creditable given that hunger may have actually spiked in the recent past in many vulnerable regions of the world because of the global food and financial crises, as noted by The Millennium Development Goals Report 2010.
The credit for Vijaypura’s success should rightly go to the dynamic young Kaluram Salvi, who decided to make use of the RTI Act to ensure that people got their entitlements. It helped, of course, that Salvi was a full-time member with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), the organisation that began the RTI movement in India.
Significantly, although Salvi is a Dalit and was entitled to a reserved seat, he successfully stood for the sarpanch’s post from a general seat with just Rs 695 (US$1=Rs 46.6) by way of campaign funds. The election slogan? “Na daru, na murga, na lenge hum note, imandari se denge vote (no alcohol, no chicken, we won’t take notes, with honesty we’ll cast our votes).” Salvi’s integrity was the key to his electoral victory. He also promised the community that if he won, all the information relating to the panchayat will be made available to them.
Salvi kept his word. One of the first things he did after he became the sarpanch of Vijaypura was to put up boards all over the panchayat that read ‘Vijaypura Gram Panchayat mein apka swagat hai, yahan ki suchnayen sab ke liye khuli hain’ (Welcome to Vijaypura Panchayat, Information Here is Open to All).
Women’s equality was an important principle for Salvi. As a first step, he advocated women sitting on par with men on the ‘hathai’ – a raised common platform where public meetings usually take place. He began this practice first in his own village of Narayan ka Bida. Though women were reluctant initially it was Maani Bai, 70, who finally broke the old, discriminatory traditions.
Supporting her frail body with a stick, she boldly ventured to sit on the platform. Once on it, she called out to each of the women in the village by name and invited them to join her. This symbolic break with the past was the beginning of a campaign to mobilise the women of Vijaypura to participate in panchayat activities.
Salvi also dealt firmly with dishonesty and fraud. When the villagers of Keeton ka Badiya complained that their ration dealer did not open his shop on time, or indeed provide rations on time, Salvi promptly sent him a notice asking him to be present at the panchayat’s meeting. When the dealer refused to accept the notice, Kalu slapped a fine of Rs 200 on him for contempt of the gram panchayat’s orders under Section 62 of the Panchayati Raj Act. He also decreed that if the fine was not paid, a penalty of Rs 10 per day would be added to it. The dealer had no option but to fall in line.
That was how the public distribution system in Vijaypura was reformed. Salvi himself encouraged people in his panchayat to use the RTI Act against ration dealers if people did not get their rations on time. In fact, he framed the draft of the RTI application himself. The impact of the move was instant and extremely effective.
Today, Salvi is no longer the sarpanch. His wife Rukmani has taken over his responsibilities. But the flow of RTI applications has not diminished in any way. At least 40 women have used the RTI Act to get their entitlements. Take Patasi Devi, 60, who lives in Cheta Aasan village. This is how she recounted her story: “I am a widowed woman, who was not getting any wheat from the ration shop, although I would keep going there. Salviji advised me to write to the local ration dealer, Ashok Jain, under the RTI Act. He drafted the letter for me. Questions were posed: Why was I not being given wheat? What was the problem? What are the names of those who did receive wheat? The ration dealer read the letter and asked me who had written the letter for me. I told him it was Salviji. From then on, I began getting wheat regularly. Since my name is also on the Below Poverty Line (BPL) list, I get 25 kilos of wheat a month.”
Sahu Bai, who lives in the same village as Patasi Devi, has a similar experience to share. She too is a single woman living separately from her son. Since her name is on the BPL list, ever since she applied for information under the RTI Act she has been getting 25 kilos of wheat every month.
Teju and Dakhu Bai are both widows living in Narayanji ka Bida village in Vijaypura. Dakhu Bai had married one Netaram, while Teju happened to be his elder brother’s wife. According to local custom, after his elder brother’s death, Netaram took Teju under his wing (symbolically, with an offering of bangles) and thereby she too acquired the status of his wife. With Netaram’s death, both were widowed. They are 70-plus years old, bent over with wrinkles on their faces that speak of lives full of struggle. They had received a widow’s pension just once, and then it stopped coming. When they made an application under the RTI Act, their pensions magically resumed. Today, they proudly display their documents, which are carefully preserved in files.
Then there is Champa, wife of the late Goma Bagariya, who lives in Kamli Ghat in the same panchayat. She is also an elderly woman. After applying under the RTI Act, she received a sum of Rs 2,250 as pension for the months of April, May and June 2010.
The RTI movement had emerged from this very soil. The MKSS, also based in Rajasthan’s Rajsamand district, had campaigned in this region on the slogan, ‘Hum Janenge, Hum Jiyenge (We Will Know, We Will Live)’. But it is because of spirited people like Kaluram Salvi, and their relentless struggle, that the RTI Act could emerge as a powerful tool in the hands of the poor. For the single and marginalised women of Vijaypura panchayat, it is nothing less than a lifeline.
Vijaypura is a long way from New York, USA, where world leaders will gather in September to mark the progress on the Millennium Development Goals. Yet, the effective way in which it used the power of information to change the lives of many faceless women, could inspire others living in pockets of deprivation, neglect and corruption elsewhere in the world.