365 days, 360 applications: three activists take the RTI route to get answers from govt

New Delhi, December 30 Between them, a retired navy officer, a paint manufacturer, and a postgraduate in sociology have filed 360 applications invoking the Right to Information (RTI) Act this year. And they are resolved to keep up their efforts in the New Year.

Commodore (Retd) L K Batra says he turned RTI applications into a weapon after being overcome by “a sense of shame” at being an educated man living in the same neighbourhood in Noida where it took the police two years to unearth the horror behind the disappearance of more than a dozen children of Nithari village.

For Debashish Bhattacharya, a 39-year-old MBA who is a senior manager at a paint manufacturing unit, the RTI campaign started when he started “wondering” why victims of terror attacks were not given martyr status.

And Saurabh Sharma, a 28-year-old sociology postgraduate, started off his campaign because he was “simply curious” as to why, despite the government calling tenders of Rs 600 crore, Delhi roads still remained “a hair-raising experience”. He already has 52 RTI applications on the issue with the Public Works department.

Batra says: “The RTI is a tool for participation in governance. Sixty years have passed since Independence. But government departments still see an RTI application as a complaint — it’s not a complaint, but a seeking of information.”

Batra, who is in his early 60s, says his “need to do something for public benefit” springs from his Navy days: in the 1980s he organised an adult literacy programme for support staff of defence officers in Goa, and he took part in rescue and rehabilitation work during calamities like the Gujarat earthquake.

“I don’t file RTIs by the dozen. I believe in quality,” says Batra, whose focus now is on gathering information on “official lapses” in Nithari.
Bhattacharya, who has made about a 100 RTI applications, says he is motivated by an “overwhelming sense of wonder” at “who is accountable on record in the government”.

“Two months ago I wrote to the Home Ministry seeking details on different terror-linked incidents in the last decade. I also wanted to know which security agency is responsible for the lapses,” says Bhattacharya.
He is equally keen to know the number of schools in Delhi without playgrounds and wants details of the felling of trees by NDMC.

Some of Sharma’s applications relate to the public distribution system for slum-dwellers of Malaviya Nagar. “I wanted to know if the government was doing anything about the proper opening of ration shops as consumers were mostly below the poverty line,” says Sharma, who has started Josh, a voluntary group with about 500 volunteers from Delhi University and IIT Delhi.

He is also the founder of Youth Task Force, which uses RTI to achieve transparency in examinations conducted by DU.

“In October 2006, we filed 400 RTI applications in a day with the varsity, requesting for copies of evaluated answer sheets of exams conducted at all levels,” said Sharma, whose recent campaign is for “clean” running of the university canteens.

“RTI is not just about grievance redressal. The law is used to raise social questions for which government is bound to reply. All kinds of people use the RTI, those below the poverty line who need income certificates from Sub-Divisional Magistrates to women in posh colonies concerned about their roads and streetlights, to corporate houses worried about certain government policies,” says Magsaysay Award winner and prominent RTI activist Arvind Kejriwal of this surge in activism.

Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah says, “For years we have had a closed sort of government. Once the paradigms are set, work on RTI will settle into a government routine. Of course, there are lot of people who use RTI to promote themselves.”

365 days, 360 applications: three activists take the RTI route to get answers from govt