Friday, 15 July 2011

My First RTI

The Right To Information Act, 2005 had me impressed. Listening to Arvind Kejriwal got me inspired. I remember sitting with my dad one night and, like the idealist I am, upholding the Act as a huge step forward for our country. And sure, it's fantastic that we are finally provided a right that was given to citizens of some other countries decades ago. It's wonderful that the law is framed so that (at least on paper) government officials are incentivised to submit the requested information on time. It's relieving that we, as citizens are finally making a move towards a transparent and accountable governance system. 

I filed my first RTI yesterday and the process that led to it got me to realise how desperately we needed such a law. As a part of a project I was doing, I needed to get data (numbers and figures, not just opinions and rounded figures) on a few primary schools in Cochin. 

Armed with just my college ID card and a notebook I walked into one of these schools and was met with a suspicious eye. After explaining my project, I was asked to come a week later if I wanted any data. A similar scene at the next school I visited (where the Principal was not even present, and the teacher had to search the records for the school's phone number). My next stop was the Corporation itself, an old building in the heart of the city. I traversed up and down three flights of stairs numerous times, visiting the Deputy Mayor who directed me to the Education Department, who directed me to the Planning Cell, who directed me back to the Deputy Mayor, who sent me to her Additional Secretary, who I could meet only after an hour and then sent me back to the Planning Cell where I spent an hour getting a letter of recommendation drafted to show at the schools for the data I wanted. The entire process took me six hours. Apparently, the corporation has no information on the very schools under its demarcation. 

My next trip was to the other schools I was studying, one of which was functioning with the Principal on leave for a month and could not give me any information. Another Principal sat with me for an hour or so and allowed me to take an interview of sorts and gave me rounded figures of expenses that the school had incurred. This itself was something I wasn't expecting. He would not let me look at his account books. 

Finding myself in this predicament, in an RTI-less India, I would have just changed my project, changed the kind of data needed or just plain quit. Coming back to the office though, led me to file an RTI application for all the data I needed. But I must say, writing that letter is not easy. Don't get me wrong, I am relieved that I have a way to find data earlier hidden behind a wall of permissions and recommendations. The framing of the letter though, poses to be a challenge for the untrained. I needed help from someone who has filed many RTIs to get the thing right, for everything from the format to the careful framing of questions. The RTI is an Act for the layman, but I, as a layman was not able to file the application as effortlessly as it is let on by Kejriwal et al. 

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