This man keeps digging out official information
Meet Harikumar P. This 24-year-old from the northern Karnataka pocket of Kasargod could put a parliamentarian to shame, going by just the volume of Right to Information (RTI) questions he tables.
Since the RTI bug bit him sometime last year, the MBA-qualified education consultant has tabled "around 2,500" questions under this fairly powerful Indian law that entitles the citizen to seek out and obtain a wide range of official information from government officials.
He doesn't make much of it, but when asked, has files of information to show for.
"It's almost an almirah (cupboard) full of information by now. I've not counted, but kept track via an Excel file, and there are about 2,500 applications made," Harikumar said.
From information related to Indians believed to be detained in Pakistani jails, to the earnings of the state from gambling and lotteries, to the number of cases pending in courts across India - Harikumar has it all.
The RTI Act 2005 was enacted by parliament giving citizens of India, except in Jammu and Kashmir, access to government records. Any citizen may request information from a "public authority" (a government body or one funded by it). A reply has to follow within 30 days. It is fairly unique law, even at the wider global scale.
The law was passed by parliament June 15, 2005 and came into force Oct 13 the same year. Information disclosure in India was hitherto highly limited due to laws like the Official Secrets Act 1923 and various other special laws, which the new RTI Act now overrides.
Harikumar lists his attempts: "Two applications each in all the districts of India, related elections. Two applications each in all central government authorities...."
He concedes many have failed, but isn't discouraged.
"I thought we could use the RTI Act as a tool for social welfare. Some say, we can't do much; but why can't we try? I have tried to send (some of the information garnered) to the Supreme Court also. I might file some PILs (public interest litigations), and I've been sharing it with other RTI campaigners via cyber networks like HumJanenge," says Harikumar.
He dug out information about Indian prisoners of war and fishermen believed to be languishing in Pakistan. He also attempted to highlight the problem faced by students due to the existence of "200 fake educational institutions" that prey on students in the country.
Says he: "If you go by the UGC (University Grants Commission) and MHRD (Ministry for Human Resource Development) rules and various acts, there are currently over 200 fake institutions in India. Some may not be universities, but they are issuing degree certificates. They are not supposed to do without UGC permission."
Yet, on paper, the authorities acknowledge that barely under a couple of dozen such institutions exist, Harikumar says.
After trying to highlight this issue through repeated complaints to the authorities, he tried the RTI route and drew quick responses.
One query to the ministry of information and broadcasting drew a response that said that winnings from lotteries or crossword puzzles or horse races were subject to tax deduction at source (TDS).
TDS collected on such winnings in the last three years are Rs 250.61 crore (nearly Rs 2.5 billion) for 2005-06, Rs 329.34 crore (nearly Rs 3.2 billion) for 2004-05, and Rs 175.83 crore (nearly Rs 1.7 billion) 2003-04, the government told Harikumar.
So, with the law as a tool, this young man keeps digging out official information, hoping such work would tone up the efficiency of the men and women that govern us.