The Right to Information Act (2005) is a wonder of democracy. As a citizen of India you can request access to public records that the concerned department has to furnish or expedite within 30 days. And we have just been hugely impressed by the speed at which they expedited our request.
The aim of the Right to Information (RTI) Act is to empower citizens, promote transparency and accountability in the government’s workings. India along with around 40 other countries have legislation to grant these rights to its citizens. In India there have been some ground breaking revelations thanks to the RTI that have unvealed food hoarding scams, a Rs.60 Crore Seed distribution scam by the UP government, Minister’s expenses, inappropriate allocation of public contracts and other such public sector misdemeanours. There are professional RTI Activists, professional whistle blowers, whose job it is to file RTI applications with the aim of rooting out corruption and keeping the public sector in check. However, along with king crab fishing in Alaska it looks like being an RTI activist is a highly dangerous job. Between January 2010 and August 2011, 12 RTI activists have been killed. They didn’t just slip on a strategically placed banana peel and whack their heads on a pavement. This is brutal stuff like Shehla Masood who was shot in the neck while sitting in her car and another activist in Delhi involved in a hit and run accident. Coincidence or does it reek of conspiracy…?
But without the RTI applications of journalists and citizens we woulnd’t have found out about President Patil’s travelling expenses for her and her large entrouage of extended family and friends of Rs.205 crores. The fledgling Air India had to cough up Rs 169 crore on use of chartered aircraft, always a Boeing 747-400, on Patil’s foreign visits. An additional Rs 36 crore was spent on accommodation, local travel, daily allowance and “miscellaneous” expenses.
P.Sainath’s brilliant article on the Planning Commisioner and infamous proponent of the definition of the poverty line (Rs.29 for urban dwellers i.e 50 cents, and Rs.23 for rural qualifies you as above the povery line ie.), Montek Singh Aluwahlia’s travel expenses is a result of an RTI application. Dr. Ahluwalia’s global forays between May and October 2011, in which period he undertook “four trips covering 18 nights [which] cost the exchequer a sum of Rs. 36,40,140, an average cost of Rs 2.02 lakh a day.”
But there are less glamourous, less controversial RTI requests like a seven year old who filed an RTI request for information as to why the garbage in front of her house had not been cleared in months. Or a little boy who requested that the Delhi Police investigate the disapparenace on his bicycle.
Our own RTI application was for modest personal gain. For 6 years now, the DH has been judiously writing letters to the Ministry of Communications regarding his HAM Radio License. It’s a reliable form of low power communication that can be used anywhere in the world to contact anyone with a HAM radio but you need a license which will give you your handle (like a user name that identifies you out there on the radio waves). Apart from its practical uses, you could even talk to an astronaut in space as they do have HAM radios on the space station. You have to be above the age of 12 to sit for the 3 part exam in Morse Code, Communication Procedure and Basic Electronics. The DH passed this exam 6 years ago but was never issued his license.
As our preparation for sailing off in to the sunset, a HAM Radio at sea is essential. So the DH filled out an RTI application regarding the delay in his HAM license, made out a State Bank of India challan for Rs. 10 and dispatched it to the Ministry of Communications. I kid you not – 2 weeks later and the HAM license came in the mail. Plain and simple – no explanation, just the license.
If you haven’t received your income tax refunds, your passport application has been delayed or there are discrepancies in provision of public services in your area, you have the right to file an application demanding information. If you have a valid grievance, I highly recommend doing something about it and with the RTI Act you can. It’s the only way we can put our politicians and bureaucrats to work.