RD: Now that you have studied so many cases, what have you learnt?
AK: We come out with findings every year. We have actually honoured good commissioners and good citizens. The other activity is research on self-rule issues—Panchayati Raj. Until political power is completely decentralized and the decision-making powers are given to the people, things are not going to improve. Philosophically, it sounds good. But how do you implement it? So we were studying the structures of governance. From a world historical perspective, what has been our experience in India? We have just finished writing a book called ‘Swaraj’ on this. It’s on the kind of reforms we need in our governance, in our urban and rural areas so that decision-making, to a large extent, gets transferred to the people on a day-to-day basis and the politicians and bureaucrats only implement those decisions. We have also drafted a Panchayati Raj Amendment Law, a model Nagar Raj Bill. Go to www.lokrajandolan.org. All the model laws we’ve drafted are there.
RD: Won’t such self-governance be very difficult to handle in practice?
AK: No, actually it is the most practical, and easiest thing to do. Our democracy today, as it stands, is so complex and so unworkable. Take this demystifying example. We filed an RTI application in Jharkhand asking for a list of all the government schools in the state and the number of students and teachers. A large number of schools there have 800 to 900 students and not a single teacher, or just one teacher. In today’s system, the people may write a letter to the director of education and the minister of education to ‘please appoint teachers’ and fill vacancies. But they don’t, because for the director, or the education minister, there are many more priorities than a school in a remote area. Even if they do it, they will take bribes for that.
Centralized appointment of teachers takes place and, rather than their qualifications, it is the amount that the person pays. So, we are suggesting, why should all these issues be handled by the state capital? Why can’t the people in a village, the Gram Sabha, a constitutional body, sit down and discuss the need for these many teachers and appoint some teachers?
RD: Will it go to the director of education again?
AK: No, if teachers are not working properly, the Gram Sabha can sack them. It is ultimately their children who are studying there, why should teachers be appointed by Ranchi or Lucknow or Delhi?
Take urban areas. I live in Kaushambi [part of National Capital Region]. Kaushambi’s residents, some 4000 families, pay Rs1.3 crore as house tax but we have absolutely no say in deciding matters. We realize that the condition of the services is very bad. Under RTI, I asked the authorities why the road in front of my house was completely broken? There was no real road there. In my RTI application I also asked, ‘How much money has been spent on Kaushambi in the last two years?’ The answer I got was shocking. They said they spent `42 lakh to repair the road right in front of my house. But there was no road in front of my house!
RD: Where did the money go?
AK: They gave me copies of bills and measurement books. What do I do with the information now? RTI stops here. That’s when we realized that we need some control, some sense in this entire tamasha. We need, first, decision-making as to how and where this money will be spent in our area. And, second, an assurance that payment should not be made to the contractor till we are satisfied with the work.
If the government, out of this Rs1.3 crore, had spent even Rs30 lakh according to our choice, people will be very happy. And there’s another problem. The authorities are not getting all the house tax, because the inspector comes to your area and will teach you how not to pay the tax. We found that many families had not paid house tax for ten years. Why, because the inspectors came and said, ‘Give me Rs2000, and I will gayab [misplace] your file.’ So we went house to house collecting the tax and we were able to do it 100 percent.
RD: And you gave the money to the government?
AK: We told them, ‘All your cheques are lying with us, and if you don’t give us decision-making power we will not pay house tax.’ After a while, the municipal commissioner came to our area. He made a promise saying, ‘Arvindji, you draft the memorandum of understanding. We will sign it the way you say it and we will give you the power, but please give us the cheques. So we handed over all the cheques. But the next day he says, ‘I don’t have the power to do it.’ He went back on his word. By then the people had got tired and it was difficult to get the movement back.
There were many broken roads in our area. We made an estimate that if all those roads were repaired, it could be done in just Rs30 to 40 lakh. But the government claims they’d repaired them, when they were not. So if the people are given the power to take decisions, the people’s priorities will find place in the government’s expenditure. Secondly, there’d be much less expenditure. And, third, corruption will reduce very substantially.
I am not saying that the people should decide what foreign policy we should have with Pakistan. It’s about the things I need, like water, electricity, roads, teachers. Today there is no platform through which I can express that this is what I need. The decisions are taken completely in a very remote place and those decisions are forced upon us.
RD: If that changed, there’d be less corruption too.
AK: We thought corruption was a problem and corruption is to be solved but now we feel that corruption is actually the symptom. The real disease is in the lack of complete political empowerment of the people. People are politically disempowered. They have absolutely no say.
RD: On the chart given by Transparency International, which tracks corruption worldwide, why is it that the most corrupt countries are the poorer ones?
AK: I think corruption and poverty are integrally related. It’s because we are corrupt that there is more poverty. I think one thing feeds into the other, and it’s like the chicken and the egg. Poverty keeps people disempowered, and that leads to more corruption.
RD: Now, you’ve been doing so much for others. You’re different. How do your nearest and dearest see you?
AK: Very interesting. Actually many normally think you’ve gone nuts when you do something unusual—small things like getting a few refunds for some people, or an electricity connection. But then one of my uncles came to me after I got a Magsaysay Award. He said, “Yeh ladka zyada padh likh gaya hai aur iska dimaag kharaab ho gaya hai. Lekin jab se yeh award mila hai, I am thinking yeh kuch to kar hi raha hoga.” [This boy has gone crazy studying all the time. But he got the award, so I think he’s doing something worthwhile.]
RD: What do you think is the future for this country?
AK: The future is very bright as long as the people are active and take to action with enthusiasm.
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