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Hostile world of Right to Information: And a noble exception
Some of us retirees, who had settled in an upcoming suburb of Mumbai, were smarting under the shenanigans of a highly influential builder, the Bombay Municipal Corporation and the District Collectorate.

It gladdened our hearts to know, that soon our state would be enacting its own Right to Information Act, under which we would be able to fetch some vital information which we needed, to initiate action against the wrongdoers.

And it came to pass, that in 2002, Maharashtra indeed became the first state to enact its own RTI Act. In 2005, it was superseded by the Centre's RTI Act, which was already a dilution!

Blasts and boulders from illegal quarrying of a nearby hill were endangering life and limb in the vicinity. Children had been hurt and cars damaged. The hill apart from being a surface-to-air missile launching site was also in the 'No Development Zone'. The builder feigned ignorance and asked us to contact the contractor. We had a strong hunch, that it must only be the builder. I typed out my first ever RTI application to the District Collector, asking for list of licences given for quarrying of the hills and the name of the licensees, in the last two years. The Public Information Officer (PIO) is supposed to reply within 30 days.

Exactly on the 30th day the PIO replied that they do not give licences for 'quarrying', but only for 'excavations'! Having lost 30 days, I again submitted the application asking for list of licensees for 'excavations', although it was a misnomer! After 30 days the reply received gave only order numbers, but no names! To cut matters short, it took us eight months to get the names. Sure enough, most of the licences were in the name of the builder. In the meanwhile, my wife and I received threats. "Aap subah walk par jaate hain. Savadhan rahana, hamari trucks udhar se niklati hain!" They also threatened a dharna at my home. I have learnt to take all these threats in stride.

In the meanwhile, I had been making a photo record of all the quarrying, with my zoom. Armed with over 100 photos, ten of us went to see the District Collector. He was cheeky enough to say, "But this is excavation for laying foundation, and not quarrying"! More than half the hill had been blown away and he refused to see it. I lost my cool. "But Sir, you are a public servant, please see the photos again", I almost shouted. Enraged, he stood up and countered, "I am ordering a raid of your house". "Please do so," I said and we marched out. Anyway, to our relief the work was halted, albeit after having played havoc with the locality and with the laws of the land.

And once there was a self respecting and honest public servant:

The complex where we settled down is one of the better addresses in town. After a few years we realised, that the 250 acres on which our complex was built, was actually leased for construction of Low Income Group (LIG) and Middle Income Group (MIG) housings, but the builder had put up high end housings. Legally, our residences were mala fide. This was a witch's brew concocted by politicians, bureaucrats and the builder, to make it appear on paper as a project for affordable housings! The poor had been robbed of what was rightly theirs.

I filed an RTI application to MMRDA, asking for a copy of the Lease Agreement. On one count or the other, the information was denied. We lost a year, in follow up alone! The PIO informed us, that the builder had written to them, that we should not be given the copy, as it would jeopardise his business prospects. Once again, our outrage knew no bounds. Without appointment, we went to the Chief Commissioner's office and insisted that we meet him.

We managed to get in. He was polite and asked us to sit down and ordered tea. "What can I do for you?" Seeing his very positive demeanour, I quickly rephrased what I was about to blurt out. I took a deep breath and began: "Sir, we come to offices like yours, expecting to meet public servants. But we meet only contractor's servants!"

The Chief Commissioner was cut to the quick. 'I will get your job done. What do you want?' He responded. We asked for a copy of the lease. He took my address, phone number and email ID. 'Leave it to me'. We had our tea, thanked him and left. When I reached home, I saw an email from him apologising for his colleagues' attitudes.

Next day, I was outside the operation theatre, as my wife was undergoing knee surgery. There, I received a call from home. Three officers had come with some files and wanted to meet me urgently. I pleaded my inability, but they insisted. As the hospital was close to my home, I came over. Three nervous officers showed me the files and some Xerox copies, they had made. Flipping through, I found that the Xerox copies contained all that I needed. Having thanked them and tea being served, I got up to say good bye. They were still shaken up. 'Please talk to Sir, and tell him that you are satisfied. Otherwise we cannot leave'. I profusely thanked him and then they left.

We released the papers to the media and Public Interest Litigation was filed, by a cluster of buildings. Though a very costly and time-taking exercise, the Supreme Court upheld the public's contention. But the matter is still in the courts as the builder has more financial staying power, with his money and powerful contacts.

Meeting the Chief Commissioner was a heart warming experience. My esteem for him remains high. But a swallow, does not make a summer!

In last 15 years we have filed RTI applications, on many issues concerning local governance and environment. It is a harrowing, frustrating and a life threatening job. We run against hostility, right at the desk where the applications are submitted. In Maharashtra alone, 16 RTI activists have been killed and the law is still taking its course!

After enacting the RTI Act in 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh himself talked publicly about the need to dilute the law. Under the present dispensation in Delhi, it seems that RTI is going to be made even more toothless.

The opacity and the smugness of the officials we meet, while following up the applications points to only one fact: Lack of accountability and corruption are here to stay!

Editorial NOTE: This article is categorized under Opinion Section. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of merinews.com. In case you have a opposing view, please click here to share the same in the comments section.
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