Each time people drive out of the parking lot of a mall in Hyderabad, they are reminded of the efforts of Vijay Gopal, a city-based anti-corruption activist who ensured that parking in malls is free. Today, he is fighting for the same cause in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Civil rights of police forces and their dignity in India, civil rights of private employees, misuse of plastic covers, encroachment of lake beds, etc. are some of the wide range of issues Vijay has taken up. TNM caught up with him to talk about one’s rights, the response from people and the awareness about the same. Here are some excerpts from the interview.
It was in 2014, when I noticed a 2-km stretch at ECIL X Roads completely dug up. Women and children at the nearby bus stop had to cover their faces because of the dust. It was heart-breaking to know what people were going through and how helpless they were. I vividly remember coming back home and researching about who repairs roads, the departments, officers responsible, etc. I realised that there was nothing available online that could help solve the issue.
The only thing I was able to figure out was that there was a department called the Roads and Buildings Dept., and I paid them a visit before office the next day. That’s how it all started. The ‘pillar to post’ experience and how to find answers was a learning experience. It was later that I learnt about this amazing tool – the Constitution of India, which provides citizens the Right to Information (RTI). Since then, there’s been no turning back.
Well, it’s true, I work as an Operations Manager (administration/team management) in one of the renowned MNCs. From going to courts/police stations almost every day from 10 am to 1 pm and then reaching office to work from 2 to 11 pm, then getting back home around midnight, researching until 3 am on projects/public issues – is it easy? It definitely isn’t. Not even weekends are free as most of it goes in spending time with legal teams. But I must admit that with the sense of satisfaction you get when you’re able help others, all your difficulties vanish with each change you’re able to achieve.
I’m very proud of having taken up the following issues:
1) Civil rights of police officers in India, where currently they don’t have weekly offs, leaves, overtime pay, and are asked to be on duty 24 hours a day.
2) Civil rights of private employees, where IT companies are violating daily hours limit, illegally making employees work overtime, leave policies, etc.
3) Moved the Supreme Court to fill the 400+ High Court judge vacancies across the country, which will directly result in justice delivery to common citizens.
4) School fee irregularities in Telangana (schools teaching illegal syllabus, not giving break-up of tuition fee, not giving receipts, etc.) affecting thousands of parents at large.
These are the top four issues I’m very proud of having picked up, because the outcome of these cases will affect millions of people’s lives positively.
From a society that never raised its voice, I’d say we’re making progress with people making a noise and taking a clear stand on issues. Can they do more? I believe yes! Today, due to social media, people are becoming aware of the avenues that can be leveraged to raise your voice, submit complaints, and even get problems solved. But like everything else, the ratio will increase as citizens start seeing the complaints getting resolved. At least the issues are coming to light. Change starts with that.
Compared to the consumer rights and civil rights awareness in the first half of this decade, the last five years have done tremendous good for the entire country. The increase in phone usage, internet availability, proliferation of smartphones, social media platforms, etc. have only helped people become more aware and empowered them to at least report violations.
To be honest, most of the expenses come out of my own pocket. I do the legal work myself – drafting, representing and arguing my own cases in the Consumer Court, it was one way I figured to save money. It was difficult but I realised learning about laws was exciting and it has made me aware of the various sections of the Indian Penal Code.
In February 2017, I began approaching the Telangana High Court to get public issues solved. Often, I was required to be present at two courts at the same time. That’s when it became difficult, because each PIL cost a minimum of Rs 40-50k depending on the kind of representation I was getting. I once spent Rs 18,000 only on printouts for filing a case in the Supreme Court. While I continued to manage for over 2 years, by 2019 I realised that there were far bigger societal issues that needed fixing and that I alone couldn’t achieve it.
I considered asking friends and family for support, but realised that because it was not even my issue that I was fighting for they didn’t really bother too much. That’s when I heard about crowdsourcing. Though hesitant, I sought Rs 20-30 from those who followed my work. It’s not much, but at least the paperwork related costs are covered with this support. I continue to spend from my own pocket, but I’m thankful for all the help I get from sympathetic citizens.
The fear of consequences of their lawful fight is what I believe people fear the most. All of this fear stems not knowing what consequences they might face and how to deal with them. The more people are aware of how to deal with consequences, the more people will come forward to voice their concerns.
The current lot of politicians in India would never want the common man to be empowered to make governments accountable. Hence, they are misusing their office and systematically breaking down the entire system to breed corruption and feed on peoples’ tax money. They achieve all of this by simply not filling vacant posts in the government, which directly impacts the outcome of any step a common citizen can take towards getting justice. About 25% of important posts in government offices are vacant, 40% of High Court judge posts are vacant, more than 30% judge posts in lower courts are pending – who is responsible for this situation? I believe people are, for electing wrongly. Only about 60% of eligible citizens cast their vote, without even knowing who they’re voting for.
Governments don’t have laws to hold officers accountable for delay in closure of complaints or in moving files; citizens don’t have a platform to file complaints and hold officers accountable; enforcement agencies are ignorant of laws – there are many such reasons.
The saying ‘A democracy remains a democracy if the judiciary does its job’ is very true. The Indian legal forums are the only jobs where you have adults working for only 40% of the year, yet still get the full year’s salary. We need judicial reforms, until then nothing in this country will change. One odd judgment in a decade is keeping the ray of hope for the judiciary alive, but that’s not enough.
Transparency breeds trust and competence builds confidence. The five rights I wish I’d been aware of when I was a teenager, which I wish all citizens to be aware of are:
1) Right to Information: Citizens have the right to know how their tax money is spent, if the officer in-charge is doing their job or not, etc. People can file a simple application and get these details. If someone says it’s the law, ask which law? If they say they received a new government order, ask them to show the same, don’t get fooled by lies. We Indians need to make it a habit to go by paper trail, not by word of mouth.
2) Right to official bill: The entire cycle of corruption starts with not getting a bill for payment, be it school fee, consumer purchase, etc. This is why schools/educational institutions don’t give official bills, as their illegal act will be exposed.
3) Nobody can raise a hand on you: Your parents, spouse or even the police. Do not tolerate this, raise your voice, fight back. No matter how small the injury, a police case can be filed for hurting anyone (accidentally or wilfully does not matter).
4) You can call 100 for any kind of crime: This is the best right you can uphold as a citizen and it can make a huge difference.
5) The most important of all, you don’t need police permission to protest: If you want to express dissent, you can do it wherever you want without causing harm to anyone. Some people think police permission is needed but that’s incorrect.