From Our Archives: Arvind Kejriwal's Quest For Change
Reader’s Digest interviewed the former bureaucrat in 2011 when he was not yet a politician, but an activist against corruption
If you’ve been following the news, you’re unlikely to have missed the passionate voice of Arvind Kejriwal, the 42-year-old Haryana-born activist, who is determined to tackle corruption and help change the way India is governed.
An IIT-trained mechanical engineer, Kejriwal joined the Indian Revenue Service (IRS) in 1995 but resigned after five years there. While he was an Additional Commissioner of Income Tax in Delhi, Kejriwal quietly started Parivartan, an organization that has never been officially registered. It is run by a few young volunteers who have helped thousands of citizens get everyday benefits—like a ration card or an electricity connection—without paying bribes to government officials. Parivartan [which means change] is also spearheading research into the right to information (RTI) and governance issues. Kejriwal, a 2006 winner of the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Emergent Leadership, was also instrumental in campaigning to have the Central RTI Act passed.
Kejriwal lives just outside of Delhi, with his wife Sunita of the IRS (she is a former colleague), and their two children with whom the busy activist sometimes wishes he could spend more time.
When Reader’s Digest interviewed Kejriwal in Delhi, it was early March, a whole month before Anna Hazare’s momentous fast, when the model Jan Lokpal Bill—aimed essentially at empowering citizens and fighting corruption—became the kind of news that eclipsed even the start of cricket’s IPL-4.
It was Kejriwal who, dejected with the long-delayed official Lokpal Bill, was instrumental in drafting the Jan Lokpal Bill, much of it deriving from his experience with Parivartan. Before going to press, we asked Kejriwal if he expected that kind of national, in fact global, response from Indians to something for which he’s been the little-known prime mover. “Not really,” he replied, “that’s why it was so encouraging.”
Reader’s Digest: Your big fight has been against corruption. Isn’t it ironic that people in the news because of corruption scandals include a Post Master General, a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a Director-General of Police, an Income Tax Commissioner…?
Arvind Kejriwal: That’s because our system encourages corruption. And the vested interests have become so powerful and brazenly dishonest, they are challenging the rest of society, you and me, with ‘We will remain dishonest. If you can do anything about it, you do it.’ We need a system that encourages honesty and discourages corruption.
RD: Did this interest in fighting corruption start in your student days?
AK: No, I didn’t take part in anything other than academics then. So I got into IIT Kharagpur.
RD: And why didn’t you go abroad, as most IIT graduates do?
AK: Yes, some 80 to 90 percent of an IIT batch used to go abroad. I joined the Tatas. But just being an engineer wasn’t seen as sufficient, so the choice was between management studies, civil services and going abroad. I took the civil services. Although I had no experience, there was an urge to do something for society. I felt the services would give me an opportunity.
RD: So how did you start?
AK: When I was waiting for the interview call, I resigned from the Tatas and did some travelling for almost six months. I went to see Mother Teresa in Kolkata. I stood in the queue and when my turn came, I said, ‘Mother, I want to work with you,’ and she held my hands and said, ‘Go and work at Kalighat.’
RD: What did you do there?
AK: We used to go all across Kolkata. I saw a lot of poverty, sick people on footpaths, some even with gangrene. We used to bring such people to the Kalighat ashram and nurse them. If they were dying, Mother Teresa’s message was to let them die with dignity. So there should be some volunteers with them.
RD: Where else did you travel then?
AK: My stint with Mother Teresa for about two months was like a complete service. Before that I went into the interiors of Bodoland and other areas. I joined the Ramakrishna Mission for a while and then Nehru Yuva Kendra and travelled all across Haryana. When I got the interview call, I returned home. I liked this phase of my life, because I interacted with various people before I joined the IRS.
RD: Did your dad suggest this travel?
AK: No, they were very concerned because I was suddenly out of circulation, and there was no mobile phone in those days. My parents weren’t happy because they just didn’t know what had happened to this guy who’d until then been ‘all right’.
RD: Tell us about your IRS days.
AK: It was a sudden change after all the travel, and so seemed a little difficult. I was always thinking ‘I am not going to be happy in this job’ and after joining the training—it was 1995—I said so to some of the professors. I told them ‘I think I am a misfit’ and asked if I should continue in the job or not. They suggested I continue and not take any hasty decision.
RD: You felt already that this was a corrupt organization?
AK: No, I think I enjoyed every bit of it, working in the IRS. I was never victimized, and the Income Tax Department where I worked actually offers great opportunity.
RD: What do you mean by I was never victimized?
AK: I don’t know about other departments but at least in Income Tax, if you are honest I don’t think you are victimized. I mean there is a general perception that if you are in the government and if you are honest you are victimized. I had good postings, I had a good stint and the reason for leaving the job was not that I was not happy. I’d thoroughly enjoyed it.
RD: I’ve read that you saw so much corruption going on, which you couldn’t stand, and that is why you quit.
AK: No, I saw lot of corruption going on and I also realized that you can’t do anything about this corruption by being in the government. I started taking interest in anti-corruption activities through various other means, but not with the knowledge of my seniors or colleagues.
RD: What did you do, for instance?
AK: There were some friends who were outside the IRS. At one dinner in 2000 we decided to start Parivartan. An uncle of mine and my brother donated, in all, ₹50,000 for cloth banners and pamphlets that were distributed or displayed all across Delhi. They said: ‘Don’t pay bribes in the Income Tax Department. If you have a problem, contact Parivartan. We will get your work done free of cost.’ We also gave our phone number and e-mail.
RD: Was there any particular case that triggered this?
AK: No, it was just that we had to do something against corruption. Where do we start? We started with Income Tax, because I was in Income Tax, so this was the department we knew from the inside. If it were some other department I would at least need to understand their rules and policies before taking on this.
RD: When did colleagues find out?
AK: After about two years. Anyway, I was on constant chutti [leave] after that—first two years on study leave, then leave without pay. I stayed in the background; there were our volunteers doing the work.
RD: What effect did it have?
AK: People started approaching us and we solved some 800 cases in 18 months. We also filed a PIL [public interest litigation] for some systemic changes in the Income Tax Department. Then we started, simultaneously, with the Electricity Department. I also thought that income tax actually involved middle- or upper-class gentry who could fend for themselves, and income tax often involved mutual corruption.
But electricity involves all kinds of people. A very poor person from a juggi [slum] came to us saying that he had been slapped a bill of about ₹8 lakh although he has only one fan and a few lights—a case of faulty billing, so he was crying. They’d disconnected his power supply. We got his case solved and the bill was finally reduced to about ₹800. Anyway, that’s the kind of people who used to come. Then we started helping out with PDS [public distribution system—ration shop] complaints. But after a while, we started wondering… I mean, how long can we continue like this? It is not sustainable nor replicable.
Earlier the people were dependent on touts; now they were depending on us. The people themselves are not empowered, I felt. Tomorrow if Parivartan is not there, then they’re back to Square One. That was my worry. That was when the Right to Information law was passed by the Delhi Government, in October 2001.
RD: You worked for that too?
AK: No, but I worked for the enactment of the Central Right to Information Act. I came upon the Delhi RTI accidentally, in a small newspaper report. There was also some drama with respect to its implementation. The government passed the law but it was never notified, so when we tried to submit some applications to some departments using it, they said ‘we don’t know about this law.’ So we did a dharna and we wrote letters to the CM and the law finally got notified to all departments.
RD: How did you use it?
AK: Right to information is a fundamental right, an extension of the Constitution’s Article 19. We tried our first case where a man called Ashok Gupta came to us saying he had applied for a new electricity connection two years earlier, and that they were asking for a ₹5000 bribe. ‘I refused to pay any bribe,’ he said, ‘now you tell me what to do. I heard that you guys get such grievances solved.’ So we told him ‘sorry we will not accept your grievance,’ but we drafted the first RTI application for him asking the department some basic questions. Gupta got his electricity connection within 10 days!
RD: How did that make you feel?
AK: We thought this was very powerful. So if we explained RTI to people, helped them draft their applications and asked them to go and submit it themselves, we’d stop playing middleman, empower people and create awareness.
RD: When you started Parivartan, there must have been a lot of hurdles you faced. I mean, if your volunteers went to an office, they definitely were not going to be well-received.
AK: You see, when your struggle against injustice or corruption is known and accepted, resentment will be there. There have been a series of attacks, physical violence also, especially when we started addressing corruption in the PDS. Once, the throat of one of our workers was slit by [ration] shopkeepers.
But I think the biggest challenge, more than all this, is how do you break the cynicism of the people in this country? Because if people just give up, that is the biggest challenge. How do you ask people to join now in the various struggles? So when you say hurdles, the most difficult one is to tell the people ‘Why don’t you participate? This will work.’
People see a ray of hope in RTI. Now we are telling you that the Jan Lokpal Bill, if enacted, will have an impact. It will reduce corruption. But it’s been so difficult to tell the people to participate in this movement and support the Jan Lokpal Bill, because people have just given up. People would say, ‘Is se to kuch nahin ho sakta.’
RD: We understand that you have also set up a Public Cause Research Foundation. What does it do?
AK: After I got the Magsaysay Award in 2006, I donated the prize money, about $50,000, as seed money to set up the Foundation because we realized that there was no systemic research being done. Over the last two years we have analyzed thousands of orders passed by all the information commissioners [there is one in every state, who is responsible for implementing RTI]. We also do research on self-governance issues in a big way.
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 ₹1.3 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 ₹1.3 crore, had spent even ₹30 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 ₹2000, 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 ₹30 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.
This interview was carried in the May 2011 edition of Reader’s Digest India