The revolutionary act that came in 2005 has pulled more than its fair share of weight

MPs may complain but these five RTI cases show why information is power in India PTI
news Activism Saturday, April 30, 2016 - 17:05

Anyone listening to MPs complain in Parliament about the Right to Information (RTI) Act recently might wonder why this frivolous law exists. After all, when Samajwadi Party MP, Naresh Agarwal said the RTI was being misused, he found much support in the Rajya Sabha with NCP member Praful Patel saying the Act had destroyed all objectivity since bureaucrats only wondered “what will come out under the RTI. And Congress MP Rajeev Shukla hinted that RTI activists are making money off of the Act.

Even the government, on its part, agreed to look into the concerns raised about the misuse of RTI.

But this seems another example of wanting to throw the baby out with the bathwater, as even a casual peek at recent history suggests the revolutionary act that came in 2005 has pulled more than its fair share of weight. Here are just some of the biggest examples of the RTI being put to great use:

Adarsh Scam:

The 31-storey Adarsh Housing Society in Colaba, Mumbai was originally supposed to be a 6-storey building for war widows and heroes of the 1999 Kargil War. RTI applications filed by activists Simpreet Singh and Yogacharya Anandji brought to light how bureaucrats, politicians and military officials had flouted rules and acquired flats in the building below markets rates. The revelations ended with then Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan having to resign and on Friday the Bombay High Court ordered the demolition of the building.

Public Distribution Scam in Assam:

Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, a non-governmental organisation based in Assam, filed an RTI request in 2007 that revealed irregularities in the distribution of food meant for people below poverty line. The RTI resulted in the allegations being probed and several government officials being arrested.   

Commonwealth Games:

The Commonwealth Games scam or the CWG scam that left the Indian government red-faced was riddled with misappropriation of funds and corruption charges. An RTI filed by a non-profit organisation called Housing and Land Rights Networks revealed how Rs 744 crore from social welfare projects for Dalits had been diverted to the Commonwealth Games from 2005-2006 to 2010-2011.     

Government Primary School Scholarship:

When NCP Minister Praful Patel mocked the RTI act by saying that any “chaiwala” and “paanwadi” can ask for any information these days, he didn’t seem to have reckoned with cases like that of Manoj from Vailpoor, a village in Nizamabad district from Telangana, into account. Manoj, a beedi worker’s son and a grade 4 student, decided to find out why 15 students studying in the Government Primary School in the area weren’t receiving the promised scholarship amount form the Labour welfare department for the academic year 2011-12. Manoj’s RTI application got 10 children their scholarships.

IIM’s Admission Criteria:

A visually-impaired girl Vaishnavi Kasturi was denied a seat in the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore in 2007 even after scoring well in the entrance examination. Kasturi filed an RTI application to find out their selection process. The RTI application revealed that the entrance mattered little as compared to Class X and XII results.   

Elaborating on why India needs the RTI, journalist and RTI activist Ritu Goyal said “When you file an RTI you get documents with the ‘notings’ of officers on the side which sometimes are more telling than the document itself and makes the bureaucrat directly responsible. This could be one of the reasons why politicians and bureaucrats are running scared,” she further added.

According to Goyal, not only has RTI made information accessible to the public but since its introduction government departments have started putting out information online on websites to avoid getting RTI applications. Thus the Act has brought far more information into the public domain that have emerged directly from RTI queries.

Indeed, the success of the RTI is visible from the extent of violence that has turned against activists. Talking about how the government should be working towards protecting RTI activists and journalists, Dr KV Babu, a physician and RTI activist from Kannur, said “We as RTI activists are very scared. Just two months ago there was a case in Mangalore where an RTI activist was killed in broad day light. The RTI Act doesn’t have a provision to keep the applicants name a secret. RTI activists should be looked at as whistleblowers and should be protected.”

As for those who look at filing RTI applications as a money-making activity, Gangadhar Patil, a journalist who has filed around 3000 RTI applications said, “It is true that people misuse the Act but screwdrivers and knifes are also used to kill people but that doesn’t mean we stop manufacturing them. Similarly, just because of some people who are misusing the Act we shouldn’t punish others who are using it for genuine reasons.”

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