Battering rain can hardly subdue the voice coming out of the mike in a two-room community centre at Drag, Kashmir's Budgam district, 44 km west of Srinagar. It's not a separatist or mainstream seminar, which has attracted dozens of youngsters, but a workshop on the Right to Information Act -- the Act that has changed people's perception about government officials and their accountability.
From unraveling the reasons behind the drowning of two kids in a Jammu and Kashmir Public Construction Company built entrench at Hafroo area in Batapora village, proper distribution of solar lights, containing timber smuggling and laying of water pipes under Central schemes and proper distribution of ration at government-owned depots, Budgam district feels empowered by RTI Act and uses it to make government officials accountable.
"Earlier, government officials were accountable only to police and vigilance but the RTI Act has made them accountable to people too," Dr Muzzafar Bhat (32), who left his medical profession to become an RTI activist in Kashmir, tells the gathering at the seminar.
"Can RTI help us in shunting those teachers in government schools who are incompetent?" asks a curious villager.
To which RTI activists say "no".
With Urdu posters pasted across the terraced village, the seminar at the community centre was attended by school teachers, village head, college-goers and labourers. The seminar was coordinated by a labourer Nazir Ahmad Sheikh from the village.
"The Centre sends solar lights and extends other facilities like housing, etc for rural areas, which are never extended to us by the corrupt officials. But by filing RTI, solar lights was distributed among those who deserved," said Sheikh to the villagers, who put across queries to know how to file an RTI application. The participants pledge to file an RTI on all government spending in the district to unravel "the rot in the system."
The village has decided to pool money to file RTI applications by paying one of the villagers who will do the errands and take the application to the officials concerned.
Bhat, who won IBN Citizen Award, has organised camps across the district to make citizens aware about the emancipatory weapon: RTI.
"RTI makes a democracy participatory and can help in good governance. My aim is to strengthen democracy. Casting mere vote is not democracy... What 1000 people can't do, a single RTI can do that," Bhat told the Hindustan Times.
Bhat is upset with the state government's indifference towards creating awareness of the Act.
"The state government spends crores of rupees on AIDS, tuberculosis advertisements but one won't see a hoarding on the RTI Act anywhere in Kashmir or any advertisement in newspapers," said Bhat.
More than 250 RTI applications have been filed by the RTI Movement on development issues and people-centric schemes. The Movement, which organises at least three seminars in remote villages a week, has expanded to uphill villages of Budgam district equipping people with the power of RTI.
"We intend to replicate the success story in other districts too," said the RTI activists.