Sunday, December 21, 2008

RTI – a first step towards accountability

You realize just how powerful a tool the Right to Information Act (RTI) is, when you hear of the number of people who have been killed because they applied for information about public projects that had been undertaken. Documentaries are regularly made about these crimes perpetrated against a voiceless people but rarely see the light of day in commercial media. There was this short documentary Right to Information made by Aruna Roy’s Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan about a village in Rajasthan which has grinding poverty but immense dignity and an ability to smile in the face of grave injustice.

The film opens with the interviewer asking the villagers about a canal that has been dug in their village. The documentation of the project is impressive. The register shows how almost every villager has worked on the canal under the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. The names of the villagers have been written down carefully with their angootha chaap or thumb print next to their name and the amount paid to them. The specifications of the canal and details of phase-by-phase building of the canal are diligently marked out. The camera travels the entire village but cannot find any canal. The villagers say they did not get any work, and there is no canal in their village. But their names are listed as those who worked and took their wages, they are told. One dusty man doggedly claims that he can sign his name and there is no need for his angootha chaap. He studies the fingerprint next to his name and says that first, it was not his thumbprint and second, anyone can see it was a fingerprint and not a thumbprint at all.

The documentary also unearths a housing scam where the materials used are of an unbelievably bad quality, a gentle scratch of a fingernail and an entire section of plaster falls away. The sarpanch of the village though, has a wonderful strongly built spacious mansion with a large courtyard, well designed exterior and houses the village community hall too. The villagers used RTI and exposed the corrupt. They have also made sure penalties were imposed on the defrauders and the poor given cash compensation.

The Act is staggering in its immense reach. NGOs come under its scanner. Landmark judgements have been made based on evidence got though RTI. University students can now check their answer sheets by paying just Rs 10 on an RTI application. The immense power given to the common citizen through this Act gives one hope that finally we have a tool that will force transparency and fix accountability. You get the information and go to court with it. Provided that is, the seeker of information does not get killed off or beaten to a pulp. With this in mind Magasaysay Awardee Aruna Roy with the silver hair and 100-watt smile who spearheaded the Right to Information Act, wants to build a national network of support cells that will give the applicants physical protection with the strength of numbers.

One needs patience and determination to make use of the Act since the waiting period is 30 days, but the result is worth the wait and Public Information Officers or PIOs are learning that there is nowhere they can hide. If information is asked for they are duty bound to give it. If they don’t one can appeal to the State Information Commission and the PIO can be fined up to Rs 25,000.

Jammu and Kashmir which has high levels of corruption has a watered down Act unlike the one that is applicable to the rest of India. They call it a “gun without a bullet” but even with a weak RTI, they have managed to expose several scams involving public money. Punjab’s Information Commission just like Andhra Pradesh’s is going great guns, while the government of Jharkhand has ignored the Act completely, NGOs also come under the purview of the Right to Information Act.

Activists are hugely excited over this Act. In Goa however the Act seems to work well only when politicians and social campaigners use it to check if their opponents have correctly declared their assets or academic qualifications. The common man is still made to run from pillar to post by the Public Information Officers of the departments he approaches. But as Aruna Roy says, if three thousand people get after the government at the same time, accountability will happen and not just the government but private individuals too will be careful about making merry with money that belongs to the public.

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