Mumbai: Voters will be able to connect with elected representatives by phone in a project that aims to help the electorate make informed choices the next time the polls are held.
The project, VoiceRTI, is an initiative of MumbaiVotes, an arm of Informed Voter Project, a non-profit organization.
Conceptualized by Vivek Gilani, an environmental engineer, VoiceRTI will allow people to record their questions to elected representatives over a phone call. The questions will be posted on the organization’s website for others to see, and channelled to the elected representatives for their responses.
“Mobiles are being used across the country and have emerged as a powerful medium of communication. VoiceRTI aims to tap the power of mobiles which will allow voters to ask pertinent questions and make choices that are not based on gossip and opinion but merit,” said Gilani.
VoiceRTI aims to do away with the literacy barrier and complexities involved in filing an application to the government under the Right to Information Act.
The project is expected to be rolled out in August. Gilani is talking to engineers from the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and an Ahmedabad-based organization, Awaaz De Infosystems Pvt. Ltd, on ways to make VoiceRTI “hassle-free”.
“Unlike a written RTI, where information received is limited only to the applicant; VoiceRTI will be posting the responses of the elected reps on the website for a wider audience which may lead to better use of information,” Gilani said.
To assess the potential of VoiceRTI, MumbaiVotes conducted a pilot project in February last year during local body elections. The people had to dial a local number which directed them to a menu from where they could choose a candidate they wanted to hear about. Gilani said the response was encouraging.
“The response time from the elected representatives will automatically be faster if more people start using VoiceRTI,” Gilani said. “The MLAs (members of legislative assembly) and MPs (members of Parliament) will automatically feel the pressure building up with queries flowing in and the need to respond fast,” Gilani said.
At present, the organization collates data about members of Parliament and members of legislative assemblies from information available on print, video and audio media. Volunteers working for MumbaiVotes also move around and interview politicians.
Apart from news reports on television, radio and print media, MumbaiVotes also uses publicly available documents such as manifestos to prepare the performance reports. Crime reports of MPs and MLAs are also created that show the nature of crime committed by them.
Although the organization has had a nine-year run, funding remains an issue.
“Firms are hesitant to fund us because they feel that the nature of the organization is a political one, which is not the case,” Gilani said. “We do not endorse or pull down any politician but provide their performance reports to the public.” So far, only other non-profit organizations and friends have provided the financial support, he said. Commenting on the success of the project, Gilani said the biggest challenge will be to get more service users.
For MPs and MLAs who have fulfilled their promises, VoiceRTI is a good opportunity to state facts, he said, and if their performance has not been perceived as good, it will be a forum for them to communicate with the public.
However, there is a mixed reaction towards the VoiceRTI initiative with respect to the model’s effectiveness.
“In a written RTI, one can be sure that specific information asked will have to be answered. But in case of this initiative, the MLAs and MPs can dodge the questions with answers that may not be of any use,” said Priya Khan, director at Spark, a non-profit organization. However, Khan agreed that VoiceRTI will allow the elected representatives to become more aware of the concerns of the people and the main pain points.
“Phone will provide an easier medium of communication,” she said, “and at the same time, MLAs and MPs will know they are being watched closely.”
MumbaiVotes is looking for more volunteers across India who will be able to replicate the MumbaiVotes model. “During 2008 Mumbai attacks, we had several volunteers. But as time passed by, the passion withered away,” Gilani said. “There is a need to maintain sustained interest towards the cause.”
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