SATURDAY, APR 13, 2013

3 QUESTION TIME
INFORMATION, PLEASE
PHOTOS: ANIDIYA CHATTOPADHAYA

IDENTITY CRISIS: Vikas Kumar (left) is using RTI to wrest from the Delhi Government a certificate that acknowledges the fact that he is from a backward caste

for an income certificate and not yet received it. In addition to helping her approach the right authority, she is also told to put in an RTI application. “Pehle aap ek RTI daalo (First you should put an RTI),” is the most common advice that consumer forums and NGOs now give to citizens who come seeking help in accessing services. Former Central Information Commissioner and the indefatigable Mumbai-based RTI activist, Shailesh Gandhi, says that the penalty provision of the RTI Act has allowed the citizen to entertain a “reasonable expectation of a response in a situation where he or she cannot reasonably expect a reply from the government on anything else.” Added to that is the RTI’s robust appellate mechanism. The paper trail that the RTI generates is as important to the citizen as it is to the government servant. “If you go in person, the official can just dismiss you by saying ‘Application nahin aaya (the application has not come),’ says Gandhi, “but he’d be scared of

PAPER POWER
For common people, especially slum dwellers, RTI applications have become a means to access basic government services
RUKMINI SHRINIVASAN
TIMES INSIGHT GROUP wrestling match with the bureaucracy to get services they are legally entitled to, the 2005 Right To Information Act has emerged as an important weapon, despite the fact that information is not strictly what they need. The relatively well-functioning Act has provided citizens their first and often only chance to generate a paper trail that they can use in future entreaties or, for the more empowered, in legal action. “We are finding that the bulk of RTI applications that common people, especially in slum areas, file are simply ways to get in writing the fact that they have not yet received the service they applied months or years ago for,” says Anjali Bhardwaj, director of the Delhi-based Satark Nagarik Sangathan. The actual problem of a person walking in to the SNS office on a recent morning might be that she hasn’t received her BPL card, is not getting the ration she is entitled to, has not been receiving her water bill or has applied

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ne morning recently, Vikas Kumar, 20, stood in the courtyard of the sub-divisional magistrate’s office in Mehrauli in the shade of the Qutub Minar with his paper arsenal. Originals and photocopies, attested and stamped, Vikas was armed with the inch-thick paper trail that he has accumulated in his year-and-a-half-long battle to wrest from the Delhi government a certificate that would acknowledge that he was the backward caste he said he was. On the top of the stack was a response to a Right To Information (RTI) application he filed one year ago, an application for information he already had, yet suddenly, all important. As the citizens of India get on with their daily

“Pehle aap ek RTI daalo (First you should put in an RTI application),” is the most common advice that consumer forums and NGOs now give to citizens who come seeking help in accessing services

putting it in writing that he hasn’t done anything.” This fear of admitting one’s inaction in writing is possibly driving a remarkable phenomenon observed by consumer activists and scholars: the immediate impact of the receipt of an RTI Act on service delivery. Public finance watchdog Moneylife recently reported the case of a Pune resident whose passport police clearance was instantly processed when he tried to submit an RTI application on the reasons for the delay. In 2010, Leonid V Peisakhin and Paul Pinto, both PhD candidates at Yale University’s department of political science, conducted a field experiment in a Delhi slum that scientifically established this ability of the RTI Act to prod officials into action. The subjects, all of whom were poor slumdwellers, did not have a ration card but wanted to apply for one. They were randomly assigned to one of four experimental groups. The first applied for the ration card and then did nothing more about it, the second attached a letter of recommendation from an NGO to their ration card application, the third paid a bribe after putting in their application, and the fourth enquired about the status of their ration card application through a RTI request shortly after the initial application. Peisakhin and Pinto found that the group that paid a bribe was by far the most successful, in that its application was processed faster. But interestingly, the group that put in an RTI request was almost as successful. Hardly anyone in the other two groups received their ration card during the eleven-month duration of the study. None of this means that the RTI Act is functioning impeccably. The RTI response to Vikas Kumar’s application came late and was hand-written on a plain white sheet of paper, with no stamp, seal or letterhead of the SDM’s office. The reply is sketchy at best; it answers some of Kumar’s questions but chooses not to answer others, it answers with a yes/ no questions that included a request for a document. The RTI response does not mention, as it is required to, the name of the first appellate authority. Yet in Vikas’ neatly flattened suitings-shirtings plastic bag, the RTI response occupies pride of place.

Narendra Jadhav, an economist and member of the Planning Commission, has just put together a comprehensive compendium of B R Ambedkar’s speeches titled ‘Ambedkar Speaks’. Excerpts from an interview with TOI-Crest
PRAVEEN DASS
TIMES NEWS NETWORK On the one hand Ambedkar has been deified and on the other, he is often depicted only as the architect of the Constitution. Do you see a pattern here? True, some veneration has made critical appraisal difficult today but I think one needs to clearly understand why it happened. I believe that the one person who has come closest to god for us is Dr Ambedkar. For generations we were treated worse than cats and dogs. And here was a person who gave us human dignity. On every December 6, his death anniversary, 15 lakh people go to pay their respects at his memorial, Chaithya Bhoomi. They don’t do that for TV cameras, they go because they think they owe it to him. However, criticism of his legacy does abound. In fact, here, I think there has been a systematic attempt to undercut Dr Ambedkar and his contributions, including, strangely, his work in the Constitution. Some say that drawing up that document required collective effort, so why call Dr Ambedkar its principal architect? But to re-emphasise the most his basic social contribution, he made millions of his followers, mostly dalits, ask themselves — it may be in the interests of others to be your masters but why should it be in your interest to be their slaves? This was a question not perhaps asked for 4,000-5,000 years. He helped shape the nation in several other ways too, didn’t he? Absolutely, one of the main motivations for me to evaluate his legacy is that willy-nilly he has been branded just a leader of dalits and a legal luminary. Of course, he was both of these and a great national leader too. His legacy elsewhere is sadly unknown —his contributions as an economist, for instance. But almost all books about Indian economic thought ignore his role, he’s found in them only as a footnote. Ambedkar made two contributions: one, was as a general economist doing current analysis. His book on the evolution of provincial finances in British India formed the basis of the Finance Commission. As the architect of the Constitution, he ensured that it has more provisions on economic issues than attempt. But many just don’t want to see him as a visionary national leader. He’s forgotten elsewhere too. No one remembers his role in women’s empowerment. As law minister his work with the Hindu Code Bill laid the ground for women’s rights. Of course, differences over that Bill led to his resignation, in September 1951, from the Union Cabinet. Yet, while many proposals were killed, much of what he proposed back then has been done today. Yet he has pointed out that we need to guard against too much ‘bhakti’ towards ‘great men’. Isn’t this ironical? I’m all for critical reappraisal of great leaders but only if it also throws light on other great contributions that they made. Or if we look at what prevents some from being part of the national psyche. They say every great leader is defeated twice, once by his opponents and once by his followers. To some extent that may be true of Dr Ambedkar, where such reappraisal is considered unpalatable to some. Ambedkar also made a clear distinction between ‘social democracy’ and ‘political democracy’. Has his influence helped reduce the differences between the two? He spoke of how we were getting to ‘one man, one vote’ with the new Constitution, but nowhere near ‘one man, one value’. This was a huge contradiction and he asked how long can we continue to deny equality, and by doing so put our political democracy in peril? This was a warning. Remember Winston Churchill’s predictions of independent India’s demise. He said this country with democracy would dissolve and go to ‘thugs and rogues’. But it hasn’t and I believe that has a lot to do with the Constitution, it has been a binding force.

AMBEDKAR’S ROLE IS BEING BELITTLED

IF EVERYONE’S HONKING IN TRAFFIC BUT YOU ’ RE SINGING ALONG TO ‘FAST CAR ’

YOU’RE LIVING THE CALIFORNIA LIFE.

I

any other in the world. Second, he was a great economic administrator. In 1942, he as the Labour Member of the Viceroy’s Executive Council, he started India’s first employment exchange. He initiated skill development measures. He also had the charge of power, water and minerals. He started the Damodar Valley project. His speeches on all these are worth studying carefully. Is this a part of the sly process of belittling the man? My conjecture is that the belittling of Dr Ambedkar is already there in the system. It could be partly ignorance but equally, it could be a deliberate

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