“Be the change you want to see in the world.” This seems to be the driving force behind Arvind Kejriwal from India. Kerjriwal established Parivartan, meaning “change”, and empowered citizens, especially the marginalized, to demand from the government and its bureaucracy the rights that is rightfully theirs.
There was little in his youth that foreshadowed the impassioned activist that 38 year old Arvind Kejriwal, 2006 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Emergent Leadership, is today. A fairly new category initiated in 2001, Emergent Leadership honors “outstanding work of an individual, 40 years of age and below, on issues of social change in his/her community, but whose leadership is not yet broadly recognized outside of this community.”
His was a privileged background and his father was a well-established engineer. A mechanical engineer himself, he studied at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur, India and worked as assistant manager at Tata Steel for a brief three years, for he became restless and was beset with many questions. While a student, he noticed that government service was an option of many of his peers. “I won’t say we were all driven by great social concerns, but deep inside was the vague feeling that one can make a difference from within the government.”
He sat for the public service examinations and while waiting for the results, he traveled to different parts of India – to Mother Teresa’s and Ramakrishna’s missions. He was struck at how backward those areas were. If it were just poverty, he wondered, how come his own birthplace, Haryana which knows no such poverty, was also underdeveloped? What deters a community from developing?
It was nothing earthshaking he discovered while a civil servant at Delhi’s Income Tax Commissioner’s Office of the Indian Revenue Service. He was disturbed that citizens were being denied services that they were entitled to. His department seemed to be a “silent, collective extortionist machine.” Public information was withheld from the citizens and the public was in the dark about the status of their cases. It was then when he decided to fight back the system that he was a part of. His activism began as a mole in the government service. It was a distinct advantage that Kejriwal knew the labyrinthine ways of bureaucracy.
After a series of secret meetings with two allies with similar sentiments, in 2000, Parivartan, an association meaning “change” or “renewal” which espoused transparency in government and fought corruption in the bureaucracy, was born.
Its initial strategy was to present a set of simple doable suggestions to the Chief Commissioner of Income Tax for each application for a request for service: an assigned serial number for each application; processing of applications in a strict queue with its order to be published in lieu of the system of random pickings. Citizens were asked not to pay the bribes that seemed part of the system.
When the Commissioner did not seem to practice what was agreed upon in an affidavit, Kejriwal organized Parivartan volunteers to sit in a peaceful satyagrapha, Gandhi-style passive and peaceful resistance, in the corridor outside the Commissioner’s office. The threat of a larger protest group with press coverage prompted the commissioner to turn amicable.
It was not easy to achieve what Parivartan wanted in its first protest action. From that initial experience, Kejriwal knew how long and arduous each struggle would be, and the result seemingly so insignificant. Far from discouraging him, it fueled his determination. “The bureaucracy succeeds by discouraging you, hoping that you will give up. Often we do. If we don’t succeed, we wilt and blame the system. We must learn to fight in the courts, the offices and streets.”
By then, Kjeriwal had unmasked himself and was on terminal leave from work. He is now closely and publicly associated with Parivartan, has been without income for over three years, depending on his wife’s earnings as a civil servant to support his two children.
Parivatan as a people’s movement uses Delhi’s Right to Information Act of 2001 to empower citizens to question governments, inspect their files, acquire copies of government documents and inspect government projects. That there is indeed power in information is best manifested in the government’s attempts to deny its access to the public. Parivatan encourages, educates, and empowers especially the illiterate and semi-literate citizens to file queries, even assisting many of them in completing the necessary documentation.
Kejriwal explains that RIF gives every Indian five rights: “to ask any question of government and get a reply; to inspect government documents; to receive photocopies for a nominal sum; to inspect government work and to take specimens of materials used.” Non-compliance can lead to dismissals and salary deductions.
One major campaign led by Parivartan was for electricity connections. Some had waited for two years. When RTI was used to question the delays and the names of the bureaucrats involved, 200 applications were acted on within ten days.
A dramatic campaign was on the food distribution system. Through actual visits to the homes of the women of Sundernagari, a resettlement colony in East Delhi, it was discovered that while they received their ration cards for subsidized grains and groceries, they could not enjoy them. The 17 ration shops were usually closed or out of stocks.
Parivartan assisted one slum dweller to file a request for her records which showed that although she had not received her ration for two years, her thumbprints, allegedly hers, showed in monthly receipts. When twenty other women sought their records, they discovered a serious anomaly. Up to 90% of recorded deliveries were never received by the cardholders. These goods were sold in the open market by the shop owners.
Parivartan assisted the women in filing RTI complaints. Soon after, this Parivartan worker was violently attacked. She survived but this act fired the women of Sundernagari, more than five thousand of them, to hold a month-long boycott of all ration shops. Their chant was, “We are not begging from anyone! We are demanding our rights.”
This started an awareness campaign in other slum districts and drew public attention. It was not long before shops which had never opened for years began inviting the residents to patronize them. And now, records are available for inspection at shops twice a month.
Kejriwal shuns the public attention focused on him, saying “I am but one of the team.” Parivartan is a lean team of ten fulltime members, housed in a small warehouse. It is neither an NGO nor a body registered with any authority. It is a mere association of persons, the loosest structure permitted by law. It does not accept corporate funds especially from foreign companies and relies more on private donations.
It continues in its crusade for transparency and upholding citizen’s rights. Last year, Kejriwal and Parivartan led a successful campaign challenging a water-privatization plan for New Delhi, even citing Manila as an example of exorbitant water rates and unsatisfactory delivery of service. A more recent issue is the manner in which the Central Information Commission, set up to look into the public grievances, are handling requests for public records. Kejriwal wrote in his letter of complaint two months ago, questioning what he calls a “completely bizarre judgment”, where one is told that one cannot ask for any information which could be answered with a “Yes” or a “No” and neither can you ask questions which begin with “Why”, “When”, “Whether”, etc.
Fortunately for the people of Delhi, Kejriwal knows the intricacies of bureaucracy and is not easily discouraged, aware that one small victory at a time, is accomplishment enough.