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'Leadership has to come from students'

Last updated on: December 10, 2010 12:55 IST

'Leadership has to come from students'

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In Arvind Kejriwal, you will meet an unassuming fighter with a focused social objective -- rooting out corruption and introducing better governance. The Right to Information activist and winner of Ramon Magsaysay award sits in his spartan office, juggling multiple phone calls, drafting letters and typing out an urgent press release alongside.

Surprisingly there's a rhythm in the mayhem. The former IITian talks to Urmila Rao and explains why he no longer takes up cases of aggrieved college students, the limitations of RTI and much more.

From an IRS officer to an activist, why and how did the change happen?

When I was in the job, I started doing these things part-time and felt that the value I am bringing here was far better. On the contrary, what I was doing in the Income Tax department could be done by anyone else.

When did the RTI journey begin?

RTI came much later. Initially I, along with some others started addressing corruption issues, wherein a common
man had to pay a bribe to get his work done. The concern was how to create a bribe-free atmosphere. So we started advising customers who came to the Delhi Vidyut Board and Income Tax Department, not to pay bribes in these two departments. We told them that if they have a problem they can come to us and we will get their work done free
of cost.

So we used to gather grievances of people and collectively present those complaints to the chair of the department
and add to public pressure.


Image: RTI activist Arvind Kejriwal
Photographs: Careers360
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'The middle class can fend for themselves'

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Were you an activist during school days as well?

I was completely a kitabi keera (book worm). I did not do anything but study.

You have worked for government schools. Why not for colleges?

It is a different matter to take up the cause of poor people who can't fight for themselves. They are from underprivileged backgrounds. Working for such students is understandable. However, in case of engineering college students or others, where the middle class goes, I am sure they can fend for themselves.

Let people who are suffering from existing malpractices take up the cause. Every person in this country is suffering because of bad governance. A few NGOs will not be able to take up this job. So people who are suffering will have to take up the cudgels.

How wise is it for students to compromise on career and get entangled in a time-consuming legal process?

Right. So, let him find some people who can do something for him. People first of all have to find courage. It is precisely students of this very country, who at the time of Quit India Movement gave up their studies, left colleges and that is why our country got independence.

If someone thinks that education, health, infrastructure all are different sectors and issues and they ought to be fought independently, then they are mistaken. There is an underlying pattern in the process. And that is bad governance.

So unless you tackle governance, unless you tackle corruption you will not be able to solve any of these problems.


Image: RTI offices in India
Photographs: www.rti.gov.in
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'They did not offload the battle on someone else'

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So a collective fight is warranted against bad governance from students?

Leadership has to come from these students. In Chattisgarh there was huge corruption in the State Civil Services
exam. There were some students who took the exams but couldn't get through. They filed an RTI. Others did not.

They thought that if they file RTI applications, in the next attempt they will be victimised. It is very natural that if you are appearing for Civil Services examination and if you can make their life miserable they can also do the same to you. But one group of students filed RTI, and got all the answer sheets.

The Civil Services Exam turned out to be a huge scam. Some students were given 306 marks out of 300! The students then moved the High Court which cancelled the exam. So someone took up the battle. They did not offload the battle on someone else.

Despite all the fighting spirit, getting justice is still a complex process, something of a dampener...

So who will do it? In our organisation, there is a 23-year-old girl whose throat was slit by the ration shopkeepers. She was fighting a battle for the poor people so that there is no corruption in ration system. She was 19 at the time. Post the incident, she had a lot of pressure from her family to withdraw from her work.

She said, if I don't do it, who will? No one will come from America, or Japan. We have to do it.

Can you give students step-by-step guide for filing RTI application?

RTI is about seeking information from any government department. You just need to write an application on a piece of paper for whatever information that you want from the government.

There is a Rs 10 fee, which one needs to deposit in the department. The department is supposed to give information in 30 days.

If you don't get information in that time period, you can file an appeal. There is a penalty clause for officers if they don't provide information in 30 days.


Photographs: Students at ISB; Picture used only for representational purpose
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'Yes. Every one fears for life'

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Can students come to you, if they need guidance?

We have a helpline number. It is 9718100180. We can help in drafting the letters. We don't take up any student's
case, we just guide them.

An inherent drawback of RTI is that the applicant's identity is open, putting his life at risk.

The only way to minimise risk is to adopt strategies. A group of people can file RTI (http://rti.gov.in/) rather than one person. There could be people from several cities filing the same application, for example, 10 people from Delhi, 10 from Kolkata, from Mumbai and so on.

Do you fear for your life?

Yes. Every one does. We got threats many times. Attacks from a mafia gang from Uttar Pradesh has taken place several times. Many threats came when we were dealing with the ration issue, which has been the toughest fight.

How long have you been filing RTIs for schools? And what has been the outcome?

We just did it for a year or so. We wanted to understand the whole issue. Outcome was nothing. We just got statistical information; how much budget is coming, how many students are there.

Filing RTI will not be able to improve the government education system.

So what's the alternative?

For long, we filed issue-based RTIs. Now we begin to realise that this system cannot function, we need to have a
law. So we now focus on overhauling of the system. We have drafted some laws, which basically say that in urban areas 'Mohallah Sabha' and in rural areas 'Gram Sabhas' should be constituted.

They should have the power to decide how the government fund is spent in that area, what facilities should be there. People should make the decisions. Let the people decide the appointment of a teacher. Government should just implement those decisions. We are calling our campaign 'Swaraj Campaign'.


Image: Amith Jethwa, a RTI activist, was killed in Ahmedabad near the Gujarat high court

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