In an interview with Rakesh Reddy Dubbudu, RTI activist and member of the United Forum for RTI Awareness, we discuss the history of silent blows that the RTI Act has survived, the problems troubling it and the shape of its future in this country.
When did you begin your work as an activist?
I passed out of REC Warangal in 2005 and during college, I was not really sure of where my education was leading to, even after graduating with a State 11th rank. In 2007, I started my work with UFRTI, along with Raju Ramakrishna, who is also the co-convenor, and that is how the story began.
The RTI Act of 2005 has suffered many silent blows, the latest one being the amendment to subrule 4 dealing with the first appeal commission hearings. Throughout its history, how many such attempts have been made?
The RTI Act has withstood quite a few sly attempts by the government, not so much here in AP, but at the central level. There were many disguised attempts to modify and remove a few clauses, and subrules, but thankfully, the civil societies have always pressurised them into withdrawing them. Infact, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has always been a tad bit unhappy with the usage of the RTI. He has always added that significant “but” about RTI affecting the work of the bureaucracy and how it has costed a lot to the government. In fact, one such attempt was the issue of including ‘File Notings’ in the RTI where every departmental head would include his/her notes about the issue. As we know, this would indefinitely affect the nature of contents in the RTI. This amendment was proposed and never withdrawn, although the parliament never approved this.
Another was a study taken up by the central government with a private agency PricewaterhouseCooper, which aims at studying the nature of problems being faced by the bureaucracy in dealing with an RTI. We conducted a counter study funded by Google and other NGOs like RAAG, and took field studies from 3 districts in AP. Surprisingly, the government’s study itself showed dismal results of awareness in the public and the administration.
Do you think these attempts made by the government will materialise and actually dampen the RTI Act?
Well, another study proposed by the Department of Planning Technology raised this issue of RTI costing the government a lot of money and time, and in PM Manmohan Singh’s words, “misuse of the RTI.” Infact, if anything, the government is generating money through RTI by asking us to pay for the replies. A normal photocopy costing `1 is charged at `2 in government departments. And if they think it costs time, it is obviously because of the low levels of awareness about RTI Act among officials, some including senior IAS officers. For example, we train PIOs about RTI and it is not uncommon for us to get phone calls asking us to help them deal with RTIs. So, when this is the state of things, the proposition of taking up studies and planning to make changes is but a dangerous attempt to handcuff the Act. When they will not find any solid statistics, they will just cook up something and use the study to suit their proposed changes in the future.
You, and especially UFRTI, have been instrumental in putting pressure on the State government over the recent amendment and have most certainly thwarted their apparent mistake. Would you count this as a success story? If not, what was one success story that you have experienced so far?
Well, the pressure was certain because we as activists have always been watching the government and raising alerts over things It was possible because of our wide extensive network. But it is not really a success story. Success stories are when we have helped people become aware about the RTI and use it effectively to solve a problem. When we filed an RTI in the I&PR department of the Secretariat, the officer in charge said the data required was present in a rack full of files. This was when digitalisation and keeping computer records still did not materialise. So I, along with this officer, spent two days a week and helped input everything into a computer and finally got my information. So by the time we finished, the officer too was impressed and satisfied over his work and this soon helped him start off with the rest of the records. That sort of change is always welcome.
About the security of RTI activists, what do you have to say? Considering that the number of attacks and deaths of activists have gone up, how do you deal with them?
I suggest that anybody filing an RTI should keep as minimal contact with the government as possible. Never give away your address or allowing too much phone contact. It is risky. As an activist, one should be smart enough to know that heroism is like an addiction, and if taken lightly, will most certainly have repercussions. So if an officer asks you to come personally and take the required information, ask him/her to mail it to you in hard copy and pay for the postage and stationary charges. Being smart will keep one out of danger. Although there are many ways an official can trace you, considering the awareness levels about RTI, it is infact negligible.
How has the RTI actually helped the common man? And if it has, do you see higher awareness levels in the rural areas or the urban areas?
Well, the RTI Act has certainly tilted the power equation in favour of the people. But that is yet to be realised because awareness levels are still quite low, although I wont say it is absolutely dismal. And as can be easily guessed, awareness is more in urban areas as compared to the rural sides. But that can be because, people in the villages and towns file RTIs mostly about personal problems regarding their farm lands or water connections. We, as people from the cities, believe in the light speed reaction of input and output, but we are yet to realise that any sort of change we see is small but significant. There is change and it will eventually help finish the bigger picture.
What are the future course of actions that you intend to take up?
We have planned a two day session on RTI awareness, a massive one on February 16 and 17, at AMR APPARD in Attapur, which will be followed by a public discussion at People’s Plaza. Apart from that, I am waiting for a few replies for RTIs I have filed with the UIADI about the Aadhar card and a few other issues. And not to forget, the roll back on the State government’s recent amendment with the State RTI Act of 2005.
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