By Cibita G, Pratik Nath*
Every year nearly 6 million RTI applications are filed in India making it the most used transparency law in the world. Assessments have shown that many applications have been filed at the grassroots level and the marginalized community. Though there is a huge scope for leveraging the act for empowerment, this is a remarkable feat as it shows that people understand the importance of the act to avail basic services and other entitlements.
Giving voice to the unheard:
This story is about Suvarna Bhagyawant who made numerous rounds of the panchayat to get her grandfather’s death certificate. Every time the Government Officer asked for a bribe of Rs. 500 from her. Suvarna needed that certificate so that her grandmother could apply for the widow pension scheme. Finally, she made use of the RTI act and filed a query under the act. She got the certificate within eight days after that.
Similar is the story of Archana Bhagyawant who filed a query under RTI act after the government officer refused to issue a new ration card to her without a bribe of Rs. 150. Her RTI query was answered within three weeks and the sarpanch personally delivered it to her home.
These are just two of numerous such examples where RTI has given voice to the unheard. People have become more aware about the provisions of this act and they are using this act judiciously to enforce their rights in the society.
Better vigilance over Government Projects:
RTI has empowered people to ask critical questions to the Government. An ideal example could be found in Bagepalli, a small town 100 Kms North of Bangalore. This town had tree lined tarmac roads. The Government came out with a project to construct double roads with streetlights for this town. Work had begun in 2005, but it went on in a very unprofessional manner. Marking was done inappropriately; dividers were placed haphazardly leading to many accidents on road. Toufeeq, a staffer from an NGO had attended an RTI workshop conducted by Sakshi Trust. He then filed an RTI from which he got to know that Rs. 1.32 Crore was allocated for the project and nearly Rs. 1.15 Crore was shown as spent for the project. With this information, they confronted the JE who was forced to apologize and the road work was finally completed.
Thus, RTI has empowered the people to ask critical questions to the Government and enforce their rights with the availed information.
Corruption exposed by enhanced transparency:
RTI has increased the transparency of the system many folds which makes it easier to expose corruption. An example can be found in Himmatsar village in Rajasthan. Through an RTI, people of that village got to know that the grain meant for the poor is being black-marketed by the local ration shop. As a result, the shopkeeper not only lost his dealership, but also was forced to pay a compensation of Rs. Four Lakh; the amount of money made by selling grains in black market.
This is one of many such examples, where common people have used RTI to expose corruption and enforce their right.
To help citizens be more aware of how the act can be used and be informed about the processes and other appeal mechanisms, there are two key stakeholders.
Civil society organizations: These have played a crucial role in increasing the reach of RTI. They have helped train villagers and the masses on how to file the RTI, it’s advantages and how it can be used to avail services. These organizations have themselves also filed RTIs under numerous occasions that has pressurized the government to increase transparency and ensure proper implementation of policies and schemes. The organizations have conducted training sessions for government officers like PIO and AAs on how to respond to queries and have also driven a change is their mindset to overcome the traditionally bureaucratic processes.
Media: The media has played another crucial role in increasing awareness of RTI. The usage of RTI information in news stories have helped public understand the power of RTI investigation. Journalists have played a dual role in promoting RTI act. On one part they have been the users of the act uncovering issues in implementation and nudging officials to take corrective actions and on the other hand they have been involved in monitoring the implementation of the Act and constantly reporting about the structure in place along with recommendations for improvement. Thus in a sense they have been campaigning for a more transparent government system.
However, for the real success to come with regards to RTI act in India, the change has to come from the Government side also. The need for a transparent system should be promoted and supported by top government officials. Such a culture would then automatically increase the moral of PIO officers which would increase efficiency of resolution. The culture would also be instrument in digitization and better documentations of various government policies and systems making information access easier. Clarity of appeals and quicker resolution by efficient allocation of resources in this step would also reduce the number of pending queries. Proactive information disclosure would help various stakeholders in the ecosystem and help empower the citizens.
*PGP, Second Year Students in Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad