As reported S K Saksena on on 24 February 2008:
RTI Act: The ‘brahmaastra’

RTI Act: The ‘brahmaastra’

HAPPENINGS IN the world of fine arts seldom make news, except for some sale of a Husain here or a Souza there, at an astronomical price. Well, this is a different sort of story. Sir JJ School of Arts, a venerable 150-year-old institution, presents a picture of neglected sleepy heritage, in stark contrast to the bustling crowds of Mumbai’s Crawford market. An occasional tourist ventures inside the campus to gape at the bungalow, where was born Rudyard Kipling, the creator of ‘Jungle Book’ and the one who gave currency to the expression, the ‘White Man’s Burden’. The dowdy institution was shaken up recently, by one of its former students, Vidya Vaidya. Today, apart from being an artist, she is also an activist with CitiSpace, an NGO that fights to protect and reclaim Mumbai’s vanishing open spaces. As an earlier insider, she knew that heaps of art works of former students must be lying on the school premises. The said students had become big names and these missing works of theirs had not had any public exposure. Her efforts with the School met with indifference and reluctance. Finally, she filed an RTI application asking for a catalogue of all the works lying on the school’s premises. The RTI Act notwithstanding, the authorities dilly-dallied. Her tenacious follow-up bore results and hundreds of great works of art, lying neglected and gathering dust, finally surfaced. This caused a stir among lovers of art and heritage. In short, after painstaking archiving and restoration, an exhibition of 300 lost works will be held, to coincide with the 150th anniversary celebration of the Sir JJ School of Arts. Some of these are more than 100 years old! A great achievement!

This shows that the Right to Information Act 2005, has given you and I a potent weapon to transform our country, even in the field of art! This one simple tool can bring about transparency, accountability and reduce corruption, in nearly all areas of governance – from central to state governments to municipal bodies. A silent revolution is taking place across the country. Any citizen can now submit an application in an uncomplicated format and ask in simple language the information he needs. No standard forms need be obtained. This has to be submitted or posted to the Public Information Officers (PIOs) of the department concerned. The fee varies - it is, for example, Rs 10 in Maharashtra. It can be paid through a court fee stamp (to be affixed to the application) or a postal order (to be attached to the application). Also cash can be deposited with the department. Those below the poverty line need not pay any fee. It is mandatory for the PIO to reply within 30 days. The officer concerned will be fined Rs 250 for each day of delay. This amount will be deducted from his payroll and not paid by his department. The penalty for withholding or giving misleading or wrong information is heavy. Just a few examples: The registrar of Benares Hindu University was fined Rs 25,000 for withholding information. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi was fined Rs 30,000 for violating the Act. The joint registrar of co-operative societies was fined Rs 10,000 for delay in providing information.

Citizens’ rights under this Act and the procedures for application and appeal, etc, can be accessed from Welcome to National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI), India, the website of the National Campaign For People’s Right To Information (NCPRI) and many other excellent sites, which furnish success stories and explain the hurdles one should expect along the way. While the procedure is deceptively simple, there is a lot of diffidence on the part of officialdom. But tenacity and numbers do help in cleaning the Augean stables. Rural Maharashtra has taken to it with a gusto, which even the metros cannot match. Teachers are unearthing scams in the local co-operatives and panchayats. Ironically, the immediate beneficiaries are the bureaucrats themselves, who are able to use this to expedite realisation of their dues and pensions and detect irregularities in transfers, etc. Similarly, the passport applicant is a sure winner. Any unwarranted delay in processing and dispatching can be cut short by submitting an application and seeking the reason for the delay.

In spite of the simplicity of the procedure, life is not always a cakewalk. This writer has faced hostility, while submitting the application at the reception desk. The same day the builder or the contractor concerned gets a copy of the RTI application, by fax. The ‘respected builder’ told us that he would dictate the replies. When we submitted a clutch of applications desiring to know how permissions were granted for illegal quarrying and illegal construction, we were advised not to venture out alone during our morning walks. This is not to frighten the new aspirant, who joins the RTI users’ club, but to show how effectively the new tool has just about started to shake the establishment. It took us a full year of sustained applications and re-applications, to get the documents we needed. This sure has some salutary effect on the officials who connive to give illegal permissions and submit false reports. Where it was not too late, corrective action was taken. Shailesh Gandhi, an IIT graduate and a very dedicated activist, who gave up his business to devote himself fully to the RTI cause, has unearthed scam after scam, which put together explain the urban blight on Mumbai; if this continues it can forget becoming a world-class city. This has brought many NGOs and prominent citizens together to fight for a livable city. In the recent past, more than 600 open spaces meant for public recreation or hosting playgrounds and gardens have been gifted away to builders and politicians for commercial use. Against the international norm of four acres of open space for every 1,000 residents, Mumbai has less than 0.03 acres; ‘crowded’ New York has five acres per 1,000 residents. The remaining 300 odd spaces, which were also to be gifted away, have been saved, at least for the time being. So constant vigilance is needed.

Shailesh Gandhi also filed RTI applications to ascertain how funds under the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund and the chief minister’s Relief Fund had been disbursed. In spite of the decks being cleared by the Chief Information Commissioner, there is marked reluctance on the part of the PMO and the Maharashtra chief minister’s office to divulge any information. The excuses given were devious. Obviously, funds have not been responsibly utilised. A lot of us have decided not to contribute to any such funds henceforth; in case of national catastrophes, we would rush the aid directly to the disaster-affected, as far as possible.

Years of crusading by the likes of Anna Hazare and Aruna Roy have finally blessed the common man with this ‘brahmaastra’ (ultimate weapon); it has empowered him to clean up our polity and marginalise corruption, which is gnawing at the very root of our civil society. Many mainline papers are using the RTI to access information of public interest, which would have been impossible earlier. Medha Patkar and other champions of the oppressed are using it. People like Magsaysay award winner, Arvind Kejriwal and Sailesh Gandhi, the winner of the Nana Palkhiwala award are ceaselessly working round the clock for a ‘cleaner’ nation. Let’s join them and cease to be mere spectators!

› Find content similar to: RTI Act: The ‘brahmaastra’