Ushering in change – the Ningamani way!

Death always brings along with it a feeling of sadness. It also leaves you thinking about after-life and what lies in store for a person after death. I felt alone and empty when my father died a few months ago. I felt sad and lost when I heard about the death of Ningamani a few weeks ago. My only contact with Ningamani was for a few minutes, many months ago during the Jaagruthi Yathre.

It was the 18th of September 2008. We were marching towards Sattegala village in Mandya district and had reached what the local villagers called the Sattegala circle – a busy intersection. There were a lot of people milling around the many small shops that abounded this area. The sun was bearing down in all its might and I was feeling tired and hungry. I spotted a shady tree and went and stood under it to gather up some energy. I found an elderly lady there, selling flowers. Seeing me, she asked me what I was doing there. Hesitatingly I explained to her my mission and was hoping that the conversation would be short. Ningamani would not let me get away so easily. She wanted to know why I was carrying so many books with me and what was in them. More out of courtesy than out of wanting to make her aware of RTI, I explained to her the Act and told her how it could be used to get things done in a rural area. I also told her that the book would cost Rs.10. What left me dumbfounded was her spontaneous response. She told me that since i had walked from so far for a good cause, she had to encourage me and buy a book from her meager income. For a moment, I felt touched by her compassion, but silently wondered what this old illiterate woman would do with the book.

I found my answer a couple of months later. I had asked my colleague Shekar to travel along the same route again to find out whether our walk had made any impact on the lives of thousands of people that we had met and interacted with. As he reached the Sattegala circle, he found Ningamani sitting at her usual spot and selling flowers. He met her and explained why he had come. Ningamani was overjoyed on seeing him and gave him a warm hug and a joyous welcome. She explained to him how, many months ago, an elderly person (i hadn’t realized how old my gray hairs had made me look!) had sold her a book for Rs.10. Having paid virtually her day’s earnings, she had taken the book home and got her grandson to read it for her. On learning that she could find out why her widow pension was being delayed, she had made him write out an application on her behalf. She had applied under the RTI Act and had asked the Tahsildar why it was taking more than 4 years for her to get her rightful entitlement. She was surprised when a week later, the local village accountant met her and gave her the pension orders. Instead of an answer, she had got what she wanted!

On hearing this from Shekar, I realized how powerful this Act was and how well one could use it to usher in development and create an empowered rural community. More than just the pension, I realized how this Act was helping bring in real participatory democracy. Just imagine how powerful this elderly, illiterate woman would have felt to get an insensitive and non-responsive Government to listen to her! If this is not democracy, what else is?

Ningamani represents the emergence of a resurgent India – an India where every citizen feels equal to everyone else and gets the Government machinery to treat them as such. It is the slow and silent change that is now happening in different parts of India; change which will eventually overpower the corrupt and the powerful and give true power to people to whom it rightfully belongs. Ningamani may have died, but she leaves behind a legacy which our current political and bureaucratic system will have to respond and become accountable to.


Jaagruthi Yathre and beyond…

A lot of people are now asking me what would we do now that the RTI (Jaagruthi) Yathre is over and done with. Some have even questioned the wisdom of our walk and whether the effort was worth it.

Everyday, we receive more than 50 telephone calls at our RTI cell. Personally, I receive more than 15 calls each day from different parts of Karnataka. This definitely indicates that there are many people out there wanting to know more about this act, looking for guidance on how to use the act effectively, how to appeal when the PIOs do not respond. People call us to know if we can come and extend our activities in their areas, if we can train them and their teams to take on this task. Some have even asked us if they could join our crusade in some way.

A few senior government officials called me up and spoke to me. They wanted to know why I had got involved in such activism at this stage and how this could be the harbinger of pressure on the system. They politely discouraged me from taking this any further. Yesterday the local MLA called me and asked me why we were insistent that the people of the taluk take information on all ongoing schemes that were in different stages of implementation. He wanted to meet and get me to understand the difficulties that he was facing because of all this. I feel that all these are the beginning of change…the beginning of processes that will slowly and surely change the way governance is understood in this country.

We are now in the process of talking to some of the key people we met during the walk in the 115 villages that we traversed. In the month of December, a team of 4 persons will again travel by car through the same route and villages over a week and try and understand whether and how our yaathre has made any difference to people’s lives. We will also be training 2-3 youth in each Gram Panchayath, who will act as RTI resource persons in the taluk of Malavalli in Mandya district in December. They will then carry on the work. A local NGO will facilitate and lead this process.

In the month of January 09, we will train similar resource persons in the entire district of Gadag to make RTI a people’s movement there. This will again be coordinated by another local NGO. On the 12th of January, we will have another padayathra launched in the district of Bijapur. We will be launching it in the birthplace of Shri Basavanna who was responsible for the religious and cultural revolution a few centuries ago. We hope that this walk will be the beginning of the information and empowerment revolution.

We are also planning on an intensive 2-year long activity in H D Kote inself. We would like to make this a model taluk in terms of RTI awareness, usage of the act for development and for pre-empting corruption and also in social audit processes. We would like to usher in a new era of participatory democracy in the villages of H D Kote through this project.

– Balu

Another walker shares his thoughts…

The impact of an experience, an event, or a relationship is sometimes judged best by the feeling you get once you realize it’s over. Sometimes you don’t realize how tired you are until you lie down on a straw mat or a cold floor. Sometimes you don’t understand how thirsty you are until you are given a cup of ice water or lemonade. And sometimes, the bond of friendship is realized only when it is time to part. The Jagrithi Yathre ended yesterday and I am still grasping to understand what this means, what exactly it was about, and how it’s changed me.

Motorcycle enthusiasts swear that riding a bike is a completely different experience from driving a car. In a car you’re a passive observer, viewing things from a window frame much like you might watch a serial on TV. On a bike, you’re in the scene, you are the road, and you’re not just observing what’s around you, you are absorbing it. After walking about 100 kilometers in eleven days and speaking to hundreds of people in villages and cities, I’ve absorbed so much of what this country is about. The rush of inspiration, hope, and potential that I’ve felt on this walk is more powerful than the fastest 150 cc engine.

From the green fields and rocky hills of Karnataka, to the “guest is God” philosophy of every village we visited, I’ve no doubt that the bhavana of India is alive and strong. But are its people? Do the citizens of this country truly understand who is in power and who should be in power? Despite the lack of education in many villages, people understand the system better than we think. It is they who suffer when rations are not given, it is they who receive inadequate treatment in government hospitals, and it is they who are courted for votes every five years. The problem isn’t just awareness- it is belief. Do we believe that things can change? If so, then it is just a matter of making it happen. By the second day of the yathre, I began to see that this walk wasn’t just about the Right to Information Act, it was about restoring hope in democracy. We were walking to remind people that things could change and that they had the power to be this change. In fact, I was walking to remind myself this.

The idea for the Jagrithi Yathre came from Gandhi, and like Gandhiji it was inspired by the power of truth. This yathre was about showing people the power of truth, making the people powerful, and making the powerful truthful. Accomplishing this will take time, but we must first believe that it is possible. The Right to Information Act is the first step in empowering the people of India, and the ultimate goal of a free and fair society is something we should all be prepared to walk many more miles for.

Vinay Krupadev, a volunteer at SVYM from the USA

Impressions of a Yathri…

I apologize for the submitting this late even though Dr Anil kept sending gentle reminders. I was waiting for the various impressions of the walk, to settle down into a calm river from which I could pick out the sparkling stones that still catch my attention and present them for everybody to read.

When I sat down to write this post, I just had to plunge my hand into the icy water and I came up with this stunning blend of stones of various hues – blues, greens, reds, purples, whites, blacks, and beiges. These were the stones which represented each one of the amazing people I met. Dr Bala, Poshini Akka, Vineetha, Dr Anil, Sri Chaman Lal, Venuji, Mamta (she insists I call her that) and all the people from the villages. The enthusiasm, the joy with these which these people carry on their work, the way the sobriquet of social worker sits so lightly on them! and the respect they share is so beautiful.

To be honest, I have not heard a patriotic song after my school days. To see people breathing India, talking India, reading books about Indian freedom fighters, meditating on the words of Indian icons, singing patriotic songs with so much fervor, is something that amazed me! Walking around with these people has increased my respect for my country manifold. I now know there is a lot more to this country than I have learnt or thought about and that there are amazing people in this country! I suddenly want to learn all things Indian…and proudly proclaim my Indianness, when before I wouldn’t give it a second thought. I am an Indian was like a fact that generated neither pride nor cynicism. But after walking with these people, the word India has taken on shades. I can no longer be indifferent to it. Some parts of it make me sad, some immensely proud, but indifference nope, not anymore. I get scared that over time, I would (re)turn to indifference, but I know I just have to look at the colors of these stones and I would see that indifference is not possible.

The second impression that’s stuck with me like a starfish is the urban rural divide. Whenever we passed through villages, people would give us time. Once they realized that we are helping them out, they would open up. However, when we reached Bangalore, it was an all together different story. I was genuinely baffled by the leers, the lack of respect (was it only for women? I am not sure) and the way the people sneered at our good intentions. Maybe we were not reaching out to the people in the city in the way that touches them. Maybe they required something to jolt them out of their apathy. All these explanations came to my mind later when I had time to think about it. At that point of time while walking through Banashankari, there was just this tiredness. I did not want to talk to people in Bangalore, though I am a Bangalorean myself. But as Dr Bala had told us, we needed to be like the ‘karmayogi’ of the Gita — a person who believes in doing his duty, leaving the rest to God. That one statement did help a lot especially when people would tell us on our face that they don’t care.

Another aspect of this urban-rural divide was apparent in the walk itself. While walking through villages, we would not feel tired because there were huge big trees on the side. When we walked through Bangalore, the lack of trees was very obvious. It tired us out and that’s when I realized that the quality of life in a village is in many ways better (if we don’t take the corruption into account!)

The Kannada divide also was very apparent or should I use appalling? Very few people in Bangalore admitted to knowing Kannada. It was in a way good for me, because I felt I could use my strengths in getting the message across. But other team members felt left out. I unwittingly contrasted the villages and the city again. When I went to a village, people helped me out, I did not feel inferior because I did not know Kannada…just different. People made sure I learnt and were patient enough to teach me. I must thank them all. Dhanyavadagalu! However in Bangalore, if you don’t know English, you are made to feel inferior. Bangalore is a place in Karnataka and a Kannadiga feeling lost in Bangalore saddens me. I truly believe that language moulds the tone of a conversation and talking to a person in his own language makes you more empathetic towards that person. I know I was horrible…i can cite innumerable instances to that effect! But I intend to be better. The moment of realization about my Kannada came was when I was talking to Shobha and asking her about what she expects in the future. She very earnestly told me her entire past. It confused me a lot because Jagruthi Yathre came at the end of sequence, and I thought maybe there’s another one coming up in the near future and that Shobha has already planned for it. When I talked to Poshini akka and Vineeta about it, they were doubling over with laughter!

The underlying motive of the walk, the underlying current of the river – that is spreading awareness about the right to information act is not lost to me. I was as interested as the people in villages in knowing details. I saw the play, I heard the songs and listened to the various success stories. I talked to whoever was talking about it during the walk and I now know how powerful an act it is. I have started researching more about it to know its technical details. However it is still not real enough for me because I have not done it myself. I am convinced about one thing though, i.e, if there are so many articulate and compassionate people who believe in it and tell me it is easy, there has to be something about it. Which is why I intend to file a few applications myself and am hoping ardently that I don’t get discouraged.

I also want to use this blog post to answer a few questions which people asked me during the trip. I am hoping it would help people in understanding. Maruthi had asked me and Sridhar had translated his question for me “Where did you find the courage to come for this walk without knowing a single person?” The short answer is I believe in the basic goodness of people. I believe if you are nice to people, they would be nice to you. The longer answer is a little more complicated and comes from the fact that I am an ardent student of the women’s liberation movement. I was raised in an educated family and even then there were a lot of beliefs about the limitations of women which I had internalized. Reading books and talking to enlightened people helped me question my own beliefs and my own power to make a difference. Because of this, I now passionately believe that information can set you free. Getting information is like being on an upward spiral. The more you know, the more you question and you keep learning and things just start getting better. I know that even knowing about such an act can help people. And that is the longer answer 🙂

Anyway, I am glad I came for this and I really wish I had come earlier. As everybody told me during the walk, the response in the further off villages was more heartening and I would have loved to see it. After the 6 day walk, I am suffering from Mahiti Kayile (I hope I said that right) and withdrawal symptoms 🙂 I still pine for the sense of shared cause, for the sincerity of intention, for the wonderful joy, for the forcefulness of their personalities and the simple and amazing food. I am hoping it keeps bringing me back from day to day life.

Laina (

Jaagruthi Geethe…

This song, composed by Prof. M.S.Venugopal, captures the essence of the Jaagruthi Yathre

ತರುವೆವು ಕ್ರಾಂತಿಯ ಮಾಹಿತಿ ಕ್ರಾಂತಿಯ
ನಡಿಗೆಯ ಹೆಜ್ಜೆಯ ವಿಧಾನವು
ಪಾದದ ಯಾತ್ರೆ ಜಾಗೃತಿ ಯಾತ್ರೆ
ಮೈಲು ಮೈಲಿನಲಿ ಕೆತ್ತಿಹುದು

ಸರಗೂರಿನಲ್ಲಿ ಉಗಮವು ನಾಂದಿಯು
ಹೃದಯ ಹೃದಯಗಳ ಬಿಂದಿಯಲಿ
ಮಾಹಿತಿ ಕಾನೂನು ನೆವದಲಿ ನೆಪದಲಿ
ಮಿಡಿಯಿತು ನಡೆಯಿತು ಯುವಶಕ್ತಿ

ಹಳ್ಳಿ ಹಳ್ಳಿಯಲಿ ವ್ಯಕ್ತಿ ವ್ಯಕ್ತಿಯಲಿ
ಸಂಘರ್ಷದ ಸಮರವಿದೆ
ರಕ್ತದ ಕಣದಲಿ ಅಂಜಿಕೆ ನಿರ್ಲಕ್ಷ್ಯ
ಪರಿವರ್ತನೆಗೆ ಸಂಕಲ್ಪ

ಹೆಗ್ಗಡದೇವನ ಕೋಟೆಯ ಕಪಿಲ
ಪೇಟೆಯ ಗುಂಡಲಿಗೆ ಕುಂಡಲಿನಿಯು
ಚಾಮನ ಹೊಸಜಿಲ್ಲೆ ಕೊಳ್ಳೆಗಾಲದಿ
ಉಲಿಯಿತು ಯುವಸ್ವರ ಹಾದಿಬದಿಯಲಿ

ಪ್ರೇರಣೆ ಸ್ಪೂರ್ತಿಯು ಯುವಜನ ಗುಂಡಿಗೆ
ಆದರ್ಶದ ತೊರೆ ಯುವಶಕ್ತಿ
ಬಿಸಿಲು ಮಳೆಯಲು ಅಳುಕದೆ ಉಳುಕದೆ
ವಿರೋಧಕೆದುರು ಮೊರೆದಂಡು

ಗ್ರಾಮವು ನೂರಾರು ಪ್ರಭಾವ ಲಕ್ಷ
ಯಾತ್ರೆಯ ಯಶಸಿನ ಕ್ರಾಂತಿಯಲಿ
ರಾಜಧಾನಿಯ ದಂತದ ಗೋಪುರದಿ
ಮೊಳಗಿತು ಮಾಹಿತಿ ಕರೆಗಂಟೆ

ದಾರಿಬೀದಿಯಲಿ ಮೈಮನದಲ್ಲಿ
ಬಾಂಧವ್ಯದ ಸೆಲೆ ಸಾಂತ್ವನವು
ಆಸೆ ಕಂಗಳಲಿ ಕನಸು ಹಂಬಲದಿ
ಪ್ರಗತಿಯ ಭರವಸೆ ಬೆಸುಗೆಯಿದೆ

ಜನಪದ ಅಂತರಂಗ ಅನುಭವ ಗರ್ಭದಿ
ಜನುಮ ತಳೆದಿಹುದು ಹೊಸದೃಷ್ಟಿ
ಭವಿಷ್ಯದ ಗಗನಕೆ ಚಿಮ್ಮಲೆನಿಸುವ
ನಾಯಕ ದೃಷ್ಟಿಯ ನವವೃಷ್ಟಿ

A new beginning…

2nd Oct 08:

The day finally arrived! Looking back the last one month, I feel that we have come quite a distance, both figuratively and physically. The walk of 400 km has not left us exhausted as I had initially presumed. It has also been a journey of self discovery. The simple lifestyle, the absence of TV and newspaper, the lack of basic facilities, interactions with thousands of people have all taught us so much. Most importantly, they have reinforced our faith in the innate goodness of mankind. It also gave me personally, the time and space to look within. This provided me with the opportunity to see things as they were and not as I wanted them to be. How we create conflicts within ourselves! We are all the time battling our own inner selves and then successfully blaming the situation or the society for all that is going on within and around us. Life would be so peaceful, if we could find understand and appreciate that all external conflicts are a manifestation of the confusions and agitations within.

Many of our friends and well wishers joined us on this day. Many walked with us while some joined us at the Gandhi statue. Mr.Nikhil Dey from MKSS, Rajasthan also walked with us. Nearly 300 of us walked the 7 km distance on the last day. We reached the Gandhi statue on MG Road at 12.30 p.m. as planned. We had a wonderful and emotion charged function. Justice M.N.Venkatachalliah was his usual inspiring and witty best. The function was compered by Dr.M.A.Balu and started with excerpts from the Kannada translation of Swamiji’s ‘Song of the Sannyasin’. We also sang the Kannada version of ‘Where the mind is without fear…’ from Tagore’s Gitanjali. I spoke on the act, how it can transform India and its rural areas, how we can use it as a tool to bring in development and good governance. Poshini spoke of her experiences and her perspective on how the act can affect the common man’s life; Mr.Madangopal, the Health Secretary read out a passage from the article on Satyagraha by Gandhi. Justice Venkatachalliah spoke on how this Yathre has restored his faith in societal transformation. Nikhil Dey spoke on how activists worked tirelessly for more than 10 years to get this act enacted and how we need to be watchful to ensure that the act is implemented both in letter and spirit.

This is the first Gandhi Jayanthi that I celebrated with the people I admired, adored, respected and loved. This was the first time that the event meant so much to me. The goodness in the air was palpable. The hope and expectation that we have generated by this walk needs to now be maintained and raised. How wonderful it was to see people of all ages and all walks of life come together and feel so positive and hopeful!

… Finally, all good things should come to an end. But this was never an event meant to have an ending. This whole struggle has been scripted to be a continuous movement to usher in our basic right to demand good governance. We are no longer going to be satisfied with mere information, we will all work to ensure that this leads to a society that is free from fear; a society where the meekest shall find his voice; where the rule of law is no longer an exception; where every citizen of India shall be proud to participate in its development and play his role in making India a healthy, vibrant, inclusive and participatory democracy.

To quote from Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali…

Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high;
Where knowledge is free;
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where words come out from the depth of truth;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection;
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way into the dreary desert sand of dead habit;
Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever-widening thought and action…
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

ಎಲ್ಲಿ ಮನವು ನಿರ್ಭಯದಿ ತಲೆಯನೆತ್ತಿ ನಿಲುವುದೋ
ಎಲ್ಲಿ ಜ್ಞಾನ ಸುಧಾಪಾನ ಎಲ್ಲರಿಗೂ ಸಿಗುವುದೋ
ಎಲ್ಲಿ ಮನೆಯ ಅಡ್ಡಗೋಡೆ ಇಲ್ಲದೆ ವಿಶಾಲವೋ
ಎಲ್ಲಿ ಮಾತು ಸತ್ಯದಾಳದಿಂದ ಹೊಮ್ಮಿ ಬರುವುದೋ
ಎಲ್ಲಿ ಸತತ ಕರ್ಮ ಪೂರ್ಣಸಿದ್ಧಿ ಪಡೆದು ಮೆರೆವುದೋ
ಎಲ್ಲಿ ತಿಳಿವು ಕಟ್ಟಳೆಯ ಮಳಲ ತೊರೆದು ಹರಿವುದೋ
ಎಲ್ಲಿ ನೀನು ನಮಗೆ ಧೈರ್ಯ ಎಲ್ಲಿ ನೀನು ನಮಗೆ ಸ್ಥೈರ್ಯ
ವರವಿಕಾಸಗೊಳಿಸಿ ಸದಾ ಅಭ್ಯುದಯವ ಕೋರುವೆಯೋ
ಆ ಸ್ವತಂತ್ರ ಸ್ವರ್ಗಕೆ ನಮ್ಮ ನಾಡು ಏಳಲೇಳಲೇಳಲೇಳಲೇಳಲೇಳಲಿ
(ಕನ್ನಡಾನುವಾದ: ಪ್ರೊ. ವೇಣುಗೋಪಾಲ್)

As we near Bangalore…

30th Sept 08:

The way in which people are rushing ahead with their lives here is amazing! All of them seem to be in such an undue haste. They hardly seem to have time for anything. Some people that we tried to interact with curtly asked us to be brief. Some bought our RTI book more to end the conversation and see us off rather than out of genuine interest in the subject. Life in general seems to be so superficial and shallow. I even get the feeling that these people are manifesting cynicisms, apathy and indifference more as coping mechanisms; as a veneer to cover up their superficial existence and inaction.

Without sounding judgmental, one does feel that people are escapists and are constantly running away from something; something, which they do not have the time to identify and resolve; something that they are actually afraid of and hence are running all the time. Freedom from fear is not just a lofty concept, but I think a practical way to live. But this would be possible, only when we have the strength of our own convictions, our positive values and our ethical lifestyles. Again Gandhi and Vivekananda are people who have lived them and demonstrated to us that this is not just possible, but also immensely practical. But again, in this world of such haste, would anyone listen…

We also are handicapped by lack of material in English. Bangalore is so cosmopolitan that knowing Kannada seems now to be the exception rather than the norm.

As we come closer to Bangalore, people are not willing to accept our unselfish intentions. Many people probe to understand why we are doing what we are doing. They cannot reconcile to the fact that our intentions are pure and unselfish. Today, for mankind, helping each other seems to have become the exception. We seem to idolize people who are trying to live as good people. Man, by just living as a decent human being, is given the status of God. Strange indeed are our ways and our thinking patterns. The entire measurement tool of existence seems to be money and how much of it one has – and I think this is where the root cause of corruption lies. If we could change the measurement tool to ‘values’ and how ethically we live our lives…how wonderful it would be!