Meet the young RTI brigade of India
This is a discussion on Meet the young RTI brigade of India within the RTI News & Discussion forums, part of the RTI News, Circulars and Decisions category; Reported by News.in.msn.com on 15 Jun 2012 Meet the young RTI brigade of India It was a pleasant February morning in Lucknow. Class V students of the City Montessori School ...
- 06-15-2012, 11:13 PM #1
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Meet the young RTI brigade of India
Reported by News.in.msn.com on 15 Jun 2012
Meet the young RTI brigade of India
It was a pleasant February morning in Lucknow. Class V students of the City Montessori School at Rajajipuram were reading a chapter on Mahatma Gandhi. A hand went up. A girl with hair tied in a ponytail asked: "Who gave him the title Father of the Nation?" Aishwarya Parashar, 10, was known to ask bright questions but this time she flummoxed the adults around her. Not one to let go of an idea, she planned to tap a zillion sources, including the Prime Minister. She approached him via the Right to Information (RTI) Act on February 13 to make sure she received an answer.
Parashar, who has been using the RTI Act since the age of seven, is the youngest face in a growing brigade of information warriors. While their classmates compete in cramming, they keep their date with judges. They may stand out in government offices with their books and bags, but the young crusaders take on the system for anything and everything-inedible hostel food to corruption in ration shops- looking for truth and ensuring justice. As Harshavardhan Reddy, a 22-year-old engineering student who has 300 RTI applications to his credit, says, "It's very effective. You just need to be fearless and patient." Often expelled from schools or colleges, confronted by angry neighbours or authorities or pressured by family, they dig up administrative dirt with great glee. "I get all charged up when I think of myself as an RTI activist," says Hyderabad student K.N. Sai Kumar, 21, who has filed over 20 RTIs.
Although written on school notebook paper in a childish hand, Parashar's letter could not be dismissed by the nation's top office as a display of little-girl feistiness. It was a flawless RTI application, as legally binding and enforceable as any. As the letter changed hands between the Prime Minister's Office, the home ministry and the National Archives, a national secret leaked out: Despite continual mention in textbooks, Gandhi was never officially conferred the honorific Father of the Nation. Parashar was told on March 26 that there were no documents on the information she sought but she was welcome to visit the archives and look for it herself. "I thought I was asking a simple question," she says.
Since 2005, the RTI Act has built an impressive trajectory. In an era of global youth rebellion, it seems to be opening up new space for India's young to demand people's right to know. New student protests are developing into challenging movements around the world: From Athens to Rome, San Francisco to London, the Arab Spring to the Chilean Winter. The young RTI activists too demand another way to run the world, but theirs is no rock-and-tear gas fight with the state. They prefer to work within the rule of law, engage with their communities and demand change not just in their personal lives, but for good governance and against corruption in the wider society.
It's a very encouraging sign,' says Nikhil Dey of National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI), which began the RTI campaign in India. 'We go to schools and notice a high level of awareness on the RTI law. There are also many progressive schools that have started RTI clubs.' NCPRI often gets to know about young people who have filed an RTI application on behalf of family or friends. To Kamal Mitra Chenoy, head of the Centre for Comparative Politics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, the trend turns on its head the widespread characterisation of today's young people as disinterested and self-centred. 'With civil society activists using the RTI route to unearth scams and corruption, every young person wishes to be a change-maker. And they are smart enough to have figured out that the system works through legal, civic engagement.'
Bhadresh Vamja, 18, of Saldi, Gujarat, took to RTI to do something for his village. Thanks to him, the Gujarat government passed an order in April making it compulsory for all fair price shops in the state to disclose details of all rations received and stocked in stores. It all started last year, when the BCom student of Shri Vivek Vidhya Vikas Commerce College started asking why the two fair price shops in his village always refused ration to villagers. He filed an application on February 11, 2011, with the tehsildar to get details of supplies sent to the shops every month. With villagers rallying round him and advice from an NGO in Ahmedabad, Vamja started a crusade, filing a series of RTIs and police complaints, until the shopkeepers were brought in line and full supplies restored.
Often, personal battles turn into public crusades. For Harshavardhan Reddy, student of the MIT School of Government in Pune, RTI was initially a tool to undo a private injustice: He was denied a passport for over two years for no reason. 'I first got to know about the RTI Act through a newspaper report in 2009 and decided to try it out for myself,' he says. 'I lodged an RTI, dragged the police to the consumer forum undeterred by their threats, argued my own case in court for six months until I was granted a passport.' Reddy has now filed for a range of causes: For poor farmers whose loans have been withheld by government-run banks, or who have not received birth certificates, title deeds of land or land record statements, to secure salary and compensation for labourers, against corrupt teachers or the polluting rice mill in his village, Karni in Andhra Pradesh. 'People come to me with their problems knowing I will do my best to help them,' he says.
For Sai Kumar, it all started in 2011 after he filed two RTI applications to seek information on the functioning and funding of the government-aided school where he studied and his mother, K. Rukmini Bai, worked as a teacher. As a result, his mother was sacked without notice. He took up the battle and the school was forced to take her back in February. 'I used to be hot-headed and would get angry with every wrongdoing I came across,' says the final year BSc student of AV College, affiliated to Osmania University in Hyderabad. 'My RTI experience in the last few months has made me more balanced. Fighting corruption is now a passion for me and I am working on rti queries relating to the Right to Education.'
But the road for RTI activists is not easy. As Nikhil Dey points out, 'Framing an RTI application can be quite complicated for a newcomer.' If the information is incomplete, then one has to apply again, pursue it and also get the backing of lawyers and judges. According to the RTI Ground Realities Survey conducted by the Consumer Unity & Trust Society in 2010, only 32 per cent people know that an application can be filed on plain paper, 27 per cent about the fees, 14 per cent about the mandatory response time of 30 days. Moreover, RTI activists often wage a lonesome and dangerous battle, over 50 having paid with life for their courage since 2005. 'It is always difficult for anyone who raises important questions. But young people are mostly on safer ground as they raise questions on broader civic issues,' adds Dey
For many, like Parashar, there is usually an activist parent in the background, inspiring or urging the child to seek information through the RTI Act. In September 2009, it was the peak of the swine flu pandemic and Parashar, in Class III then, got agitated over a garbage dump right in front of her school. Her mother Urvashi Sharma, a social worker and RTI activist, helped process her application to the Chief Minister's Office (CMO) to remove it. A month later, when another RTI application was made to get the status of her request, the CMO told that her application was lost. A third RTI was filed to the CMO, seeking information on the officer who misplaced the application. 'I haven't heard from them but the garbage was removed and that land was handed over to my school, which set up a public library,' says Parashar.
For others, like 18-year-old Mobashshir Sarwar of Delhi, RTI can become a nightmare. On a collision course with his school affiliated to Jamia Millia Islamia, in the last two years, he has been expelled and even barred from taking his Class XII exams. Sarwar has retaliated by dragging the school to court. The bone of contention has been the 100-odd rtis he filed seeking information on sensitive issues: Expense ledgers, teacher appointments, by-laws to hostel food. 'The director called me the 'habitual information seeker',' says the bespectacled boy. 'I was asking too many uncomfortable questions.' When pleas to the authorities went unheard, he was forced to file a writ petition in the Delhi High Court on March 18, 2011. 'Later, the court asked the school what the trigger was and they alleged misconduct, misuse of RTI to defame. Would there be anything to defame if they were honest and going by the book?' he adds.
The collateral damage was extensive, too, for Sarwar. Earlier this year, while his peers were busy preparing for their final examinations, the boy from Madhepura, Bihar, was running from pillar to post to get permission to take his exams. 'They said I had low attendance, when I actually attended classes regularly,' he says. That led to another writ petition against the school and he was granted permission only on the eve of the exam. 'It was sheer harassment,' he says. In the last two years, he endured relentless humiliation, physical assaults and even death threats. It amused him when a dozen guards followed him around whenever he went to school. 'I get security like Rahul Gandhi and the Prime Minister.' His parents, Sarwar Asmi and Nusrat Bano, provided support and encouragement. When the school expelled him, his father advised him to go to court. His only regret was that he lost out on friends due to the run-ins with his school; 'Everybody is scared to even hang out with me.'
To the young crusaders, the charm of RTI far outstrips the dangers. It allows them to break the monotony of everyday life and dream of leaving behind a legacy. For some, RTI activism is a great learning experience. 'I've been to court so many times that I know all about procedures and laws,' says Sarwar, who is preparing for law school entrance exams. Vamja has filed over 25 RTI applications through a youth group he runs to help villagers understand their rights. 'RTI makes them learn new subjects every day,' he says. For some, the RTI Act is all about giving back to society. 'What's the point if we can't do good for people,' asks Sarwar. Parashar wants to be like Mahatma Gandhi, her role model. 'I want to study medicine and serve the poor,'she says. Sai Kumar feels RTI has earned him the respect of his friends and teachers. The fact that people come to him with their problems gives Reddy a sense of purpose: 'They know I will do my best to help them'.
Not so long ago, the nation bemoaned apathetic and disengaged students. It's time to rethink those assumptions. As Chenoy says, 'You have got an entire generation that realises something is wrong and something has to change.' They have the time, the energy, the will, the wherewithal and the right to improve quality of life for themselves and for others. The RTI Act is giving them the space, support and recognition that they need.
- With Ashish Misra, Shravya Jain, Aditi Pai, Mona Ramavat, Devika Chaturvedi