Activist Nikhil Dey: To make RTI really effective, we need an accountability law for public servants

The right to information activist was convicted of a 19-year crime in Rajasthan last week.

For 30 years, social wrestler Nikhil Dey has been active in advocacy for the rights of workers, farmers and marginalized citizens. Through Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, Aruna Roy Dey and Shankar Singh and their colleagues have campaigned to introduce the Right to Information Act, the Right to Food Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

On 13 June, however, Dey was sentenced to four months’ imprisonment by a Rajasthan court in a 19-year case of alleged assault. In a verdict, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan calls a “miscarriage of justice,” district court Kishangarh sentenced Dey and four other activists for assaulting Pyarelal tank, ex sarpanch of Harmar Village and Ajmer family. They were also convicted of crimes.

Dey and Sangathan denied the charges. They told me that it was the Sarpanch and his relatives who had attacked Dey and other activists when they went to the house of the Tank May 6, 1998 by requesting documentation of panchayat from funds that had been paid to various public schemes. Although activists chose not to file a complaint to the police at the time, Tanque filed a lawsuit accusing them of assault. The case was closed a month later but reopened in 2001. Sangathan said sarpanch dragged the case over for years making a series of false witnesses.

The conviction last week was an unexpected and unpleasant surprise for Dey. For now, the belief is suspended as activists have appealed against it.

While Dey chose not to speak of the case and recorded his conviction, 54-year activist spoke of displacement. As for the state of the various social assistance programs in rural India, the democracy reduction of space under Narendra Modi and why India needs a law of responsibility of public officials.

For three years the Democratic National Alliance came to power. How was this system far from the previous government?
The social sector has become much less serious today. There is practically no imagination about how poverty, farmers, vulnerable groups can be treated. Before winning the election, the NDA has openly attacked rights-based approaches and, after winning, talked only about empowering people in the market. They said they did not want a benefit-based system for people – that was their approach, in their own words.

Today, its rural development programs have failed. The good thing is that they push the Aadhaar tuition (a unique biometric identity number based on 12-digit Government wants all citizens), who claim to have improved the provision of services. But in Rajasthan, the only state that has made biometrics mandatory for access to rations, we saw that 30% of the eligible population is not able to get cereals. This is a big exception, even if the Aadhaar inscription was a great success.

We also see the tragedy of SWACHH Bharat in the way it is implemented. In rural India, Rs 12,000 were offered to each household to build a toilet – too small even for the poor. In addition, states like Rajasthan lack toilet water.