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.


Ravi said...

I am not sure but i heard the govt wants to amend the right to information act.

In the sense, they dont want everyone to know the internal govt functionary.. I am not sure whether it has been inmplemented.

ps: dont use word verification for comments dude,,, i need to go thro a long process jus to comment

Aravind said...

Yeah, it seems the MPs did try to repeal the act and Sonia Gandhi (who was instrumental in passing of RTI) was silent for a long time. Mr.Kejriwal said that the next 2 years are crucial for RTI and people should be aware about RTI and stand up for the act in case the MPs decide to do something like that again.

Dei, I use word verificiation coz otherwise the only comments that come are from spammers!! Rather not have comments than have spam. U shd do that too !!

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