“Information is the currency of democracy.” The origin and the exact meaning of this quote may be debatable, but the fact that an informed public is essential to true democracy is beyond dispute. The Right to Information Act (RTI), passed in 2005, is a powerful tool the public can wield to stay informed, and to demand answers. RTI on Wheels one of the most innovative programs run by MAGP (Mahiti Adhikar Gujarath Pahel , a sister organization of JANPATH) with support from AID, started out as a smaller vehicle, which has travelled over 600,000 km in 6 years. It has extensively visited Goa, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and the tribal belt of Gujarat. The version 2.0 of this project, a multimedia vehicle with a mobile office, a facility for filing online RTI application, and an RTI library – has recently embarked on a Bharat Yatra. A core team of five social workers: Pankti, Harinesh Pandya, Sadhana, Prabhat Rana, and Lakhabhai travel with the vehicle. The RTI community in Jammu and Kashmir invited RTI on Wheels, making it the first state of the RTI Bharat Yatra.
One of the aims of the RTI Bharat Yatra is to connect RTI community across the nation by facilitating cross learning, exchanging ideas and best practices and identifying key issues for advocacy. People from Jammu and Kashmir now frequently call the RTI helpline that is answered by local RTI activists.
It is hard not to notice the RTI on Wheels vehicle as it passes by. People inquire about RTI at petrol pumps, tea stalls at road side, hotels and toll plazas. One of the workers of RTI on Wheels, Prabhatbhai a para-legal worker cum driver, readily hands out and explains the content of RTI pamphlets. A person filling the petrol shares his experience of RTI or a person at the tea stall asks for the extra pamphlets to be kept at his stall. Part of the success of this project is the trail of awareness and hope that the vehicle leaves in its wake.
Story of Fatehwadi: Wherever it stops, RTI on Wheels leaves a trail of bright dots of success. One such stop was Fatehwadi, a village of potters on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Their livelihood of making diyas from mud, was threatened by a piece of paper. It was a notice from the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation, stating that they needed a certificate from the pollution control board. The Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation demanded to know how the potters disposed their waste water and the waste mud. Their water supply was disconnected the next day.
A local community leader, Kantibhai, called the RTI helpline. RTI on Wheels conducted a camp in Fatehwadi on filing RTI applications. In the next two days, citizens filed 168 RTI forms, seeking information on the budget allocation for the village, plans for rehabilitation for the villagers, and rules for certification. Today, Fatehwadi has an approach road, street lights, water and drainage. The municipality is in the process of issuing certificates for pottery. This is a story of free flow of information oiling the machine of democracy, or simply lighting the diyas in a humble village of potters. Watch a 2min video on Fatehwadi.
A story of courage: Given the power of information, it is not surprising that seeking it is sometimes dangerous. Two social workers Michael and Bhanuben from Nadiyad, Gujarat had filed several RTI forms seeking details of medicine inventory at primary health centers, stock registers copy etc, to expose misappropriation, and corruption of public funds.
On 27th April 2013, Michael and Bhanuben visited the Rohini Primary Health Center, for record inspection under RTI. The medical officer threatened them that “anything unusual” may happen if they visited the center again. The villagers had been led to believe that no grants will be given to the village, if the two social workers were allowed to continue their work. On that April day, a mob gathered outside the center, warning Michael and Bhanuben that they will be killed if they came out of the center.
Fearing for their life, the two social workers got themselves locked in the inspection room. The doctors at the center refused to help them, claiming the mob was out of their control. Michael called the Deputy Police Commissioner in vain. Finally, he called the MAGP helpline. Within 15 minutes of receiving the call, MAGP recorded the complaint, sent a FAX to the Deputy Superintendent of Police(DSP) and the Gujarat State Commission. They requested the commission to make a call to the DSP’s office. Whistleblower helpline also called the DSP and requested that a police force be sent to the location. Michael and Bhanuben were rescued and the Medical officer and two other officers were arrested.
Stories like this, underline the need for protection for whistleblowers. Through the RTI helpline, MAGP has documented such incidents and has been instrumental in drafting the whistleblower protection act.
RTI on Wheels preempts a conflict: As it crisscrosses the country, RTI on Wheels is removing roadblocks to democracy, figuratively and sometimes literally. One such incident happened on the way back from Jammu and Kashmir. On 2nd of June 2014, the RTI on Wheels vehicle reached Nagalchaudhary block, Mahendragadh district, of Haryana. RTI on Wheels team found a roadblock where some villagers were arguing with one another. The team decided to inquire about the situation and found out that the debate was regarding injustice in water distribution.The team explained to the people how RTI can be useful to seek accounts of money spent on water distribution and receive information about the decision making process. It took some for the villagers to comprehend the relevance of RTI. But within a few minutes they agreed to draft RTI applications. The officials in charge of the water supply reached the spot, figured out a temporary solution, and assured that bore well will be dug within two weeks. After the assurance, villagers decided to delay the process of filing the applications for two weeks. Villagers, the Sarpanch and police thanked RTI on Wheels for facilitating the dialogue, which otherwise would have led to issue of law and order.
Stories of success of this project keep pouring in and a treasure trove of relevant statistics can be found on the MAGP website. However, it is the human aspect of RTI’s work that inspires most volunteers and donors. In another example, a village woman wanted the household ration card transferred to her name after her husband migrated out of the state. The woman waited for 3 months for this transfer, due to lack of information on how to add her thumbprint to the database. The presence of the RTI on Wheels vehicle, funded by generous donors like you, helped her to receive the ration card within 2 days.
Janapath and its sister organization Mahiti Adhikar Gujarath Pahel (MAGP) rank among the most active NGOs working in the RTI sector. Their blog, www.mahitiadhikar.blogspot.com, with over 3 lakh visitors, is updated daily. JANPATH and MAGP are running the National RTI helpline which has answered 23,000 calls. For the past six years, MAGP has run two hours of free RTI clinic every Saturday. MAGP also holds regular RTI orientations. MAGP was also nominated as a member of the task force for framing of the national RTI guidelines, and played a key role in this task force.