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The Hindu on : Digvijay Singh cornered on right to information

Online edition of India's National Newspaper on
Friday, April 06, 2001

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Digvijay Singh cornered on right to information

By Kalpana Sharma

BEAWAR, APRIL 5. The Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, Mr. Digvijay Singh, came to Beawar to demonstrate his support for the National Campaign for the Right to Information (NCPRI). Instead, he found himself being held accountable for his recent actions in Madhya Pradesh.

The opening session of the National Convention on Democracy, Right to Information and Accountability, organised jointly by the NCPRI and the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) took an unexpected turn when Mr. Singh completed his speech. The Chief Minister endorsed the need for the Right to Information and asserted that ``in a democratic country there should not be any reason to hide information on development programmes. Mr. Singh also acknowledged that implementing laws, such as the Panchayati Raj Act or laws relating to the Right to Information was not easy. In Madhya Pradesh, despite his Government's efforts to make Panchayati Raj less of ``sarpanch raj'', he admitted that ``even now we cannot say that we have been successful.''

But when Mr. Singh was asked by Mr. Vinod Raina of the Bhopal- based Eklavya group why his Government had arrested people who were protesting against the Man Dam and kept them in jail for 14 days, just because they wanted to draw attention to the absence of adequate rehabilitation, Mr. Singh did not have a satisfactory answer. He said the protesters, who belonged to the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) had not asked for any information. They had broken the law and therefore were arrested. He said they had been charged with a bailable offence and were in jail only because they refused to pay the bail.

The Chief Minister said he had held many discussion with the NBA on this issue. ``I have said this before that we cannot give land for land. And now because of the Supreme Court judgment, we cannot give forest land, even if it comes under revenue land.'' He claimed that people were demanding that the partly-built Man Dam be completed.

Mr. Singh was also asked about the recent firing in the adivasi- inhabited forest areas of Dewas where six adivasis had died in police firing. The Chief Minister blamed activists working amongst the adivasis and said ``we cannot give them permission to cut the jungle,'' suggesting that forests were being `cut' by the adivasis. There was a spirited exchange on this issue with Mr. Singh being asked by an activist from Maharashtra whether activists working with adivasis can be treated like Veerappan.

The limited exchange highlighted the problems that persist even if laws like the Right to Information are passed. And this was stressed by Mr. A. B. Baradhan, general secretary of the Communist Party of India, when he said there were dozens of laws that had been passed but not implemented. The most blatant violation of law could be seen in the universal non- implementation of the minimum wage.

Mr. Baradhan also publicly disagreed with the Chief Minister on the issue of the tribals and forests. ``Jungles should not be cut'', he said, ``but the adivasis are the protectors of the jungle. What about the thekedars, the forest rangers and the ministers?``

Although politicians and some prominent personalities, like Justice P. B. Sawant, Chairman of the Press Council, have spoken on stage at the convention, the real discussions have been taking place in small groups. Here activists, villagers, academics and others are sitting together and sharing their experience of what the Right to Information actually means on the ground.

As Ms. Aruna Roy of the MKSS told The Hindu, ``What we are discussing here is not just a question of corruption but a question of governance.'' Accountability in public life was not an abstract issue of ethics for poor people, she said. ``The kind of blatant corruption we have seen destroys the lives of the poor, destroys their right to live.''

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