After our world-cup victory, our government awarded each member of the cricket team one crore rupees, and the coaches and others Rs 50 lakhs each. Overjoyed though I was at our team’s achievement, my heart sank. Rs 16 crore — roughly what the government gifted to the team — is the annual budget of our cash-starved Maharashtra State Information Commission. Over 13,000 RTI appeals are languishing because our SICs don’t have funds and stenographers.
And my heart sinks every time the government announces Padma awards for people like Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Sachin Tendulkar. I have no malice towards celebrities, but isn’t it absurd to hand out Padma awards to screen heroes and play-field heroes while there are thousands of real-life heroes out there? People like Subhash Chandra Agarwal and Prashant Bhushan, for instance, who have taken on the heroic task of making the Supreme Court answerable to the common man? Must the government ignore such meritorious heroes and give the awards to celebrities?
And must the government studiously ignore thousands of RTI activists who are daily doing the thankless job of cleaning up the administration in their villages, talukas, district-headquarters and small towns? Unrecognized but struggling every day, these people are chipping away at bad governance. Must we, as a nation, continue to ignore them and waste our admiration on trivial celebrities?
I want to dedicate this article to the dozens of heroic persons who I have the privilege of knowing, and many more whom I am yet to meet. I want to dedicate it to the nameless RTI Activist – that man or woman who lives on a small income or a pension, and walks or rides a scooter in sun and rain, and insistently goes to the offices of various public authorities, filing RTI applications, appeals, attending hearings, seeking justice from an unjust system.
What does RTI activism mean to all of us? What are the benefits that RTI activists bring to society? Come, let us look at the big picture:
1. FIRST OF ALL, WHO IS AN RTI ACTIVIST? Right to Information Act 2005 has empowered the common man to question government servants and hold them accountable. Under the RTI Act, a large official mechanism was brought into existence, consisting of lakhs of Public Information Officers (PIOs), thousands of First Appellate Authorities, and over a hundred Information Commissioners in various States. Nourished by this mechanism, a sweeping civil society movement consisting of lakhs of independent citizens, and a couple of hundred NGOs sprang up. All these people are actively questioning the administration on various issues, public or private. We refer to all the people involved in this movement as “RTI Activists”.
2. EACH RTI ACTIVIST HAS A SIGNATURE STYLE. No two RTI activists are the same. Some are like the wide-beam of a headlight, filing hundreds of RTI applications to a wide range of government authorities on a variety of issues. They unearth hundreds of documents and get them published by the media, throwing light on a variety of issues. Others are like laser-beams with a sharp focus on one or two issues. They drill deep, sometimes for years, before they even reveal their findings. Some activists are more interested in improving the quality of the RTI appeal process; they frequently file appeals, attend hearings, try to get the PIO penalized, and try to get the information free-of-charge if the PIO missed his deadlines. Some try to get their individual or collective grievances redressed, directly through complaints, or indirectly by using RTI applications as a pressure tactic. Some people act as neighbourhood supervisors and watchdogs — overseeing the garbage-disposal, encroachment-clearance, hawkers, road safety and so on. Others are RTI trainers, helpers, mentors, webmasters, etc., finding fulfillment in helping other people file RTI applications and appeals.
3. RTI ACTIVISTS ARE ESSENTIALLY LEADERLESS AND CANNOT BE “TAMED”. THEY ARE SELF-FINANCING, FIERCELY INDEPENDENT & DIFFICULT TO ORGANIZE. A majority of RTI activists are spending money from their own pockets, and have no sponsors. Unlike NGOs, most RTI activists have no ability to tap government funding or corporate support. When such individualistic, self-motivated persons join organizations, they are usually unable to subject themselves to organizational norms of behavior; they are, in that sense, ‘untamable’.
4. RTI ACTIVISTS & JOURNALISTS GIVE A VOICE TO THE VOICELESS COMMON MAN. RTI activists are acting as the connective-tissues between a powerful administration and the powerless aam aadmi, whom Gandhiji referred to as Daridra Narayan. The common man is essentially voiceless; RTI activists give him a voice, and tiny lever to move the seats of power. Thousands of journalists are participants in this movement by reporting RTI findings, raising public awareness and giving credible feedback to the government; they are part of the RTI movement. RTI activists are answerable only to Daridra Narayan. The ultimate logic that an activist accepts is whether his actions are good for the man at the tea-stall wearing hawai-chappals, or the tired old lady living on pensions and savings.
5. RTI ACTIVISTS ARE DEFENDERS OF SAMPADA — THE COMMON WEALTH THAT BELONGS TO ALL OF US. A little-recognized fact of life is that there are two sorts of wealth: Sampatti ie. individually-owned personal wealth such as apartment, car, bank-balance and Sampada i.e. common wealth, belonging to all citizens together e.g. access to open spaces, clean air, pure and adequate water, a clean and safe city, clear roads, usable footpaths, good public transport systems, good administration, fair justice system, etc. Our quality of life depends on Sampada; driving an expensive Honda Accord gives you no pleasure if the roads are potholed and crowded. Having a filthy neighbourhood lacking in gardens takes away the joy of owning a spacious and expensive home. Our Sampada is under attack by hawkers and slumdwellers, encroaching shopkeepers and hoteliers, MLAs and MPs, poachers and illegal miners, greedy companies and regulatory authorities who shirk their duty to regulate. RTI activists are fighting to defend it.
6. RTI ACTIVISTS ARE SAFEGUARDING THE IDEA OF INDIA. By corruptly favouring various vested interests, many elected representatives and bureaucrats are corroding the India that was entrusted to all of us by the founding fathers, and enshrined in our Constitution. RTI activists are waging a daily battle to prevent this corrosion.
7. RTI ACTIVISTS SEEK RULE OF LAW. If there is one single reason why ministers, bureaucrats and officers yield to ordinary men and women who harry them with questions, it is that they are trying to get various rules and laws implemented. The underlying logic of most RTI applications, appeals and complaints is to compare laws, rules, norms, manuals, guidelines, circulars and terms & conditions with the administration’s failures in delivery, due diligence and vigilance.
‘Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high,
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.’
– Rabindranath Tagore
Friends, the RTI movement is an ongoing revolution. It is an authentic grassroots-level Satyagraha, and it has been sustained over five years. The average RTI activist is an unknown hero who carries in his or her heart a flame of faith in India’s system, and he does not look up to any leader to give him his rights. Alone, carefully shielding this sacred flame in his heart, he does his rounds of the government offices, seeking a tiny piece of information and a little justice. Despite suffering many defeats and insults, he picks himself up and continues to believe that this nation of ours can change for the better.
And daily, I bow to this unknown person, this loyal keeper of the faith. Daily, I ask God for opportunities to assist him or her in his sacred quest. Because it is this person, and no other, who will make my nation a place where my mind is without fear and my head is held high.