'Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don't.'
'But you can use the RTI to improve the future.'
On June 15, 2005, the Government of India enacted the Right To Information Act.
Sixteen years later, RTI activist Chandrashekhar Gaur explains why RTI continues to be a potent weapon in the hands of the common man.
Over the years, Gaur, who lives in Neemuch, Madhya Pradesh, has used the RTI Act to help society and tells Rediff.com's A Ganesh Nadar, "I feel a certain satisfaction when something good happens because of my RTI application."
I am a social worker; I use the RTI Act to get information. It is a very good law, it empowers ordinary citizens. It shows us our rights.
The government has become more transparent because of the RTI. It is the power of the RTI and not my strength that helps people.
Taking on SBI
A few years back, the State Bank of India, the largest bank in the country, announced a minimum balance penalty.
Many poor people, students and daily wage earners have their accounts in this bank. I knew people would suffer.
After the first quarter, I asked SBI how much money they had received through this penalty. The amount was Rs 235 crore (Rs 2.35 billion). They had penalised poverty. They had taken money from their poorest customers.
I gave their reply to the media, which flashed it all over the country.
As a result, SBI reduced the minimum balance amount, then stopped the penalty altogether. But I think other banks are still doing it.
I know that parents put money in their college-going child's account and the children withdraw it piecemeal when they need it.
This leads to multiple withdrawals from ATMs. I asked SBI how much money they were making from ATM charges. They gave a technical excuse and refused to share the information.
Taking on the Railways
I asked the Railways how much compensation they paid to a person who lost his life after being run over on the railway track.
Through their reply, I came to know that it was Rs 4 lakhs; the compensation has not changed since 19 years... since 1996 I think.
When the media flashed this news, the compensation was increased to Rs 8 lakhs. This too, I think, is too less.
Taking on AIIMS
Through RTI, I found out that the All India Institute of Medical Sciences -- which is considered a premier medical institution in India -- had 10-12 vacancies every year in their medical college after the enrolment process is complete.
These seats remain vacant for the next five years. I don't understand why this should happen when there is so much demand for medical seats.
Taking on Parliament
I asked Parliament how much subsidy was given to their canteen in the last five years.
It was a sizable amount in many crore rupees. The media published it and it led to a public furore. The canteen rates were increased after that.
When I first saw the rates, I knew it was not possible to supply food for such low rates.
Taking on the Railways, again
When migrants walked home last year after the lockdown was declared, I read that many people had died on the tracks.
I asked the Railways how many people died on the tracks and how many were seriously injured.
The Railways said that 8,736 people had died on the tracks in 2020 and 805 people had been injured.
Taking on the Railways, yet again
I had asked the Railways about their cancellation charges which I thought were too much.
They replied that they charge Rs 120 for a confirmed ticket and Rs 60 as clerical charges for a waitlisted ticket.
They did not reduce the rates even after this was published in the media.
Lakhs of tickets get automatically cancelled when they don't get confirmed, so why do the Railways allow so many bookings?
Taking on veterinary colleges
All veterinary colleges in the country have a 15 per cent all India quota.
I filed an RTI and found out that, even after two rounds of counselling (which takes place before admission), there were vacancies in this quota.
These seats remain vacant for all five years of the course. It is a waste of seats when students are not getting admission.
The year I filed the RTI query, they did not do anything. But the next year they had a third round of counselling and a mop-up counselling and they filled all the seats.
That is the positive impact of the RTI Act.
Why the RTI Act is important
Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don't. But you can use the RTI to improve the future.
I feel a certain satisfaction when something good happens because of my RTI application.
When an RTI reply is published in the media, it triggers a debate which leads to improvement.
The central government's online portal to file an RTI enquiry is very user-friendly. All states should have such user-friendly portals for RTI. It will help empower citizens.
By investing Rs 10 for an RTI application, you get a lot of information. Even MLAs and MPs don't get such detailed answers.
You can appeal twice, if you are not satisfied with the answer they give.
Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com