The winners of the National RTI Awards 2010 were declared yesterday by the National RTI Awards Secretariat. The Jury members including Narayana Murthy, Justice JS Verma, Madhu Trehan, JM Lyngdoh and Sanjay Gupta decided to honour 5 citizens, one journalist and one Person of Indian Origin PIO for their exemplary work in the area of RTI. It was also decided that 10 RTI Activists who were recently killed would also be honoured during the Awards ceremony.
The Best RTI Journalist Award went to Saikat Dutta of Outlook who exposed a scam worth Rs. 2,500 crore in rice being exported to other countries. Cut back to 2007, when the center had put a ban on export of non-basmati and 25% broken rice to strengthen food security in India. Since India is one of the major rice exporters, the prices in the international markets skyrocketed due to the ban. The government soon decided that since the ban had caused a severe shortage in foreign markets, if requests come for rice from poorer nations, the grains would be released on humanitarian grounds at concessional rates. This was when the private companies connived with the government officials to make the most of the demand. Following this, PDS rice which was meant for public distribution in India was bought at very low prices and sold to these countries at exorbitant prices. These deals were being carried out by private players in violation of all the specified rules. In many cases it was also suspected that the grains never reached the intended beneficiaries. Due to this exposure, the issue created a furore in Parliament and the opposition staged a walk out after its demand for setting up a joint parliamentary probe was denied. The exposure also led to another consignment again worth Rs. 2500 crores being cancelled. Last week, the case was referred to the CBI for investigations.
The winners in the Best RTI Citizen include Vinita Kamte of Maharashtra, Manoj Kumar Karwasra and Ramesh Kumar Verma of Haryana, Rajan Savlo Ghate of Goa and Athar Shamsi of Uttar Pradesh. These winners had been shortlisted after several rounds of scrutiny out of 726 applications that were received by the secretariat. Some RTI applications have had such a powerful impact that it shook the government from its deep slumber.
Take the case of Vinita Kamte, wife of Ashok Kamte who was one of the three brave police officers who laid down his life fighting to capture Ajmal Kasab alive during the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks. Yet the Government instead of accepting the fact that it was ill prepared to fight against such attacks called their efforts a “foolish” attempt which ultimately led to their death. This was too much to handle for Vinita who decided to take the route of RTI to dig out documents that proved that it was the inefficiency and ill preparedness of the Government which led to her husband’s death. The entire Maharashtra Government shook up due to this revelation.
Haryana-based Manoj Kumar Karwarsa, an ordinary school teacher and an RTI activist, filed several RTI applications to expose illegal activities in his village. In his village, Government land had been encroached upon and that too by the Panchayat members themselves. He used the route of RTI to not only help remove this encroachment but also to lead to the removal of the corrupt Panchayat members from their post. Using the RTI he also proved that one of the Panchayat members was siphoning off money meant for widow and old age pension. An enquiry was conducted and a case was registered against the member.
Another Haryana-based RTI Activist is Ramesh Kumar Verma who exposed a big scam which reveled that sub-standard medicines were being supplied at Government hospitals in Haryana. The information reveled that medicines were being fed to poor people, without proper sample testing. In some cases, by the time these medicines were found to be spurious, they had already been fed to poor people. As the case caught steam due to exposure in media, the Government was forced to act and stop buying medicines from small manufacturers with a turnover of less than 30 crores. It also decided that the medicines would be first sample tested before giving it to patients.
The fourth winner, Athar Shamsi from Uttar Pradesh fought for the rights of the beedi workers who were being ill paid by factory owners. These workers were allegedly paid just Rs 27-34 per thousand beedis as against Rs. 60 which was the minimum wage. The labour department in connivance with the beedi factory owners turned a blind eye to the problems of these workers. The applicant who is an advocate along with Abhishek Soni filed an RTI with the labour department. With the information received he met various beedi workers union, which started fighting for the cause of these workers. Thus the wages were increased to Rs. 52 per thousand beedis.
The fifth winner was Rajan Savlo Ghate from Goa who worked relentlessly to fight against illegal buying of Goan land by foreign nationals in violation of Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA), 1999 rules. He raked up this issue using the RTI Act. As a result, four years own the line, the Government has started to take action and issue strict directions to the registrars not to register land in the name of foreigners.
The winner in the Best PIO Category was Pradeep Kumar, a young BDO of Bilaspur in Himachal Pradesh. Kumar’s statistics speaks volumes for himself. Out of the 65 applications that he disposed, he did not deny information to a single applicant. He gave satisfactory information in almost all the cases within the stipulated time period of 30 days. When we called up the appellants for their feedback on Kumar’s work, nearly 95.8% people reported satisfaction with the information that they received. Only one of his cases went into second appeal. This case was apparently received by the previous PIO and was handed over to him when he took over charge as the BDO of Bilaspur. In this case also, Kumar gave all the information to the applicant on the day of the hearing in the State Information Commission. Kumar says, “I do not wait till a person files an RTI application to get information in my office. I give information to even those people who come up to me and ask for the records even without an application. I believe in complete transparency and pro-active disclosure.”
Besides the winners in the Best RTI Citizen, Best RTI Journalist and Best Public Information Officer category, the Jury also decided to honor 10 RTI Activists who were killed in the recent past. Their names include Amit Jethwa, Satish Shetty, Datta Patil, Vitthal Gite, Sola Ranga Rao, Sashidhar Mishra, Vishram Laxman Dodiya, Venkatesh, Lalit Kumar Mehta and Kameshwar Yadav.
The Awards ceremony is slated to be held in January 2011, where all the winners would be felicitated.