Akshay Kumar, 15, has several things in common with the Bollywood star of the same name — he has a toothy grin, is something of a celebrity in his village and he loves a good fight.
The Class 10 student and farm labourer lives with his parents and younger brother in a makeshift home above a cowshed in Karkedi, a hilly village located at an altitude of 8,000 feet in Tehri Garhwal district in northwest Uttarakhand.
Four yellow bulbs light up the home in the evenings and in the dark, snowy winters. For 11 months, these bulbs — like the bulbs in every home in Karkedi — flickered all night, the voltage fluctuating due to a faulty transformer.
“To read, we had to hold our textbooks inches from the bulb,” says Kumar.
His parents, both farm labourers, shrugged off the problem. But in October, when volunteers from a non-profit organisation came to his village to teach children — most of them the first literate generation — how to use the Right to Information Act, Kumar decided to give it a shot.
A month later, he received a reply from the panchayat, confirming that the transformer was more than a decade old and would be replaced. In April, the bulbs stopped flickering.
Kumar’s story is no longer exceptional. Across the country, as state governments continue to debate whether the six-year-old RTI Act should be introduced in school curricula, non-profit organisations are conducting RTI workshops for children, helping them use the Act to redefine the terms of citizenship, develop a sense of civic responsibility and change lives.
“In many rural areas, children are the only educated members in the family,” says Aditi P Kaur, president of Mountain Children’s Foundation (MCF), which conducted the workshop at Kumar’s school. “You teach the children, you teach a village.”
MCF alone has reached out to 4,000 children in Dehradun and been instrumental in the filing of more than 400 RTI applications over the past year.
In Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka, organisations such as Children’s Movement for Civic Awareness, Fifth Pillar, and Asha for Education, the last headed by Magsaysay award winner Sandeep Pandey, are reaching out to tens of thousands of students through workshops and skits.
The results are often erratic, occasionally life-changing.
In Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, shops selling tobacco are being moved away from educational institutions. In Mysore, Karnataka, a 14-year-old has prodded the municipality into regularly clearing a dustbin that overflowed outside her school.
“Children need to be moulded early,” says Pandey. “If they are made sensitive to issues like corruption and are made aware of their rights, they will follow this path when they grow up.”
It’s not all good news, though. “In some cases, collectors and local officials have threatened the children,” says MCF’s Kaur. “Some children give up, but others fight harder.”
Back in Dehradun, Kumar has travelled for eight hours to get to a run-down party hall decorated with large balloons. He and 200 other children who successfully filed RTI applications over the past year are being felicitated by MCF. His hair has been oiled for the special occasion, his frayed T-shirt and shorts replaced with a button-down shirt and black shoes sewn together at the edges and polished with homemade butter.
Reporters from regional newspapers have gathered to talk to him about his petition. “I go to school in the morning and work in the farms all day. I can study only at night,” he sermonises, as a crowd gathers around him. “If you have a problem, file an RTI. I did, and it worked.”
His friend Mukesh Singh, 17, walks up to him and slaps him on his back.
“Ab hamara Akshay Kumar bhi hero ban gaya. (Our Akshay Kumar is also a hero now),” he says.
At 16, he got his village a new road
In the middle of a dense teak forest in Horawala, a village about 70 km from Dehradun, labourers are busy laying a concretised road.
On paper, this road has existed for about 25 years. In reality, villagers have been forced to trek through the forest on a mud path to get to the nearest bus stop.
Behind all the recent bustle is college student Kaushlesh Nishad, now 18. Two years ago, after an RTI session conducted by NGO Mountain Children’s Foundation, he decided to file an RTI application asking why the road was never built.
“As kids, we had heard endless talk about how the panchayat was supposed to build that road,” says Nishad. “I just wanted to find out what happened.”
When the state public works department replied saying there were unresolved issues with the forest department, Nishad followed up with an RTI application to the forest department.
Six months later, work on the road began.
Now, Nishad plans to file regular RTI applications to monitor progress and even the quality of material used, “to keep the officials on their toes”.
Elsewhere in Dehradun, other children are also using the Act, to prod the government on everything from the public distribution system to water supply. “Adults are now joining in too,” says Nishad, smiling. “They have started coming to us with questions about how to file applications, how to use the Act.”
Enforcing anti-tobacco law
Sixteen-year-old Dileep Sharma was working on an anti-tobacco project for class when he realised that several related laws were being violated right near his Lucknow school.
“There should be no shops selling tobacco within 100 metres of an educational institute,” he says. “But among 15 educational institutes I surveyed, 10 had nearby stores violating the law.” The issue troubled Sharma because a number of his friends are becoming addicted, he says.
So, last month, when Magsaysay award winner Sandeep Pandey started a campaign to educate around 8,000 children about the RTI Act via workshops across 16 schools, Sharma decided to try out what they had been taught.
He and some classmates filled out an RTI application asking who was responsible for enforcing the law and when the illegal shops would be moved.
Sharma is still awaiting a reply, but he is determined to follow the case till the shops are moved.
“If you teach children about tools like RTI, you empower them to solves their own problems,” Shobha Shukla, a teacher and a volunteer with Pandey’s NGO Asha for Education. “They have a lot of energy. We need to channelise this in the right direction. Children can be great instruments of change.”
Getting garbage cleared outside schools
A few months ago, on her way home from school, Class 8 student Kavana Kumar almost stepped on a broken medicine bottle. It had rolled onto the road from a large garbage bin that overflowed just opposite her school; the stench from the uncleared bin often reached her classroom.
“For years, we didn’t know what to do about it,” says Kumar. “Then we were taught how to use the RTI Act, and I realised I had found a solution.”
Children’s Movement for Civic Awareness, a non-profit organisation with centres in Mumbai, Mangalore, Mysore, Hosur and Dharwad, teaches children to file RTIs as part of its civic awareness campaigns.
After a session conducted at her school in September, Kumar addressed her application to the ward officer, asking how many times the garbage had been cleared that month.
Ever since, the garbage — which includes discarded syringes and other hospital waste — has been regularly cleared and the area swept clean regularly.
“She did not just help herself but the entire school,” says BT Sarojini, principal of Arya Vidya Kula, Kumar’s school. “We are very proud of her.”
Similarly, in Mangalore, 12-year-old Pooja Kanth filed an RTI application three months ago, asking how often the garbage at a junction near her school was cleared.
“There are several restaurants there that dump heaps of garbage near the road,” she says. “The stench used to be unbearable and mosquitoes had begun breeding there.”
Kanth learnt about the RTI Act during a session conducted at her school by NGO Center for Integrated Learning.
Twenty days after she filed her application, the garbage was cleared and the road cleaned. “Now it has piled up again and I plan to file another RTI,” she says.