7 min read.Updated: 01 Nov 2013, 07:49 PM ISTAnuja
A citizens' vigilance group which uses the Right to Information Act, 2005, to help people get their basic rights
Holi Ram complains about the inaccessibility of his legislative assembly member (MLA). Rambhaoji criticizes irregular ration distribution. Phoola Bai raises her voice against the lack of proper measures to counter dengue in her neighbourhood. Everyone seated in the middle of a makeshift meeting room at Motilal Nehru Camp, an urban slum in Munirka, Delhi, has their own grievance.
In one corner of the room is 45-year-old Pushpa Lata, diligently taking notes. Names of people, who said what, which suggestion was made by whom, place, timing—she jots down everything on an A4 sheet of paper firmly stuck on a cardboard.
Pushpa Lata is a convert. Once on the other side of the fence—she reached out to several people for her own grievances—she is now helping people learn about their rights and how to access them. Behind her story, and those of many others present in the room, is a New Delhi-based organization, Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS). Set up 10 years ago by Right to Information (RTI) activist Anjali Bhardwaj, SNS, also known as the Society for Citizens Vigilance Initiatives (SCVI), is a citizens’ vigilance group which actively uses the RTI Act to promote accountability in government and to encourage citizen participation in governance. The SNS currently has nine permanent members on its team.
“In 2004, my children were supposed to get admission under the EWS (economically weaker section) quota. I went from one office to another asking the officials for help but I was not able to move one file," Pushpa Lata recounts. She came across volunteers from the SNS who helped her file RTI applications under The Delhi Right to Information Act, 2001, against the state’s department of education. She subsequently received the relevant information, helping her in swift admissions for two of her children.
The RTI Act, which empowers every Indian the right to seek information from any public authority, came into force only in 2005. But the SNS has been using the Delhi law since 2003.
For instance, simply knowing that eight out of 10 ration shops in an area are being unfair in the implementation of the public distribution system (PDS) does not help unless this is taken up with the authorities or officials concerned. The SNS helps organize public meetings with affected citizens, officials and experts to deliberate over issues.
“We work in and with communities. Our only currency is information. People know that we are not here to deliver any goods and services. We help them get empowered through information and records that they would need," says Bhardwaj. “We ensure they are able to get what’s rightfully theirs, what the government provides for them. It is really going back to the community every time because they are the ones that need the information."
One of the first places SNS started with in 2003 was Jagdamba Camp, an urban slum in south Delhi where a common complaint was of the ration not coming on time. SNS volunteers told the residents to file RTI applications and get records of their ration—from asking what their entitlements were to seeking copies of records in stock and sale registers—the RTI response came within 30 days.
What surprised everyone was that while the stock registers showed that the supply was reaching customers, the sale registers showed some shops were a work of fiction. The ration card numbers did not match up with the cardholders’ names and the inspection registers were never filled.
“People were livid—they always knew there was corruption but they never had tangible proof. We helped them file mass complaints and then held a public hearing which officials, ration-shop owners and food commissioners attended," says Bhardwaj. Due to public pressure, the licences of two ration shops were cancelled, some shops were penalized and disciplinary action was taken against three officials. Most people started getting their ration more regularly thereafter.
The organization often takes its RTI appeals forward and approaches the Central Information Commission (CIC) if required. According to the RTI Act of 2005, an applicant can approach the Central or state information commissions if a valid RTI application is either refused by a public authority or if the applicant is not satisfied with the reply. If the information commission sees merit in the appeal, it can be taken up for hearing.
Last year, for instance, the CIC ordered the Delhi government and the municipal corporation of Delhi—in response to an SNS appeal—to install boards in every ward of Delhi displaying the expenditure details of the local area development funds of MLAs and councillors.
Abhijit Banerjee, from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) department of economics and director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL), says other organizations need to step in to add value to the work of SNS. J-PAL is a research centre at MIT’s economics department which uses randomized evaluations to study policy issues and poverty. Banerjee and other members of J-PAL work closely with Bhardwaj and SNS over issues like the information gap between Delhi’s slum dwellers and government officials. “We need others to ensure the information that SNS extracts from the system gets used. We also need a policy push towards mandatory public display of information about the record of electoral candidates," he said in an email interview.
The SNS also publishes report cards of members of Parliament (MPs) and MLAs in newspapers around the time of elections. As Delhi prepares for polls on 4 December, the SNS has been publishing a performance analysis of all the 70 MLAs in the state in both English and Hindi dailies.
“One of the things we constantly heard was, tell us what our MLA has been doing. We had been working in three-four constituencies, filing RTIs and finding out where a specific MLA spent his money," Bhardwaj says. Before the 2008 Delhi election, all four MLAs on whom the reports were published were from a particular party.
While Bhardwaj got calls from that party saying they were being singled out, the rival party called in to say the SNS was “doing great work" in bringing out information. “We were not working against or for a specific political party. So, in 2006-07, we had filed RTI applications in different departments and the legislative assembly asking for information on the performance of every MLA from the area in which we were working," she adds.
Bhardwaj, an Oxford alumnus who did her graduation from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi, also did a stint at The World Bank. “I am an economist by training and while I was working at World Bank, people said we are a poor country. What bothered me was we were spending thousands of crores of rupees but its benefits were not reaching the real people," she says.
Bhardwaj, returned to India in 1999 and got involved with the RTI movement. She got in touch with RTI activists Shekhar Singh, Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey—all members of the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI)—and Arvind Kejriwal, also an NCPRI member and now chief of the recently-launched Aam Aadmi Party. Bhardwaj started active work on RTI when she joined Parivartan, Kejriwal’s non-governmental organization that uses the transparency law to fight corruption.
In late 2002, Bhardwaj quit Parivartan owing to “different styles of functioning" and went on to form the SNS.
Back in the room where the SNS is holding a meeting at Motilal Nehru Camp, Ashok Kumar, a key member of the organization, tells a group of people—mostly women—about the need to go out and vote for who they think is the right candidate. “We do say that the government is ours, the money is ours and the vote is ours, but we don’t take responsibility for it. Even if you hire someone as a tailor, you make sure that he has the right skills. Why don’t you do the same for your MLAs?" he asks.
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10,000 can help them to
• Organize public hearings to demand greater transparency in the functioning of elected representatives.
• Organize information camps and workshops to build the capacity of people to use the RTI act.
If you volunteer, you will
• Carry out social audits of development work and file complaints.
• Access information using the RTI Act on public interest issues.
• Individual donors
• Institutional grants from organizations like the Society for Rural Urban and Tribal Initiative and Association for India’s Development