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Information is indeed power!

September 22, 2011

It was 6 years ago that the Indian Parliament on the 15th of June 2005 passed a historic legislation. This legislation came into effect on the 12th of October the same year. This was the Right to Information Act. Though similar acts existed in different forms in a few states before 2005, this became a National Act implementable in all states except Jammu and Kashmir. Nearly 85 countries across the world have legislations similar to this and have called it by different names. Sweden’s ‘Freedom of the Press Act’ is the oldest and was passed in 1776 itself.

Much has happened in the last six years and a lot has been written about the Act and how it is has been instrumental in bringing in good governance across the country. We see portals dedicated exclusively to spreading awareness about this Act. Journalists have been using this Act successfully in exposing the scams that we have seen in recent times. Seminars on the Act are regularly held in universities and academic institutions. Many books and commentaries have been written about the Act and how it can be used. A few murmurs on how this Act has become a blackmailing tool in the hands of a few unscrupulous elements are also being heard.

As I was looking back at the last 6 years and wondering whether this Act was indeed making a difference in people’s lives, I remembered a few incidents that I would like to share here. Sethupathi is an illiterate farmer who lives in Voddaragudi in HD Kote taluk in Mysore district. More than 2 years ago, his crop was damaged by elephants and he had applied for compensation from the concerned department. Despite constant follow-up for 2 years, he did not see any encouraging signs of receiving the paltry compensation. This amount by itself did not mean much to him, but he was angered by the non-responsive and irresponsible attitude of the officials. One day he chanced to visit the RTI clinic run by SVYM and got to understand how he could use the RTI Act to get information on the status of his application. Half heartedly he applied and was surprised that he got the compensation cheque instead of the reply to his query. This prompted him to learn all about the Act and today he spends a lot of his time educating his fellow farmers and making sure that they use the Act effectively.

Mahadeva* was a waterman in a Gram Panchayath and had applied for the post of a bill collector. He was not only qualified for the same but also richly deserved it. He was one of the few honest Panchayath employees and had made service to the rural community his stated mission in life. His honesty turned out to be his greatest disadvantage and the Panchayath president, secretary and members were not willing to accord him this promotion. They gave this job to another non-deserving applicant and Mahadeva was devastated. But he would not take this lying down and decided to fight his case. He applied under RTI for all records pertaining to the other applicant, the entire appointment process and copies of the meeting proceedings. From the information he got, it became evident to him that the job that was rightfully his was intentionally given to the other person. He fought his case with the higher-ups in the department with the evidence that he had gathered and managed to secure justice for himself. He has demonstrated that merely being honest is no longer sufficient; one needs to be aggressively good too and fight to ensure justice for oneself.

Shivakumar is an young activist living in the Matakere Panchayath. He used to apply under RTI and secure a list of all beneficiaries of various welfare schemes of the Panchayath and spread this information to people in the villages coming under the Panchayath. This made the Panchayath members more responsive and accountable to the people they represented. Today he has been formally asked by the Panchayath to serve on their many committees as a civil society representative.

Somashekar is another example of the risks that such people face. He runs a bangle and fancy article store in the HD Kote town and was a strong votary of the RTI Act. He had pamphlets in his shop that he distributed to his customers. He also attended various training programs and became a strong advocate of the Act and started educating people on how to use it to fight corruption. Running a business in a small town demands its own share of compromises and he too had to indulge in them. A few months into his campaign, some of the people affected by his activism raised the banner of protest and demanded that he first comply with the laws and pay all his taxes before talking about the mis-deeds of others. Somashekar had a difficult choice to make. He had to either stay in business or give up on his activism. Unfortunately today, he has decided that a livelihood is more important than societal empowerment and has given up on his RTI advocacy activities. This goes on to prove the adage that we first need to be the change that we would like to see.

The Right to Information movement in India is now nearly two decades old. We have had activists all over the country fighting for this right and making it a legislative reality. Today the Indian Act is one of the most comprehensive and pro-people acts. Civil society activists with the background of using it to bring in good governance have drafted major portions of the Act. Experiences of the last 6 years has been mixed and we have seen many use the Act as a tool to fight corrupt practices in public life. It has also been used to force transparency and people are slowly beginning to feel that they can question the ‘mighty system’.

Karnataka has had its own share of experiences and we have had all kinds of people being appointed to the Information Commission. We have had people tainted by corruption, former bureaucrats who worked all their lives to prevent the common people from accessing information and political supporters being appointed as Commissioners. The movement has also suffered because of the large pile-up of more than 10,000 unresolved cases. Though we are seeing innovations in states like Bihar, Karnataka is still lagging behind in using technology as a facilitating platform in expanding the usage of this Act.

While the anecdotes mentioned here may look like isolated examples, it does reflect the changing context of society. People are no longer willing to be mere spectators and are increasingly engaging in matters that affect them. There is a gradual understanding that information is the first step of a larger engagement process and the RTI Act is turning out to be an effective tool. Information by itself will not be sufficient and people also need to develop the ability to process and interpret the information that they seek. We also need a process wherein this processed information is disseminated amongst the stakeholders and they are empowered to question and participate in the process of Governance, whether it is at the Panchayath level or at the State. We also need to actively campaign for greater transparency in the way decisions are made by the political and bureaucratic systems in all matters of administration. We need to move on and ask for ‘open meetings’ in which the citizenry can also participate. Only when an ‘enlightened citizenry’ becomes an ‘engaged citizenry’ will democracy be truly participatory. Only then will a new India arise.

Balu

* name changed

Categories: Musings