The RTI Act is not a toothless tiger after all, provided you have the perseverance — like BC Panda of Orissa’s Sambalpur district. Panda battled the Forest Department’s apathy and harassment with 20 RTIs and 200 petitions that he sent to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik and the Orissa Human Rights Commission among others. Finally, after three years he won the war.
“Government officials do not easily give information to the public. However, once you are persistent, they cannot hide facts for long. One RTI has to be followed up by several other RTIs. The process cost me a lot of money and time and drained me completely. But it was worth it,” he said.
In 2005, Panda applied for permission at the Sambhalpur DFO’s office to cut 36 trees on his land in Birsinghgarh village to prepare it for agriculture. He needed money for his son’s higher education.
Such cases for granting timber transit permit are disposed of within 90 days. But Panda was allegedly made to run from pillar to post for five months before his application was rejected in 2006.
Using the RTI Act, Panda found his case was rejected on the basis of an outdated forest act. He petitioned authorities in the government, which directed the DFO to dispose of the case in accordance with another act. But the DFO asked Panda to submit a fresh application with the pre-condition that his timber could only be sold to the Orissa Forest Development Corporation, which would obviously dictate the price.
Panda again sought information under RTI Act to know how big industries got permission in similar cases. He learnt some were granted permission without pre-conditions. Armed with the documents, Panda moved the Lokpal in August 2007. Justice S.C. Mohapatra directed the DFO to issue timber transit permit to Panda in January 2008 allowing him to sell his timber to any party.