August 10, 2020
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I Know, So I Am

The Right to Information has changed lives and made governments accountable

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I Know, So I Am
Sanjoy Ghosh
I Know, So I Am
When young Bhupesh says the "Right to Information Act is showing good results," he means it literally. Baffled at failing his Class XI English exam last year, Bhupesh asked to see his corrected answer script: "I’d worked hard, how had I scored so poorly? Wasn’t I entitled to a re-evaluation?" Bhupesh hounded the authorities at the Government Boys’ Senior Secondary School in Delhi’s Nand Nagri verbally, in writing, informally, officially. Only to be snubbed. Till, frustrated, he penned down his queries and sent them to the Public Grievances Commission under Delhi’s Right to Information (RTI) Act. Less than two months later, Bhupesh’s paper had been rechecked, he had passed and RTI had delivered results.

Who’d have known that the RTI campaign would one day help a student pass his exam? Certainly not the activists who’d sat on the first RTI dharna for 40 days in Rajasthan’s Beawar town in 1996, sloganeering that "the right to know is the right to live". The people’s movement for accountability in governance—for the citizen’s right to know—has been a long one and it still goes on. Finally, in 2002, the Parliament passed the Central Freedom of Information Act (FOI). A law many felt was weak and one that still awaits notification and implementation.

But nine states have enacted their own RTI laws granting citizens the right to question their governments, inspect records, ask for copies of these records and make for a truly participatory democracy. The rules differ from state to state; so applying under the RTI Act could cost citizens either just "the cost of processing and providing information" in some states or like in Delhi—Rs 25 per application filed plus Rs 5 per page of information. The time limit fixed for answering a query also varies: 15 to 30 days. Some states have penalty provisions for officers who don’t answer queries; for instance, Goa has a fine of Rs 100 per day of delay and Karnataka up to Rs 2,000 for delay without reasonable cause or supplying wrong information.

It’s a bit of a muddle right now but news, good news, is that the amendments to the weak FOI Act were finalised on August 14 by the National Advisory Council chaired by Sonia Gandhi. And for even better news, meet people who have used and are using the state RTI Acts to change their lives and ours.

Shivaji Raut, Satara

Shivaji Raut, a schoolteacher in Satara, Maharashtra, has demanded information 62 times under the act. He has received information in 55 cases, been denied in seven, and gone in appeal for one of those seven. "My questions are related to the system, never personal," says Raut. The data that he sought on whether the state government had accounted for prevalent market rates while renewing leases on 114 government-held properties in Mahabaleshwar exposed irregularities to the tune of Rs 1.5 crore, and forced a temporary injunction on the process. "The documents I’d obtained revealed that land in many cases had been leased out for a song." Asking for the list of people who had been granted licences for firearms in the district in the past five years revealed that many licences had been issued based on fake certificates ("Some were being used for poaching in the Koyna Valley near Satara"). When Raut asked for the names of those who had received liquor vending licences, it was found that many recipients were wives of local politicians.... The moral of all his stories: "The local administration behaves itself once it knows that people are watching."

Twentysomething Triveni Devi used the law for reasons much more personal.With an uncertain income of Rs 400-600 a month, Triveni’s Antyodaya ration card is not just her entitlement to subsidised food, it’s her family’s entitlement to existence. So when the ration shop at Delhi’s Sundernagri kept denying Triveni her quota of wheat and rice month after month, it was "like being denied life." Till she chanced upon an RTI pamphlet.Triveni filed an application under the act. Forcing ration shop owner Maya Devi to reveal her records: 25 kg of wheat and 10 kg of rice were purportedly being issued to Triveni every month and the receipts even had Triveni’s fake thumb impression. The thrill of triumph still rings clear: "I had caught Maya’s fraud, I showed her I could sign my name!" Triveni remembers a frightened Maya Devi not only offering her six months of free ration but also Rs 20,000 if she promised not to file a complaint. But Triveni refused the money.

Triveni Prasad, Delhi

Triveni’s story fires many on a blazing afternoon at the capital’s Anna Nagar slum. "Can we too get to know why our ration shop doesn’t ever have supplies for us?" aged Rohomoti asks RTI campaigners from Parivartan, a Delhi-based ngo working towards transparency in governance. "Ask. There’s a law now that gives you the right to know," is the reply, "We’ll show you how to ask. But you must ask yourself." And over hundred men and women, young and old, trundle tiresome kilometres to reach the Public Grievances Commission office. Clutching ration cards wrapped in pretty plastic, in shining silver foil, bound in greeting cards, handles stitched on embroidered covers. Up many floors, a small drab room with a cooler struggling to live up to its name. They fill up forms, wait interminably for the right official, figure out how to submit applications in the absence of relevant staff. Quips daily wage-earner Kiran: "Exercising my right to information is costing me my right to livelihood."

It takes perseverance getting answers from the government. In September 2003, industrialist Sailesh Gandhi wrote to the Bombay police asking for the number of police officers transferred by orders of mlas and MPs in the last two years. Two months and many reminders later, Gandhi was told that though transfer requests from politicians were not unusual, they were always unheeded! Unshaken, Gandhi asked for the names of politicians who had asked for transfers. Response: "We cannot share this it does not service public interest...." Finally, last December, Gandhi filed an appeal with the Lokayukta, an appellate body under the state’s RTI Act. In April came a landmark judgement: the Lokayukta directed the defaulting DGP to provide the information to Gandhi, and threatened to treat the case as "misadministration" if it wasn’t provided. "It was a long fight," says Gandhi. "But the facts are now in the public domain. There were 139 transfer recommendations by elected representatives in 2003, over 30 clear cases of transfers made on such requests, and zero action taken against police personnel for complying with these requests!"

The most striking pattern that emerges from RTI success stories perhaps is that they reveal how corruption in governance is not just about underhand deals but also registered reality; one just has to ask for the right records. Pune-based Major Gen (retd) S.C.N. Jatar used the act to find out the touring habits of the city’s corporators. The Women and Child Welfare Committee had spent Rs 4 lakh on a "study tour" in February 2003—from Pune to Delhi to Chandigarh to Amritsar to Dalhousie to Vaishno Devi to Jammu. Ten months later, no report had been submitted. "It was clearly a pleasure trip," says Jatar. "I have demanded that the expenses be recovered from those who vacationed on public money." Using the law, Jatar procured details of logbook entries on innumerable personal outstation trips made in official cars by the city’s mayor, deputy mayor and other officials. The expenditure on cars between January and October by Pune’s municipality, Jatar discovered, was a staggering Rs 51,02,235.If no one bothers to finds out, feels Jatar, "the corporation will remain the personal fiefdom of corporators".

Corporators, Sikar They’ve used the law to reveal the administrative lapses and also nail fellow corporators

Here’s a twist, though. Corporators rely on the state’s RTI Act as a tool to administer in small town Losal in Rajasthan.Farzana Begum has used the law at least 15 times in four years, once even to tackle the misdoings of a fellow corporator: "I was shocked that dirty ward no. 6 had been chosen Losal’s cleanest, which meant an extra Rs 60,000. Through RTI, I came to know that three among the four in the selection committee were the corporator’s friends. The award was stayed." Suspecting skullduggery in the town’s water-cleansing project, Pushpa Khatuwala brought drainage construction back on track by acquiring the town’s master plan. But Mohammed Jameel Bahlim complains that he hasn’t got a single reply to any of the eight RTI applications he’s filed.

Of course there are problems. "The biggest being the culture shock that RTI is giving the bureaucracy used to working without any accountability to the people," says Arvind Kejriwal of Parivartan. He lists other problems: in some states the fee for filing the RTI application and obtaining copies of documents is high; in some others, there are no penalty clauses for officers who refuse to provide information; "and finally, the state of record-keeping is so poor in India that sometimes there really isn’t any information available to check claims against". Loopholes always find their way into laws and this one needs so much more tightening. "The final aim should be to reach a state where even the reasons for decision-making in governance should be known to the public," says RTI campaigner Aruna Roy. "The citizen’s right to information is more than just a law, it is a fight against governance shrouded in opaqueness against the agenda of corruption and the arbitrary use of power." Bhupesh Kumar agrees whole-heartedly.

By Soma Wadhwa with Harsh Kabra in Satara, Pune and Mumbai

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