A Forum for Citizens Rights

By R S Tolia • Random Thoughts • 21 Dec 2015

As a bright Sun-shine brought smiles on the faces of citizens, young and old, gathering in front of the Conference Hall of the Institute of Cooperative Management , Mussoorie by-pass – on the occasion of the Sixth Annual Day of the RTI Club of Uttarakhand – no one had an inkling that they were going to be instrumental in the shaping and moulding of a potential Rights' Forum. Verily, such a Citizens' Rights Forum, if brought about via the RTI Club efforts, would arguably the best gift that the citizens of Uttarakhand could possibly receive on completon of 15 years of its brith. Can, rather will, such a  tranformational architecture ever evolve and if so, what all due-diligence seems called for to achive this highly dsirable goal ?

Sixth Annual Day of RTI Club

The ICM event alluded to successfully assembled a wide range of stake-holders who had been involved in various activities related to implementation of the RTI Act, during the year gone by in particular, and since the operationalisation of this transparency law in the country, in general. So in one go it was the Sixth Annual Day of the founding of the RTI Club as well as celebration of a Decade of RTI in Uttarakhand. The latter land-mark had resulted in an year-long chain of events that covered schools and colleges, the students of various School and Colleges being involved in RTI-centri debates, Quiz and painting competitions and essay writing- all focused on awareness building around the need to bring about more transparency and accountability in public administration that impact an ordinary citizens, so comprehensively. The Decadal celebration particularly focused on the younger generation and besides the stages of educational attainments the geographical spread was also quite impressive, as revealed by the successful participants.

At the state level, in essays and painting competition, Dehardun, Chamoli, US Nagar and Almora cornered the glory, at the district-level it was confined to the state capital only, with Ram Pyari, Varni Jain, Guru Nanak Balak, GGIC Ajabpur Kala and Lakhibagh Inter Colleges, sharing the coveted prizes.  In Debate and Quiz competitions it was the Team A of DBS College that got the better of MKP PG College and DBS Team B, at the final count. Phoochand Nari Shilp Mandir received a Special Award for cooperating with the RTI Club in it efforts, year -round. Needless to say, this awareness campaign mounted by the RTI Club, is an investment which is going to show long term results in bringing about and strengthening a transparent and more accountable polity.

RTI Activists & Human Rights Defenders

Vinod Kumar Jain and Pravin Kumar Advocate from Rishikesh, Dalbir Singh Kanwasi from Gochar, Chamoli, Nanak Chand Agarwal from Haldwani and RP Tewari from Dehradun received special recognition from the oraganizers for their sustained efforts, over years, for highlighting the shortcmings in the governance in several sectors like Forests, Woldlife, Rural Drinking Water, Health services of the state, which has resulted in administrative action against the corrupt public functionaries, compemnsation to the citizen-victims, and hopefully bringing changes in the decetive administration of several public authorities. Brief accounts of the failure of administration and justice that was highlighted through their RTI interventions was also read out and complimented by the gathering. Devendra Kumar Jain of Bazpur received the coveted Jagdish Prasad Chauhan Citation for his outstnding contribution to improve RTI implementation in the state. This Citation has been commenced by the RTI Club to commemomerate the memory of the firs slain RTI activist, one of the few who have embraced the supreme scarifice that is possible to bring about a Transparent and Accountable India ! It is indeed a pity, as also a matter of justifiable pride, that inside a decade this state should continue to display such an apathy towards the safety and security of thse who have mustered courage to come forward and expose mis-governance in public offices, as also the grit and determination on the part of some RTI activists.

This felicitation and recounting of courageous deeds of the most outstanding RTI activists brought into focus the first area of convergence in the realm of two streams of right related movements, namely between the right to information and the human rights. Justice Vrijendra Jain, Chairman of the Uttarakhand Human Rights Commission, Uttarakhand , as well as Haryana, who expressed his happiness and surprize on discovering such citizens who indeed have also served the cause of human rights while effectively using the rights of access and information provide by the Right to Information Act, 2015.Justice Jain disclosed that after assuming office at the Human Rights Commission he had issued a circular to all District Magistrates and Superintendants of Police seeking list of NGOs and individuals who are working for defence of human rights. He was officially informed by these heads of adminstration in the districts that there were no NGOs or individuals who could be considered for inclusion in a list that the Human Rights Commission was considering to prepare and called  Human Rights Defenders.

Human Rights and Access to Information

Justice Virendra Jain dwelling on the Fundamental Rights enshrined in Part III of the Indian Constitution, Articles 12 to 35 in general and Article 21 in particular, highlighted how access to information is central to access to rights to life and liberty, as defined in our Constitution. Right to life is basic human right and not even State has an authority to violate that right and the definition of 'life' continues to get re-defined as the polity, especially the Indian polity joins the comity of developed nations, including education, protection against arrest and detention, now health and various other rights touching upon themes of exploitation, religion, cultural and educational rights. Obviously, Justice Vijendra Jain, made an effort to draw the attention of the participants as to how there had to be a strong convergence between the right to access to information – so central to access to these basic rights – the rights that touched upon almost all aspects of our daily lives. Corruption and Human Rights, as is well known by now, are the only two windows that allow permission to access of information that are otherwise restricted in respect of certain state organizations that have been raised for the security of the state, including intelligence collection organizations towards the same end.

Justice Jain illustrated how the failure to protect security of life is connected with access to information when he found in Uttarakashi that a dysfunctional Trauma Centre that he happened to visit in remote Uttarkashi had not been perceived as violation of human rights, since a petition on a dysfunctional Trauma Centre could have been entertained as one. The health and district authorities needed to be sensitized towards such violations of human rights , as also the common man who use the RTI Act effectively to exercise access to such protection, in favour of those who would need the services of such a Trauma Centre, if rendered functional.

Change in the System, not just the Government 

Concluding his address Justice Jain brought home the point that acess to information and efforts to secure human rights for citizens are to be aimed essentially for a fundamental change in the SYSTEM itself, irrespective of the GOVERNMENT of the day. He particularly appealed to the youth that access to information must not stop at just getting it but once that has been accessed, take it to its logical end – irrespective of the government of the day, and not mixing it up especially with the political party, as it often degenerates into. He also shared how after initially declining to travel from Chandigarh to Dehradun, just for the event on a holiday, he chnaged his mind after the president of the RTI Club disclosed him his own age and RTI Club's volunteerism ! he looked forward to working together with the NGOs and RTI activists in so far as their genuine efforts for the cause of human rights were concerned, and he sought the list of NGOs and RTI activists for his Commission' use and also offerede to provide financial assistance for wareness raising, as working for the right to information is yet another way of working for the human rights ! 

Thus, the 19th December 2015 becomes a major watershed in the march of rights workers in Uttarakhand, when two independent campaigns for rights agreed to work togther, in the interest and empowerment of citizens and their rights. In an embryonic sense this event also laid the foundation of a Forum for the Rights of Citizens that have been unfolded via various specific laws and stand-alone administrtative architectures.  

Info Commissioners Participation

That straws of change are in the wind was more than evident when two Information Commissioners, Rajendra Koyhiyal and Surendra Singh Rawat, not only joined the RTI Club celebration but expressed their views freely, more importantly listened to some criticism of the functioning of the State Information Commission, as well. This made the day for the rest of the audience as as many as four Information Commissioners, including this writer, dedicated the best part of a day to listen to various groups of RTI stake-holders, as also those involved in some other streams of rights, e.g. Consumer Rights well-known activist, Brigadier Behal and Chairman of Human Rights Commission, Justice Jain, as already noted.

To the best of this writer's memory the only time he has found the Info Commissioners participating, as a group in any RTI related event, has been the ones that have been organized under the aegis of the Info Commission itself, like the one held in October this year, as well. This writer, while in Info Commission ( 2005-2010 ), participated in a score of RTI related events and when Info Commissioner Vinod Nautiyal joined during his last year, he also freely participated in RTI related events. During the early days of RTI in the state this writer also undertook trips to all districts and a large number of development blocks and among Info Commissioners, it was again Info Commissioner Vinod Nautiyal who took several trips as part of mainstreaming of the RTI Act.

Moving Towards a Common Page

To what extent the Info Commissioners are expected to follow a mind-set and life-style similar to the Presiding Officers of the judicial courts, keeping themselves aloof from the public at large, and how the Info Commissioners also consider it their call to spread awareness about the RTI Act and the operational difficulties experienced by the PIOs, the Appeal Authorities as well as a common citizen through their field-trips, now seems better understood. Info Commissioners, both in position and retired, shared their personal perceptions on these evolving situations. Info Commissioners Vinod Nautiyal and Rajendra Kothiyal, both former legal practioners, are known to be more accessible to the common people, which they continue to carry over to their approach towards the RTI applicants and other components of the RTI architecture. Info Commissoner Surendra Rawat, a former civil servant, obviously brought to the Commission his very own world-view to this diverse forum. The resource-base designed for the Info Commissioners suggests that such a diversity be nurtured and lead to evolution of a forum which is fully conscious of the diversity, the hall-mark of India. However, this diversity is also to be used to take care of the common concerns of the diverse stake-holders that expect this innovative architecture to act like a master-key, opening doors of rights which the makers of the Constitution envisioned for the people of India, long under a colonial rule.  

Inputs from Stake-holders

Speakers who followed covered those who have already been felicitated for their contributions, institutions like the Parvatiya Bal Munch, whoch have sensitized school going children through their NGO network, Mahila Samakhya and RTI enthusiasts and activists from remote districts like Tyuni, Pauri, Haldwani etc, sharing their experiences both inside and outside the Info Commission. This free-wheeling sharing of experiences paved the way for a healthy exchange of diverse world-views about the state of RTI in the state today.

Earlier Dr BP Maithani, President of RTI Club shared that more than 5,40,000 applications had been filed, ultimately leading to about 29, 000 second appeals and complaints being favoured with the Info Commission indicating an improvment in the supply side of the RTI regime, while the qualitative disposal of first appeals still remaing an area demnading greater attention. The gender difference as also urban rural divide in the use of this tranformational law also received attention. Speaking on behalf of the citizens and the RTI Club he also acknowledged the help and asistance that has been received from charities like Sir Ratan Tata Trust ( SRTT ) even as the state government continued to assist only the state training academy for capacity building of the civil servants. 

Call for Rights Forum and Indian Initiative

Concluding deliberations and calling it historic this writer, as the presiding speaker, shared with the participants how in a South Asia Seminar held in 2010 our neighbouring countries, without a single exception, namely Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Mynmar, Sri Lanka and Maldives, had in unison acclaimed enactment and successful initiation of this transparency law, despite its amazing diversity and several problems, which is considered as a beacon light for all others. While a considerable amount of success has been registered, its deterrant-effect and indirect impact has been felt all -over much remains to be improved, based on state-specific experiences. Specially in the Judicial and Legislative side of the State and in the sphere of voluntary disclosure as envisaged by section 4 the citizens and the NGOs, as well as the public authorities, have their respective agenda cut out for them. 

In conclusion this writer emphasized that this historic effort at convergence among the various Rights Commissions, for example in the sphere of Human Rights, Consumer Welfare, Services Deleivery, Food Security and Police Complaints, among others, needed to come together and forge a Forum which could discuss ways and means through which the citizens could be further empowered to exercise the various rights for which various mechanisms have been created in the state.

Tail-piece: The RTI Club's Annual Report and the RTI Calendar carries caricatures drawn by award winning students and it is likely to remind every reciever how the public offices continue to be perceived even by our younger generation and this reminder comimg from our Generation Next is likely to be more enduring.  


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