RTI and the power of youth

Pioneering Right to Information (RTI) activists believe that with more and more youth getting invloved, the future of the movement looks bright.

GN Bureau | April 1, 2010

Left to right: Raj Liberhan, Director, India Habitat Centre; Venkatesh Nayak, Coordinator, Access to Information Programme, CHRI and Shekhar Singh, member, NCPRI at the event
Left to right: Raj Liberhan, Director, India Habitat Centre; Venkatesh Nayak, Coordinator, Access to Information Programme, CHRI and Shekhar Singh, member, NCPRI at the event

The movement for the right to information has been undergoing a silent change. In the initial years, leading activists across the country including Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey and Arvind Kejriwal created awareness about the law. Workshops, forums and debates were held to take the Act to the masses. Four years after the Act came into existence, the youth has taken over the movement.
College students from the capital were in majority in the audience at the discussion on discussion on “From exploring the RTI Act to building a movement- do young people matter?” recently held by the YP Foundation in Delhi, “It is heartening to see the youth using the RTI Act in larger public interest. And the phenomenon is not restricted to the cities. It is happening at the vilage level too,” said Shekhar Singh, member, National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI). Recalling the genesis of the RTI movement, Singh said: “People were demanding a right to know since the 1980s, but things changed especially after the Bhopal gas tragedy in 1984. Environmentalists and social activists sought to know the details of those companies which were a threat to our lives. The real push came in the 1990s when the villagers in Rajasthan claimed that they were not getting their daily wages and demanded a scrutiny of government records.” Of course, there was resistant from various quarters in the government, he added. “Once the common man realised what information could do to his life, people formed lobbies which maintained constant pressure on the government and finally the law was enacted,” he added. Central Information Commission chief Wajahat Habibullah said the real change would come only when the youth become actively involved in the RTI movement. “More and more youth should participate,” said he. Speaking on “Improving the efficiency of public authorities through RTI applications”, Habibullah said that majority of the citizens were not aware of the fact that the scope of the RTI Act went beyond the government departments. “The RTI Act covers all the NGOs and institutes which are directly or indirectly funded by the government,” said he, adding that section 4 was the most important section of the Act. “As per this section, all the government records should be made computerised. But we still follow archaic ways of preserving documents, which is becoming a hindrance in the implementation of section 4,” he said. Commenting on the debate over the office of the chief justice of India vis-a-vis the RTI Act, Habibullah said the Supreme Court’ ruiling will have to be respected and one should not assume that the apex court would rule against the spirit of the law. The Supreme Court has challenged, before itself, a Delhi High Court order that the office of the CJI is a public authority covered by the RTI Act. “After all, the Supreme Court is supreme,” said the CIC chief. Yamini Aiyer, director, Accountability Initiative, ran the audience through the range of issues for which the citizens are now using the RTI route. “ People are filing RTI applications to expose corruption in gvernment schemes such as NREGA; to know the details of their passports and driving licenses etc and to know the progress of projects going on in their towns and villages,” she said. Manju Sadrangani, political officer with the US Embassy, presented a comparison between the RTI Act and the Unites States’ Freedom of Information Act. “In the US, diplomats think of themeslves as public servants, while in India, the district magistrate is treated like a minor god. In such a scenario, I believe that RTI Act will be a game changer for India,” she said. Speakers in the forum also took note of an increasing number of attacks on RTI activists. Venkatesh Nayak, coordinator of access to information programme with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, said that people should exercise caution while filing RTI applications. “There are a handful of people who are creating a perception of fear among the RTI users. We have to fight them,” Nayak said adding that it was always better to file an RTI application in larger public interest rather than for any personal gains.




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