Saturday, October 28, 2006

Know your Rights: (RTI time)

This post has been due for quite some time. AID Cincinnati had organized a talk about 2 weeks back on RTI by the Magsaysay Award winner Mr. Arvind Kejriwal. I myself didn't know much about RTI till then, but, I must say that the talk was quite enlightening.

Even though I was skeptical when Mr. Kejriwal painted RTI as the simple solution for corruption, I was certainly impressed and taken by RTI and its success stories. Later, I tried to explain the same concept to some other friends, but somehow I couldn't convey the essence of RTI and ended up confusing them. The least I can do for RTI now is to spread the word, so, this post is going to tell you most of what I know about RTI. I have tried to keep it short by answering 5 simple questions about RTI.

I am just going to paraphrase the talk (from what I remember) in many places in order to keep it least confusing.

1. What is RTI?

Simply put, it is your fundamental right. The Supreme Court of India declared the Right to Information as one of our fundamental rights way back in 1972(?) because without information, we cannot use our Right to speech and expression. However, until the RTI bill was passed in late 2005, there was no way to enforce our fundamental right to information. In essence, RTI is not something new; it is just a means for us to enforce one of our fundamental rights.

2. Okay, so what is RTI?

RTI gives us the right to ask the govt for its accounts. To understand what that means, our's is a democracy meaning we are the masters and the govt is our servant. It is the duty of the servant to show the accounts to the master whenever asked for. Even a beggar on the street pays taxes to the govt when he buys anything from a shop. It is our right to know how our tax money is being spent by the govt.

RTI now allows us to ask any govt dept (in any state or territory) for any information. You can ask whatever info you need (from the dept) in an RTI appln (which costs Rs.10+ depending on the state) and submit the appln to the officer-in-charge in that dept. Within 30 days, you will get a response to all your questions. If you do not get any response in the given 30 days, for every day it is delayed, the officer-in-charge will lose Rs.250 from his salary. Now, this places the burden of answering your questions on that officer-in-charge.

3. So, how is this helpful?

Let me take the real example of Nandu, a person below the poverty line, who applied for a ration card (to get rice, flour and sugar at subsidized rates every month). Even though it should technically take only 10 days for him to get a new ration card, he didn't get it for 3 months. With the help of a NGO, he submitted a RTI application asking for 3 simple questions:
a) Give me the day by day progress on my ration card application
b) Who are the officers-in-charge of processing my ration card
c) When am I likely to get my ration card

Now since there had been no real progress on his ration card application, answering these questions would be admission of guilt on paper which the govt officers can not do. However, they had to answer Nandu within 30 days or else start losing Rs.250 a day. Finally what happened was that the head officer in the dept went to Nandu's home, gave him his new ration card and pleaded with him to take back his RTI application.

4. Is that it?

It's not just questions. You can ask for copies of any govt. records that you might want. Also, what is unique to the RTI act of India (RTI is already in place in 40+ countries) is that you can go to a construction place (such as roads), tell the supervisor and perform an inspection and can take certified samples of any material that is being used. How is that?

Nandu's case was just a simple example. RTI has been used successfully in bigger scales. For example, ration distributors generally deny ration to the ration card holders and sell the stock to the black market all the while falsifying records that they gave ration to the card holders. Using RTI, NGOs in Delhi asked for the monthly records from many ration distributors and comparing the distributors' records with the people's ration cards, found out that about 90% of the stock was being transferred to the black market. There have been many bigger success stories.

5. What can you do?

The least you can do is know about RTI. In order to keep it short, I have tried to highlight the key aspects of RTI; is a good place to start learning more about RTI. Remember, RTI is not a bed of roses. But it certainly is a step towards having transparency in the workings of the govt.

And yeah, spread the word.
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Friday, October 27, 2006

Somewhere out there

Ever wondered who checked out a book before you did or who might do so next?

I get a lot of books from libraries. When I finished reading 'The Concrete Blonde' (which was about 2 months back) I realized that in all probability, anyone who has / will read the book might love murder mysteries just like me.

But, its not just that. I believe there is this invisible connection between all the people who read the same book. When I say the same book, I mean the same copy of it. Forget the books that you borrow from your friends (what's the thrill in knowing that you and your friend have a connection). The book that you have just returned to the library might actually be read by someone else who may end up being the next big thing (I am not implying that you couldn't be the next big thing; you could be one too). Are you not interested in knowing that random person who might have liked the book just as much as you? What makes it more interesting is that since you may have all kinds of people within any locality, even though the book itself may be geographically bound, the people who read it may be very different.

All this is probably a side effect of my interest in the 6 degrees of separation. But, when you have theories such as the butterfly effect, don't you think it's magical that a book might play a role in many people's lives without anyone realizing it? And, it's not just a book. It could be anything. It could be that random movie dvd that you check out and finally end up loving or that pen you use to fill out your forms at the DMV office.

Wouldn't this make all these inanimate things have a life of their own? What if they play a good or bad role in your life depending on how well you treat them? May be the reason the movie dvd gets stuck in the middle of an exciting scene is because it hates you and doesn't want you to enjoy the movie. How about that?

Btw, somewhere out there is my old Motorola v557 instrument that I exchanged for another. So, in case you got a v557 with emi 358253000563695 (check by doing *#06#) then we share some connection.
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Thursday, October 05, 2006

I hate my classmates

Top 5 types of students I wish weren't in my class:

5. Miss.KnowItAlls:
How to identify one? She is probably the first to enter the class, never even blinks till the end of the class (lest she might miss something important) and constantly takes notes (although already knows it all). She ll never miss a chance to show off she is a KnowItAll and obviously is among the teachers' pets.
PS: It could have been a "He" too. But generally, Mr.KnowItAlls do not show off as much and hence are a lot more tolerable.

4. Everyone look here, I lack manners:
Members of this club include (but are not limited to) those who come in late but insist on sitting in the front row, those who bang the door while walking out in the middle of the class (to answer their phone calls), those who attend their phone calls inside the class (yeah, that happens too), those who cannot stop shaking their legs (along with the desks and chairs), who stretch as if in an aerobic class and those who pick their noses because they are bored. The only reason they are this low in my list is coz I somehow manage not to get distracted during a good class. If it is a bad class, then who cares !!

3. Mr. and Ms. Doubts-Fire:
The ones that stick out their hands in a boring class as soon as the prof says "Questions?". I am not against those who ask questions in class. But these are the ones that ask questions simply because they think it makes them look smart. They are not dumb but the questions they ask are either way off the topic or dead simple. And they do it all the time. Grrrrrrrrr.

2. The hypocrite parasites:
You just have to be careful with this lot because you generally have outside-the-class interactions with them. They copy your work and shamelessly claim to have worked it all out by themselves - even in front of you. Oh, and they hate helping others. They never share their copied HW with anyone else because its bad !! They might know very little but love to act like KnowItAlls. My advice: Never trust them.

1. The bootlickers:
If the class is very boring (which is like every 2.735 out of 4 times), then you are in for some big trouble with this lot. You wouldn't believe what all they do to "butter" the prof. They go "Yes Sir, Yesss Sirrr." to every word uttered by the prof, they laugh-out-LOUD to all those not-at-all funny attempts made by the prof. (and make sure the prof sees them do so), are generally a variant of Mr./Miss. Doubt-Fires (they only ask questions for which they are sure that the prof. will know the answer!!), they never ask the prof for delaying the assignment due date or for reducing the exam syllabus (although thats what they complain about to the rest of us), meet the prof before & after the class and also during his office hours to ask doubts (!!), and wish that there was something beyond excellent in the course evaluation sheets (while the rest of us are coming up with "awful", "horrible", "terrible", "dreadful", etc.)

If you ask me to name my favorite classmate whom I love to hate, its MM. I can not be anymore specific (as it won't be fair to that person) but (s)hes THE perfect bootlicker I have ever seen.

What about you??
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