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Good time to act

Five years of the RTI have led to scams exposed on the national stage. But away from the spotlight, too, the Act is a quiet tool of empowerment. Here are some untold RTI stories that are inspiring for the change they brought at the grassroots level. Sanjib Kr Baruah writes. Whistleblowers who lost their lives

india Updated: Dec 12, 2010 02:22 IST
Sanjib Kr Baruah

Five years after it was enacted, the "miracle" Right to Information Act is empowering people and catalysing change. But while national impact stories emerging out of RTI applications are celebrated, it isn't just the city-bred citizen who is discovering skeletons in the bureaucracy's cupboard by posing awkward questions to the babus.

If right to information (RTI) pleas helped unearth national scams such as Adarsh Housing Society, the Commonwealth scandal and illegal mining in Karnataka, in villages and small towns, its deployment is raising accountability and speeding up change.

A band of inspired individuals from across the country have used the Act for causes as diverse as making the voice of displaced villagers heard, to getting basics that urbanites take for granted - passports, food rations, street lights and sanitation.

Says political analyst Amulya Ganguli: "There is nervousness among babus that they are being watched. Increasing usage of the law by the weaker sections of society in rural areas will lead to greater empowerment. And the good news is that it is happening, albeit slowly."

The RTI Act emanated from the struggle of peasants and workers in rural Rajasthan in 1994, which gave birth to the legislation under justice PB Savant in 1996. It went through several consultations with the people, before the Act came into existence in 2005.

An estimated 4,00,000 RTI applications were filed from rural India within two and a half years. About 30% of the rural RTI applicants were from the economically weaker classes, having an Antodaya ration card. Nearly 65% had above-poverty-line cards. The rise in awareness about RTI has sure kept the Central Information Commission busy.

Between April 2006 and August 2010, the RTI Act's apex body disposed of 54,853 cases. That's an average of 1,035 cases a month, even as the number of pending cases keep on piling.

Apart from bearing fruit at the community level, the Act is helping individuals such as Lucknow's Muneer-uddin (67), get their due. After retiring from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, he struggled for five years to get his pension sanctioned. After filing an RTI application, all it took was a couple of weeks.

"There is no doubt that the use of the act is spreading at the grassroots," says Sudha Pai, professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Chennai-based columnist Cho Ramaswamy believes that the impact of the Act is yet to be realised. "Its spread has been hampered by cynicism, especially among the educated public. What purpose will the Act serve, people think." Not everyone is seeing it that way as Ramaswamy.

Akhil Gogoi, 34, a poor farmer's son from upper Assam, has made the RTI a sharp-edged weapon in his fight against corruption and malpractices, giving a voice to the state's till-now voiceless peasantry.

"The struggle has given a new credo to Assam's villagers: seek transparency and demand accountability," says Gogoi.

It hasn't been smooth sailing everywhere. In Jammu and Kashmir, for instance, in the absence of a state information commission, which the government is unable to constitute for political reasons, the Act has become a toothless tiger, says Jammu-based RTI activist Raman Sharma.

That RTI has set the cat among the pigeons can be gauged from the number of activists murdered or persecuted across the nation.

Yet the battle for information rights is far from over. The bureaucracy is divided with one group straining to make itself as transparent as possible while the other keen that nothing is revealed to the public.

Poor awareness of the Act and the complicated procedure are the other stumbling blocks. But even threats of bodily harm haven't deterred the rural whistle-blowers. The information juggernaut is rolling.

The postman rang again to deliver their passports
Raman Sharma social worker, Jammu

Running from pillar to post to get their passports issued, Mukhtiar Ahmed and others, from a border village in Jammu and Kashmir's Poonch district used the Right to Information Act. Within 17 days of filing the application, the local postman delivered their passports.

In 2008, Ahmed came in touch with Jammu-based RTI activist Raman Sharma, who goaded him to file an application seeking to know the reason behind the delay in delivery. Before that, the villagers of Rajpura had never heard of the RTI Act.

Sharma helped Ahmed file the application in September 2008 and the results were spectacular: on the 17th day, the local postman dropped in, passport in hand.

Said Abdul Rashid, a local youth who got his passport within days of filing the RTI plea inspired by Ahmed, "It was a dream come true for me since I wanted to work in Saudi Arabia. The youth of this border village never expected such a quick response from the concerned department. The act is a big boon for common people like us."

She helped unearth embezzled funds for bird flu victims
Dipti Patra homemaker Kalyani, West Bengal

By launching the organisation Indian People's Right For Information and Democracy, Patra has used the RTI Act to change the lives of people in the semi-urban and rural tracts of West Bengal.

In September 2010, she came to know that the sub-divisional officer, Kalyani, had made a mess of funds allotted for those affected due to bird flu culling. She filed an RTI plea seeking the audit inspection report.

"The official's first response was incomplete, misleading and brusque," said Patra.

After she pointed to the absence of etiquette and respect for the dignity of the applicant in another letter, the tone changed.

The second response revealed gross embezzlement of funds allotted as culling compensation for countering avian influenza.

"The BDO, Haringhata, had made excess and unauthorised payment of Rs 6 lakh and the Kalyani municipality, too, had made excess and unauthorised payment of Rs 84,500," she said.

A departmental inquiry has been initiated against officers responsible for the embezzlement of funds.

From solar lights to water pipes, RTI has empowered
Muzzafar Bhat doctor-turned-activist Drag, J&K

Residents of Drag, in Kashmir's Budgam district, 44 kilometre west of Srinagar, have unleashed an 'RTI jihad'. The empowering act for transparency has helped people hold government officials accountable.

Over the last three years, the district's remotest corners have witnessed a number of workshops on the RTI Act led by Dr Muzzafar Bhat, 32, who left his medical practice to become an RTI activist. He organises at least three seminars in remote villages a week to spread awareness about RTI's liberating powers.

From discovering the reasons behind the drowning of two children in a public construction company-built entrench in Batapora village, distribution of solar lights, containing timber smuggling and laying of water pipes, the Right to Information Act has empowered Budgam's ordinary people.

"Earlier, government officials were accountable only to the police and vigilance but the RTI Act has made them accountable to people too," said Bhat.

"It can help in good governance. Merely casting the vote is not democracy...What 1,000 people can't do, a single application can achieve."

Residents resort to RTI for roads, cleanliness
Vallabh Pandey, Resident Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh

When it was built in 2000, the Om Nagar colony in eastern Uttar Pradesh's Varanasi had good roads and functional streetlights. The civic authorities kept the environs clean. By 2007, the streetlights had vanished, the roads were in decay and the cleaning by the municipal officials stopped.

Using the right to information, residents of this 400 household locality managed to return to a time when the colony is a role model for others in the temple city.

In 2010, the streetlights have resumed functioning and the cleaning is done on a regular basis. Interestingly, the services were discharged even before the respective departments revealed the information sought in the RTI pleas.

"After Om Nagar was built, there was a sharp decline in maintenance standards. We filed two applications at the municipality and electricity departments. Things were revamped in a few days," said Vallabh Pandey, one of the residents.

"Ever since we sought information through RTI, this area is getting better attention from the concerned departments."

Restoring supply of food rations that never arrived
Rambabu resident Hardoi, Uttar Pradesh

Villagers of Almapur in western Uttar Pradesh's Hardoi district realised the efficacy and effectiveness of RTI as a tool for empowerment when they used it to probe the non-availability of monthly rations under the public distribution scheme.

The Below-Poverty-Line families led by Rambabu, a local villager, sought information under the Right to Information Act from the food supply department. The villagers found that the supply was not provided despite being mentioned in stock and distribution registers.

The application for the RTI forced apathetic local officials to probe the entire functioning of the supply department. Not just this, stocks of the prior six months were also released at one go.

All it took was filing of RTI applications and two months of intense follow-ups, aided by local RTI activists.

"We came to know that the supply was released from the ration depots but did not reach the families, these were meant for. It was only with the help of the RTI and the subsequent struggle of a couple of months that we received our rations. That too, well in time," said Rambabu.

Evicted tribals discover govt land can't be sold
Sunnam Venkatramanna activist, Kalyani, West Bengal

Tired of a nomadic existence, T Krishna, 42, a Lambadi tribal and 12 of his clansmen got together to build 13 mud-and-thatch huts on land earmarked for grazing on the outskirts of a town, which is a part of the Integrated Tribal Development Agency in Bhadrachalam, Andhra Pradesh.

Working as a coolie, Krishna had saved Rs 18,000 while the other families had pooled similar amounts by selling firewood, or working in a paper factory. On August 18, a few influential neighbours laid claim to the land and got the homesteaders evicted with help from the police.

That is when they decided to put the RTI Act to use. Within a week Krishna got a reply, confirming what they always knew. Their houses were built on agency land, which belonged to government and that it couldn't be bought or sold. Encouraged, Krishna is seeking damages from the people who demolished the huts.

"RTI has emboldened other tribal people to approach the information commission for redressal of their grievances on land," said Sunnam Venkatramanna, state secretary of the Adivasi Samkshema Parishat.

With Ashok Das in Hyderabad, Peerzada Ashiq in Srinagar, Arteev Sharma in Jammu, Snigdhendu Bhattacharya in Kolkata, Arshi Rafique in Lucknow, and Gulam Jeelani in Lucknow

Whistleblowers who lost their lives

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