He watches Bollywood movies and is a fan of Aamir Khan. But Arvind Kejriwal, the 38-year-old Magsaysay winner, would have liked a different ending for Rang De Basanti.
“Instead of killing the minister, Aamir and friends should have filed a right to information (RTI) application to find out why so many fighter planes were going down in flames,” he says.
If MIGS could fly, the father of two would have continued to lead a cushy life as an income tax officer in the Indian Revenue Services, or carved a corporate career with Tata Steel in Jamshedpur.
But unlike the celluloid protagonists he loves, Kejriwal did more than just look back in anger at the rot in society.
He pioneered a civic movement where ordinary men and women refused to be cowed down by the corrupt. Kejriwal used the RTI Act to equip citizens with the power to question the government.
Through his NGO Parivartan, he has been promoting participation in governance by showing people how simple information requests can benefit their lives.
When Triveni, a slum dweller from Sundarnagari, was denied her share of ration from the public distribution system for seven months, she approached Parivartan.
“We helped her draft an RTI application. The shopkeeper from where she was getting her rations had been forging her thumb impressions. But when she filed an application under RTI, he fell at her feet and apologised.”
His zeal to empower the poor is not without risk. An East Delhi don’s personal assistant threatened him with dire consequences. Doctors at a government hospital have physically assaulted him. And at least one RTI volunteer had her throat slit (but survived miraculously) allegedly by the ration shop mafia.
But if Kejriwal is dismayed, it is by the growing cynicism of young professionals in the country. “There is idealism as well as helplessness. RTI provides a vent for youth to do something about the wrongs in society.”
And Parivartan, he says, is attracting a variety of fired-on-idealism youth. Shuchi Pandey, for instance, holds an MBA degree from an Australian university.
She has decided to work full-time on RTI. Pabitra Roy Chowdhary, a chartered accountant is contemplating plunging into activism. “Even STD booth operator Rajiv closed shop to join us and find more meaning in life.”
There was no one moment that made him leave the IRS, it was a gradual evolution, says Kejriwal. “I was never victimised for being an honest officer. But there were a large number of people who visited government departments, unwilling to pay bribes, but were forced to do so.
We set up Parivartan in January 2000 telling people to approach us with their grievances. For over two years, we helped hundreds solve their problems.
But over time, we got the feeling we were just like touts who didn’t charge a fee. This was only half the job done. We were struggling with this dilemma when the Delhi RTI Act was passed in October 2000.”
A lot of water has flown down the Yamuna since. Kejriwal has become synonymous with the Right to Information.
In a nationwide campaign across 55 cities in association with the Hindustan Times, 21,000 RTI applications were filed in just 15 days. Some 42,000 visitors attended camps where 1,500 trained volunteers helped process their applications.
Kejriwal is unhappy with the attempts to water down the RTI. “File notings are an esoteric thing. If a corrupt officer sits on the file, the applicant would not have any basis of accountability for delays. Under the RTI Act, we could ask for daily progress made on the application and the names and designations of the officials. These questions won’t be answered under the amended Act,” he adds.
If the RTI Act is throttled, Kejriwal vows to launch another campaign to restore it to its former glory. If resolve and sincerity are any criteria, this real life hero’s script is bound to have a happy ending.