18 October 2010 National rti: youth impact

All You Need To Know...

The youth will not take no for an answer. Five years on, the RTI comes of age.
All You Need To Know...

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“Hum kyon government se soochna maangte hain?” asks Dwarika Prasad Nauni, RTI state coordinator for the Mountain Children’s Foundation in Uttarakhand, as he wraps up a workshop on the right to information with 30-odd tweens and teens in Dehradun’s Horrawala village. “Kyonki hum tax dete hain,” pipes up a 12-year-old, chewing on his pen in a rain-soaked portico.

Clearly, Dwarika hasn’t wasted his breath. In fact, he is used to such bang-on responses, having seen nearly 500 RTI applications—on sanitation, lack of playgrounds and low voltage, among other things—filed by bal panchayat children trained by the foundation from across the state in the space of 12 months. The involvement of the young with RTI has been growing apace here ever since the Right to Information Act came into effect on October 12, 2005. “The public faces may be older,” says Shekhar Singh, who was part of the act’s drafting team, “but the movement is energised by the young.”

A study Shekhar initiated in 2008 found that 31 per cent of rural applicants and 26 per cent of urban applicants were aged below 35. Two years on, those numbers have only risen, but even so, he stresses, “The actual participation of young people, in terms of helping others know about and write applications, is far greater than what statistics show.” Shekhar adds that if it weren’t for some parents wanting to shield their children from possible victimisation, the role of the young would be even more visible.

He seems to be right. Walk into any organisation oiling the wheels of the RTI machine—be it the J&K RTI Movement office near Srinagar, Sandhan in Katni, Madhya Pradesh, the Calcutta-based West Bengal RTI Manch or the RTI Study Centre in Bangalore—and the buzz centres around young faces. Not all are activists, or even applicants, but they are all, in some way or the other, part of the information revolution by choice, driven by their faith in this new-found ‘magic wand’. Eighteen-year-old Mohsin Khan, for instance, religiously drops in at Parivartan’s Kaushambi office in Ghaziabad near Delhi (to which he was introduced by his banker cousin Feroz, who quit his job to join the organisation), even if it means skipping classes. Mohsin is joined by over 30 volunteers, all in their early 20s, working against time to identify the best performing state for this year’s RTI award. Last year, Arunachal Pradesh came out tops, while Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh fared the worst.

This year, Kalidas Reddy will be looking out for Karnataka. The 26-year-old law student, who learnt about RTI at N. Vikramsimha’s Study Centre, went from theory to practice thanks to his neighbour, a private pre-university candidate whom Bangalore University refused to admit. “After I filed an RTI for guidelines on admitting private candidates, the university said its ‘regulations/guidelines are silent’ about it. I went to the media with it, and subsequently the university declared that private students would be permitted to study in regular courses,” recalls Kalidas with satisfaction.

One reason why RTI is firing the imagination of the young, at least in urban areas, is its usefulness in dealing with educational institutions. As Magsaysay awardee RTI activist, Parivartan’s Arvind Kejriwal, puts it, “The culture of questioning is taking root. Even in so-called hallowed institutions, walls are crumbling.” He cites how the use of RTI forced the UPSC to reveal its long-controversial selection procedure, and pushed IIT-JEE against the wall to check irregularities in cut-off marks. In Delhi University (DU), thanks to RTI, the university budget was finally released on its website. Bhopal, too, is seeing young engineering students questioning fee structure and fund allocation in their colleges, while both in Shimla and Imphal, teachers found to be appointed without meeting the required criteria were dismissed.

Such tangible impact has meant a rise in RTI applications, confirms DU public information officer Jay Chandra, “from 1,100 in 2007 to 1,900 in 2009”. (These figures exclude colleges that handle RTI independently.) This year, 1,500 applications have already come in. For students fearing a backlash, Saurabh Sharma of the youth organisation, Josh, offers an ingenious way out: “Students file for information in each other’s colleges instead of their own, so that no one gets into trouble.”

Look back 15 years, and such a scenario would be difficult to even imagine. Dilip Simeon, a former DU academic, says, “It was virtually impossible to get this kind of information then. If you were not happy with your marks, at most you could apply for revaluation...but you could even end up getting less marks than you did initially. Student unions could not make inroads into administration or far-reaching inquiries into areas like teachers’ appointments.” That said, the new openness does generate its own problems. As DU professor Alok Rai points out, while RTI might grant access to answer scripts, it cannot obviate the subjectivity inherent in evaluation, leading to interminable arguments. These pitfalls notwithstanding, it’s clear that students have found a last-resort tool for redressal in a largely opaque, dysfunctional system.

But it’s not just the E-word that drives youth involvement with RTI. Magsaysay award-winning activist Aruna Roy, who heads the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (which played a big part in making the RTI Act a reality), points out that hundreds of young people in rural areas (where 60 per cent of India’s youth is) are using RTI to address gaps and distortions in the nrega. A slogan pasted on a rundown steel cupboard in the Parivartan office sums up the mood: ‘Sarkar se jawab maango/har vibhag se hisab maango.’ Ask 23-year-old Hemant Kumar Rathod, who has pulled up gram panchayats, rural hospitals and questioned the use of school funds. On the 70-km journey from Mysore, where he studies, to his village, GB Halli in rural Karnataka (which he visits every weekend to file RTI applications), he excitedly points out the stretch of once-potholed road that he got repaired through RTI two years ago. In Delhi’s Model Town, Mohit Goel filed his first RTI application three years ago, when the MCD dug up roads in his locality and forgot about them. When the roads were hurriedly repaired, it inspired the 32-year-old senior marketing manager to shoot off 90 more applications.

At Josh, Saurabh and Aheli Chawdhury know that feeling well. Putting the act’s inspection clause to use, Josh inspected over 50 roads that the Delhi government claimed it was making on a budget of Rs 400 crore. One road had only been constructed on paper. “When we asked to inspect it, the road was completed over the weekend,” says Saurabh with relish.

Never short of success stories to relate, 25-year-old RTI activist Ankita Anand says, “People called RTI a middle-class phenomenon because it entailed paperwork. They’d say ‘Yahan roti ka sawal hai and you’re talking about information’. But for those who do not get their ration or are awaiting their bpl cards, it is a question of survival. Filing RTIs brings results,” she says.

One challenge these young RTI enthusiasts have set themselves is to dispel the misconception that one needs expertise in legal jargon to write an application. Visiting schools and colleges, they stress time and again that even handwritten questions submitted to the Public Information Officer—the first point person for the applicant—with a fee (Rs 10 usually) will do. On principle, Ankita has taken to not writing out questions for lazy applicants, even though she has the format pat: “I’d rather spend two hours explaining the process to someone who can thereafter do it himself or herself.”

That level of dedication to the cause is shared by other young people. Damini Ghosh, for one, gave up a lucrative career in corporate law to join central information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi and “do something more meaningful”. Her colleague, Rajorshi Roy, joined the Central Information Commission, quitting a UNAIDS job and taking a hefty pay cut. Gandhi also recalls how Shibani Ghosh, a Rhodes scholar, worked with him before moving on to environmental law. “These are bright, outstanding young people, who are working for peanuts. Clearly, they are in it for the empowering feeling it gives them, of being part of something worthwhile,” he points out.

It’s not just satisfaction at seeing work done, says Prateek Pandey of the Chhattisgarh Citizens’ Initiative. “When something gets achieved through RTI, it gives you a sense of identity irrespective of social class,” says Prateek. “It is a means for young people to be taken seriously as participants in democracy,” feels Pune-based Vijay Kumbhar, who runs an RTI website, surajya.org.

They also make enemies in the process: Parivartan’s Santosh Jha ducked in time to dodge a razor aimed at her neck, while 30-year-old Sola Ranga Rao from Andhra Pradesh, who sought information on funding for his village drainage system, paid with his life; like Amit Jethwa, also in his early 30s. And success stories notwithstanding, extracting information from the system is a gruelling task. Tellingly, city municipal corporations, the police, railways and the ministry of external affairs have been identified as the worst offenders when it comes to delaying or not replying to RTI applications despite the Central Information Commission’s orders.  An activist says the police has been known to demand Rs 20,000 to Rs 30,000 in exchange for information, purportedly to pay “staff salaries”.  Earlier this year, the CIC pulled up Delhi Police and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi for not helping out an RTI applicant’s friends, who were assaulted during a site inspection. The bureaucracy, meanwhile, is intent on whittling down the act, to make it less accountable.  

Yes, it’s a battleground out there, but these young warriors are upbeat about it. This, after all, is the information generation, growing up with the power to dig out what generations before didn’t even know how to question. As Shailesh Gandhi points out, “There is great potential in the act, provided it is not treated as a grievance redressal tool, and the youth is privileged to have it.” Chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah, who describes the act as a “qualified success” so far and expects it to take root over the next 10 years,  agrees: “In my time, the primary objective of a young man was a good education and the civil services. Now, that is changing, with greater professionalism and a sense of freedom among youth, which makes RTI appropriate and timely.”

For all the indifference attributed to the stereotype of youth, their RTI applications tell a different story. Shekhar Singh spells it out: “All the cynicism I see is among older people. What spurs us on despite the obstacles to RTI reaching its full potential is the knowledge that the youth is on our side.”

By Arpita Basu and Neha Bhatt

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