In the heartland of Rajasthan, nestled on the slope of a spur of the bleak, rock-strewn Aravalli range, lies the quaint village of Devdungri. Its dusty tracks wind through Babool shrubs, and its landscape, though harsh, possesses a strangely evocative beauty. The soil is dark and arid, and water is a scarce resource, drawn from deep wells and preserved in ponds dug from the stony earth. Devdungri represents a long history of toil as its inhabitants have strived to extract a livelihood from the rugged terrain.
The village, for many activists and journalists, holds significant historical importance as the birthplace of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. It was here, in a simple mud house in 1987, three years before the formation of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), that the seeds of the RTI movement were sown. The hut in Devdungri served as a shelter, an assertion, and a silent witness to the events and discussions that would shape the debate on the Right to Know.
In 1987, three individuals from diverse backgrounds came together to live and work in Devdungri. They were Aruna Roy, a former civil servant who had resigned from the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) to work with the rural poor; Shankar Singh, a local with exceptional communication skills and a passion for rural politics; and, Nikhil Dey, the son of an Air Marshal, who had returned from the US with a strong desire to make a difference in the lives of his people. These three individuals shared a common concern about exploitation, poverty and inequality in villages and sought to bring about change by empowering the marginalised.
Moving into the home of Haggu and Jait Singh in the hamlet of Chokkavadia, the trio embraced a simple way of life—sleeping on the ground, drawing water from a well, cooking on a choolah (stove) and washing their clothes and utensils. Their rented hut, with an adjoining goat pen that they converted into a kitchen and bathing area, became a base for their work.
Life in Devdungri was basic, where the boundaries between home and workplace were blurred. Important conversations and arguments took place while performing daily chores like chopping wood, cooking and eating. It was in these continuous discussions that critical insights and ideas emerged.
Living in Devdungri meant understanding and addressing the issues faced by the local community. The region bore the scars of feudal rule, with life being hard, scarce cultivable land, and occasional droughts making survival even more challenging. Most of those dependent on agriculture struggled to make ends meet, leading to persistent poverty and social inequity.
Despite the harsh conditions, the traditional culture of the region thrived in the colourful clothes, engaging songs, fascinating myths and the dialects of its people. Devdungri reflected both the struggles and the vitality of its residents, as they dreamt of a world marked by justice and equality.
The presence of these newcomers in the village aroused curiosity and speculation among the villagers. Many were sceptical, wondering if they had come to exploit or take advantage of the community. However, the trio’s commitment to the well-being of the workers and their opposition to untouchability began to win over some of the villagers. Their open-mindedness and willingness to challenge social norms sparked debates and discussions, gradually building bridges between the newcomers and the community.
In those early days, Lal Singh, a police constable who had experienced corruption within the system, joined the group and became a valued friend and arbitrator for disputes in the village. Mot Singh, an intelligent and witty storyteller, also became a frequent visitor to the hut, sharing stories that resonated with the newcomers and sparked profound reflections on poverty, hope, and despair.
Living with the community and participating in their daily lives was crucial for the group’s work. It helped them understand the people’s issues and concerns within the limitations of their own lives. Their willingness to challenge social norms and inequalities further strengthened their bond with the villagers.
The Devdungri journey was not without challenges, but the trio persisted, focusing on grassroots mobilisation and empowering the marginalised. Their work gradually extended beyond Devdungri, leading to the formation of the MKSS and, eventually, the RTI movement.
Devdungri holds a special place in the history of India’s RTI Act, as it was here that the struggle for transparency, accountability and justice began. The hut that once served as their home stands as a symbol of their commitment to simplicity, collectivism and the pursuit of truth. Through their tireless efforts, Roy, Singh and Dey sowed the seeds of change; and, their vision for a more just and equitable society continues to inspire activists and citizens alike. Devdungri’s arid landscape may have witnessed the humble beginnings of the RTI Act, but its impact on India’s democratic fabric is immeasurable.
Over the years, the work and impact of the MKSS and the RTI movement have extended far beyond the boundaries of Devdungri. The group’s commitment to transparency, accountability and social justice have resonated with people from all walks of life, leading to the formation of a powerful social movement that demanded the Right to Know.
As news of the movement spread, more people came forward to join the cause, and the MKSS gained supporters from across the country. They organised protests, held public meetings and utilised innovative methods like street plays and puppets to raise awareness about the importance of the right to information. The group’s ability to communicate complex issues through simple and engaging methods captured the imagination of the masses.
In the late 1990s, the MKSS played a critical role in the campaign for the enactment of the Right to Information Act. Their relentless efforts and advocacy finally bore fruit when Parliament passed the Right to Information Act in 2005. This historic legislation empowered Indian citizens with the right to access information held by public authorities, making the government more transparent and accountable to the people. As the RTI movement gained momentum, Roy, Singh, Dey and Lal Singh remained deeply committed to the cause, continuing to work closely with the community in Devdungri. The village became a hub for dialogues, discussions, and debates on issues ranging from social equality and gender rights to sustainable development and environmental protection.
The impact of the RTI Act was not limited to Devdungri or even Rajasthan. It reverberated across the nation, empowering citizens to demand accountability from their elected representatives and government officials. The Act played a crucial role in exposing corruption, promoting good governance and empowering marginalised communities. The success of the RTI movement inspired similar initiatives around the world, becoming a shining example of how grassroots efforts can bring about profound societal changes. The principles of transparency, accountability and social justice championed by the MKSS and the RTI movement continue to influence social and political activism globally.
As years passed, Devdungri evolved into a thriving centre of activism and social change. It became a place where people gathered to learn, discuss, and share their experiences to fight for their rights. The village’s mud house, once a simple shelter for the trio, now serves as a symbol of resistance and a source of inspiration for future generations of activists.
The MKSS expanded its work beyond the RTI Act. They engaged in campaigns for minimum wages, land rights and social justice, further solidifying their position as a prominent grassroots organisation. The village of Devdungri continued to be an essential part of this journey, offering a sense of belonging and purpose to those fighting for a more equitable and just society.
Today, Devdungri stands as a testament to the power of collective action, where a small group of individuals dared to dream of a better India and turned their vision into reality. The dusty tracks by the Babool shrubs may still carry traces of the past, but they also carry the hope and resilience of a village that catalysed a movement that changed the course of India’s history.
As the legacy of Devdungri continued to inspire and shape the nation, the village itself experienced a gradual transformation. The once dusty tracks saw improvements in infrastructure, and basic amenities like access to clean water, proper sanitation and electricity became a reality for the villagers. The community started to thrive with better opportunities for education, healthcare and livelihoods.
Decades after the movement’s inception, the impact of the RTI Act is evident in various aspects of governance. Citizens are empowered to hold public officials accountable and demand transparent decision-making processes. The Act has proved to be a potent tool in exposing corruption and empowering the marginalised to fight for their rights. The RTI Act stands as a pivotal legal instrument, bestowing upon citizens the power to access information. The RTI movement bears testament to an arduous struggle for transparency, accountability and the empowerment of ordinary citizens.
As the sun sets over the Aravalli range, the legacy of Devdungri lives on, inspiring countless others to believe in the transformative power of grassroots activism and the enduring value of the Right to Know. The journey that began in 1987 continues, fuelled by the indomitable spirit of Devdungri and the unwavering commitment of those who dare to dream of a more just and equal world.
(Views expressed are personal)
(This appeared in the print as 'The Humble Hut That Changed A Nation')
Vikram Raj is an independent journalist