At 27, M C Chandan has completed his masters in social work but he isn’t really looking for a job. This native of Kodagu in Karnataka, is more interested in building a non-corrupt system — which has also become a career option thanks to the Right to Information (RTI) Act. Indeed, people like Chandan all over the country are hard at work developing the right to information into a powerful tool for transparency.
Chandan comes from a rural background, so he knows first-hand the problems of graft. He has long dreamed of a just society, and the RTI Act gave his aspirations just the boost they needed. For the last four years he has filed nearly 4,500 applications on various subjects. He seems to have found his metier, and developed a distinct vision about corruption and ways to stem it. In the process, he has turned his vocation into a career.
Chandan is one of the early RTI entrepreneurs as he has designed a four-month course on corruption for community leaders and citizens. The course promises to equip the participants with the knowledge of how to use the RTI to fight corruption.
His weapon? It is called the Association for Social Transparency, Rights and Action or ASTRA (meaning weapon in Sanskrit) a non-governmental organisation based in Karnataka. ASTRA provides training and technical assistance to government officials, and is proving to be a major money spinner. With an annual turnover of about Rs 30 lakh, he believes he is on to a good thing. “It will bring me respect and a new meaning to life.”
Chandan is a founding member and one of ASTRA’s five trustees.
Besides, 10 staff, it has 45 active members across the state. “With RTI gaining popularity and people discovering its power, I believe the course will have many takers,” he says. ASTRA’s income is used for its other programmes, such as social audits, the filing of RTIs and fact-finding reports.
He makes it clear that not everyone is charged. “We conduct seminars and conferences for people (ordinary citizens) free of cost.”
His work has brought Chandan instant recognition among thousands of villagers in about 13 districts, where ASTRA operates. His interest in exposing maladministration has accelerated, and officials are suddenly discovering they are accountable. Chandan doesn’t work alone. He has involved many youths across the state, forming a network for ethical governance whose members are taught to use RTI in their respective panchayats. This is empowerment from the grassroots, and if it takes off, will become an unstoppable force for transparency.
It is also an empowerment with political dividends as well. Some of these youths won in the recent panchayat election in Karnataka, Chandan says. A couple of them are now contesting the ongoing zilla and taluk panchayat polls in the state. Even its most optimistic supporters probably wouldn’t have expected the RTI to open the door to the political arena.
Take 32-year-old B Malangouda. He is one of the 10-member group which used the RTI to finger officials of Gorbal Panchayat in Raichur district for failing to implement government schemes. It’s helped his aspirations for a panchayat seat.
Viswa (26), another member of the group, has formal training in RTI. “Back in 2008, when we started with RTI, hardly anyone recognised us,” he recalls. Despite political pressure, they decided to go ahead with exposing the authorities. “Our image as likely leaders got enhanced”.
Viswanath J has completed 12th standard and works on his farm. “We have filed 25 RTIs to expose corruption in central government funded SGRY and Jal Nirmal Scheme,” he says. Now, the group is all set to contest zilla and taluk panchayat elections in Karnataka.
The story of P Dundappa is also instructive. His exposure of corruption in the public distribution system in his Kardiguddi village of Belgaum district made the 26-year-old a celebrity overnight, confident enough to contest the panchayat election. He lost the last one, but hopes to win this.
The Right to Information Act is more than a new law, because it seems to have created a band of inspired youths across the country, who have become the voice of the voiceless.
Krishnaraj Rao, a Mumbai-based freelance journalist, believes RTI has also given birth to what he calls non-electoral politics. It has provided common citizens an opening into “the system”, enabling them to understand governance and administration. He believes people can now influence the actions of government without entering the electoral arena.
In the era of coalition politics, he says the true meaning of “Opposition party” has been lost. Citizens using RTI are the only opposition now. “This is what RTI has given millions of Indians, a power they never had before,” he concludes.
Lawyer D Binu has another take on this phenomenon. Talking about his 15 years of experience in advocacy Binu (40), who practises in the Kerala High Court, says he has more cases than ever, which he attributes to RTI. “People are filing more cases on social issues. And the petitioners coming to me have substantial information obtained through RTI to back their cases.” On the side, he trains government officials on RTI, another source of income.
There seem to be more of these unexpected spinoffs than anyone foresaw. One is that several lawyers have taken up the cause of RTI full-time, one of them being A C Chandran of Chennai who quit the legal profession to work on RTI. So what’s the magic at work? Perhaps the fact that while all other Acts depend on administrative initiative, here it’s the citizens who do the work.
Krishna Raj believes RTI has triggered a grassroots movement against corruption which is largely leaderless and therefore quite robust and difficult to disrupt.
According to V Madhav, an activist from Chennai, RTI has brought together of a variety of socially conscious individuals, from businessmen, salaried employees, doctors, lawyers, students, to retired government servants into the fight against corruption. It is rapidly becoming a social movement, an independent reform initiative if you will.
“No other reform has kindled so much enthusiasm among ordinary people,” says Madhav. By making citizens responsible for enforcing transparency the Right to Information Act is being honed into a tool for social transformation.
A boost to activism
It took eight years to expose the Telgi fake stamp paper scam, which cost the exchequer a staggering Rs 33,000 crores. Jayant Mukund Tinekar of Khanapur, north Karnataka, who started digging up the issue in 1994, succeeded only in 2003. Sharing his experience he said, “although I did not have RTI at that time, I was lucky to have some reliable and sincere government officials, who supplied the required documents to expose the scam.” With RTI it wold have been much faster. The Adarsh housing society scam was exposed in four months.
JN Jayashree, a Bangalore based social activist, puts it this way. “Before the RTI Act we had to convince our elected representative to raise the issue in assembly or parliament. Today, a citizen can obtain the information without anyone’s assistance.”
A bit of tweaking
The going might get difficult for RTI lovers as there is another attempt from the government to tame the Right to Information Act. While some believe that the time is not ripe for amending RTI, some argue the urgent need to regulate supply of information in the interest of government. The initial years of every law are seldom peaceful and orderly. It slowly takes shape as it moves, encountering various twists and turns facing judicial interpretation.
l Application should relate to one subject;
2 Request should limit to 250 words;
3 Postage and other expense incurred for furnishing information would be collected from applicant.
Misusing the act: a reality check
It’s not all roses, as many people say RTI is misused by officials to settle personal scores. C J Karira of Hyderabad, who runs a RTI web portal, says that this is because the grievance redressal mechanism in the government is weak, biased and slow. One of the most interesting cases of misuse was reported in Maharastra, where a below-poverty-line citizen would seek information running into thousands of pages, since it is free for BPL family. It is alleged that he sold the information as waste paper for money. Some information officers complain about requests for unnecessary data, but Karira says this can be dealt with through the provision available in the Act.