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Citizen Leaders’ Power-tools for Creating Change

Creating change at societal and government level is not just a matter of filing a single RTI application or writing a single complaint. It involves developing and using a wide variety of lawful and non-violent tools for getting action on issues that concern them. These are powerful tools, which must become part of every part of the thought-process and behavior of individuals and groups seeking changes in governance and administration.

The tools are:

1)    Doing “homework” i.e. gathering documentation & data: It is necessary to collect the necessary documents, facts and figures to get a solid understanding of the problem from different angles, and also to build credibility before the authorities, the public and the media. All allegations should be backed up with facts & figures, documents, rules, laws etc.

For gathering documents, Right to Information is one method or research, but not the only one. Other methods include (a) networking with fellow activists for information (b) physically visiting documentation centres (such as Centre for Education & Documentation in Mumbai ) which collect and file newspaper clippings on various social issues, available for reading and Xeroxing at reasonable fees) (c) using the internet to search for relevant websites including the those of government departments like Department of Personnel & Training (DoPT), General Administration Department (GAD) and Press Information Bureau (PIB). Many documents that activists need for writing a well-researched representation are available as GRs and circulars on central and state government websites, and many studies, analyses and compilations of data are available with the libraries of Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and such other research institutes.

2)    Studying the relevant laws, rules, guidelines, GRs, departmental circulars etc. Having the rules and laws at your fingertips, and citing them in your correspondence and meetings, greatly enhances your effectiveness and forcefulness.

3)    Doing “letterbaazi”: Writing representations / applications or arzis, and formal complaints (shikaayat) foundational step for a citizen to seek change or action from the Executive (government departments) or the elected representatives.

Dos: It is important to write a factual statement clearly outlining the issues in clear, formal, non-personal, non-angry language. Be brief: not more than two pages i.e. seven short paragraphs of 3-4 sentences. Go straight to the point in the first paragraph. Write with factual precision, respect and dignity. Briefly highlight how your request or demand is a requirement of the law, in accordance with stated public policy, is in the larger public interest, is as per principles like equity and fair play etc. Make references to specific Fundamental Rights or Directive Principles of State from the Constitution as applicable. If possible, make references to studies and research papers to support your case. Address the person as simply as possible.

Don’ts: Avoid the following: (a) Lengthy greetings and self-introductions (b) Slavish ego-feeding language such as “Your Lordship” for Information Commissioners and “Your Excellency” for Governors etc. “Sir”, “Madam” or “Dear Mr. ABC” are better. (c) Personal attacks, adjectives and allegations like “corruption, corrupt officials, nexus, deliberately sabotaging, vested interests, money-making racket”. (d) whining victim-language e.g. “Despite being an old man of 84, I was made to run from pillar-to-post” or “Is this any way to treat a respectable lady?”

How-tos: Letters & complaints are at first addressed to the direct functionary or his immediate superior, and then, if no satisfactory replies, responses or actions happen after a reasonable amount of time  (15 days to one month), then letterbaazi is directed to progressively higher levels, until one reaches the top of the public authority (eg. In municipal corporation, one begins with Inspector of Licenses, then Ward Officer, then Deputy Municipal Commissioner and finally the Municipal Commissioner. However, even above the Chief of the Public Authority, there may be others in the Executive, eg. Urban Development Minister or Chief Minister to whom letters can be addressed.

Similarly, letters and complaints can be addressed to the elected representatives. Usually, letterbaazi with elected representatives should be done in these instances:

a.    When we have written several letters to a particular government department and not got a satisfactory response, it is then good to write to the elected representative. Before writing, think of who is responsible for control on that particular government department e.g. for action on the Municipality, write to the corporator; for action on a state department, write to the MLA; for action related to a central department, involve the MP.
b.    When we find a direct relationship between the particular government department and some elected representative e.g. in Maharastra, the MLA is the head of the Ration Vigilance Committee of his constituency.
c.    When we want to change a specific rule or bring in a particular rule (as opposed to implementing an existing rule). These letters are more in the form of a petition but essentially the same letter format can be used e.g. In Maharastra, when people wanted inclusion of the homeless in the ration system, activists sent letters to all MLAs demanding this. These letters were sent before the legislative assembly session. The demand was then brought up by MLAs in the session.

Endorsing copies to higher authorities is a good way of bringing pressure from above. Complaints can be filed against the wrong-doers, as well as the authorities who are deliberately ignoring the wrong-doings.

Individually, complaints are not necessarily effective in getting the desired action, or of getting punishment for the person complained against. However, collectively, as large numbers of citizens complain, they put pressures on the public administration, and eventually create course correction.

4)    Holding meetings with officials: After doing letterbaazi, it is often necessary to build up pressure by meeting with various officials. Go armed with acknowledged copies of all the previous correspondence, as well as a fresh letter for that official that states the main problem in 2-3 paragraphs. At the start of the meeting, only one or two spokespersons must be prepared to state the case in a brief and disciplined manner within 5-10 minutes. Personal allegations, lengthy account of the history of the struggle and other digressions must be avoided in most cases.

The meetings are not a one-off thing. Meetings are also to be gradually escalated to higher levels if desired progress does not happen.

Try to get a formal written commitment out of each meeting. The commitment should ideally have target dates, clear actions to be performed etc. If the official refuses to give a letter, the delegates must write down the commitment in an impromptu letter addressed to the officer, get it Xeroxed, and try to get his signature on an acknowledgement copy. And if even this is refused, then at least put the letter in the despatch department and get an acknowledgement date and stamp.

Often, these meetings can easily happen on dates and timings reserved as public meeting hours eg. Lok Shahi Din of Municipal Commission, DMC, AMC etc. Otherwise, special appointment has to be sought through a special letter, phone call or visit.

5)    Creating a file: Create records for every meeting and every communication with concerned authorities by giving representations, collecting acknowledgements etc. This file, which shows persistent action, is crucial for creating transformational pressure.

6)    Issuing legal notice: If the documentation, rules and legal points are well understood, use the services of a lawyer to serve a legal notice. Legal notices help in establishing locus standi in case the matter is taken to court as a writ petition or public interest litigation. It also forcefully conveys to the authorities that you are willing and able to take the matter to court if necessary. Sometimes, this forces them to change.

7)    Creating numbers: The above actions can be taken by a single or few citizens but if large numbers of people are convinced that there is a problem and can be mobilised, then their signatures can be gathered and submitted to the authorities, showing that public mobilization has occurred. If a simple message is written or printed on hundreds or thousands of postcards or letters, then hundreds of those landing up at the executive or legislative authority over the span of some weeks can become a medium of change e.g. Food Security Bill campaign.

8)    Approaching like-minded organizations who are working on the same issue or similar issues can result in pooling of energies.

9)    Putting up the issue before other proper forums such as MERC, Lok Aayukt, Human Rights Commission, Cooperatives Court etc. Each of these have specific requirements and processes.

10)    Pamphleteering: Issues can be publicized and public-support can be garnered through distributing pamphlets by hand at railway stations etc, or through newspapers. Pamphlets can be cheaply mass-produced through DTP-shops, bulk photo-copies and offset printing.

11)    Flex posters can be used in neighborhoods instead of posters to spread awareness of issues and bring together like-minded people into a group for joint action.

12)    Signature campaigns can be undertaken in neighborhoods, trade groups and other interest groups to exhibit strength of numbers, and also to make large numbers of individuals commit to a certain stand on an issue.

13)    Approaching Media. When some of the above steps have been taken, it is good to involve the media in order to reach a wider public audience. Often, public authorities sit up and take notice only when issues reach the media and/or a wider audience of people. Around 30 photocopies well-drafted press release in English, Hindi & Marathi can be given before 4 pm at Marathi Patrakar Sangh at Azad Maidan, near CST, for distribution to daily newspapers (both English & vernacular), news agencies and TV Channels. (Cost of this service is Rs 500.)

14)    Disseminating information through internet: It is possible to cheaply create websites, web documents (pdf files, powerpoint presentations, video-clips etc.) and spread the message far and wide through concerned email groups.

15)    Taking photographs & videos to record the problem: To convince journalists, it is good to have a number of photographs taken from different angles and at different times that clearly show the problems and the people affected. It is also good to interview diverse stakeholders singly or in groups, videotape them and excerpt from these interviews to make a CD for circulation.

16)    Sting operations: Take photos, videos and audio recordings of wrong-doers in action. If large numbers of people start using their cellphone-cameras – say of havaldars gathering haftas — and posting the photos on websites, it could present a strong deterrent.

17)    Approaching Anti Corruption Bureau: Either set a trap for the corrupt officials and wrong-doers, or lodge a complaint (FIR) with proper evidence under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 and other relevant IPC sections.   

18)    Police complaint and/or getting FIR registered through police station, if the executive inaction or wrong action falls within the scope of criminal acts covered under IPC and CrPC.

19)    Approaching Magistrate with complaint if the executive inaction or wrong action falls within the scope of criminal acts covered under IPC and CrPC.

20)    Writ Petitions & Public Interest Litigation before the High Court is an option, but possibly it is the last action that should be considered, because (a) it is necessary to prove to the court that you have “exhausted all other available remedies” such as writing letters of representation to the authorities, filing RTI applications etc. (b) It requires a lot of technical inputs from an advocate, involves a lot of preparation and high legal costs (c) Getting results of any kind usually takes years (d) Judges can give some rude shocks. Some petitions get dismissed with costs imposed on petitioners! So, tread carefully.

As momentum builds on an issue, community action or campaigns may be undertaken. Here is a simple list of the possibilities of community action.

a)    Dharnas, picketing, marches, hunger-strikes and other forms of non-violent agitation. These are sometimes necessary to mobilize public opinion or get public sympathy. The issue must be reduced into one or two-line slogans and written on placards, banners etc, to enable passers-by to understand what the hullabaloo is all about. Those participating in the agitation must be clearly aware of all the issues, and should be able to explain to passers-by. Having explanatory pamphlets in 2-3 languages is essential. This pamphlet should clearly have the contact details of a few persons leading the initiative.

b)    Organizing seminars & workshops on an issue, and inviting officials, higher-ups, ministers and political leaders to speak on the issue and make public commitments can be useful, especially for involving the intelligentsia.

c)    Social Audits i.e. Jan Sunwaiee and Public Bayaan is an “advanced tool” for mobilizing public opinion, gathering information and creating pressure on authorities to act. One may invite create a forum to enable citizens to speak about their good or bad experiences vis-à-vis a certain public authority e.g. Police, Information, Rationing office, Passport office etc.

d)    Forming associations, unions & NGOs is a way of citizens settling down to fight over the long haul. Having such bodies enable fund-raising and organizing for long fights that may drag on in the courts and government corridors for years.

Posted in Activism, Right to Information, RTI Act 2005.

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3 Responses

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  1. Krishnaraj Rao says

    Dear Naina,

    The cause chooses you. We activists are constantly interacting on phone and email. Sometimes, someone makes a suggestion. At other times, you suddenly realize that there is an area of need while you are talking to someone. Sometimes it comes from within, and sometimes from without. There is very little difference between the two.


  2. Naina says

    You are a good teacher.

  3. Naina says

    You are a good teacher. Those who ‘know’ about these things will learn from your writings. Keep writing. Yet can I ask a question? How do you choose a cause to act upon? Is it like trying to find out something you are concerned about or defining what the worldaround you isimmediately concerned about? Does it need to come from within or without? I’ll come back for your answer here.

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