Delhi Diary: Live From Jantar Mantar - In The Midst of a New Information Revolution

August 13, 2006
Mayank Austen Soofi

Date: 13th August, 2006; Time: 3:47 PM, Weather: Hot & Very Humid

Magsaysay award winner Mr Sandeep Pandey is on hunger strike. Ms Aruna Roy, another Magsaysay award winner, appears with a band of colleagues, that includes Belgian economist-activist Mr Jean Dreze. Both Ms Roy and Mr Dreze were formerly members of the high profile National Advisory Council (NAC) headed by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi.

"Sandeep, we have had a discussion, and after arriving at an unanimous decision I have been entrusted to convey it to you." Ms Roy says.

"Yes. Please". A soft-spoken Mr Pandey, on the seventh day of his fast, gently smiles.

"Sandeep, you are breaking your fast tomorrow. We as your followers want you to do padyatras. We will walk everyday till the government listens to us. Stop fasting! Instead, keep walking!"

"Padyatras is a good idea but others can do it. Personally, I feel that there is nothing more effective and powerful than an aamran anshan." Sandeep says.

"I have tolerated your strike for past one week." Ms Roy mischievously declares. "Your kidneys will fail. Your health will suffer. Are you not human? Padyatra will also get more coverage. Right now you will only grow weaker. We all feel you are being under utilized."

"I will think about it."

Clapping and cheers.

Mr Sandeep Pandey's protest is concerned with the Right To Information - a legislative act pregnant with the possibilities of changing the functioning of this nation.

The Short History of the New Information Revolution

UPA government that came to power in 2004 had drafted and brought about Right To Information Act (RTI). It was meant to promote transparency and accountability in the functioning of our corrupt and lazy Sarkari departments.

According to the original terms of this act you would have been made available the information which is held by any public authority. It included the right to inspect the work, documents, records, notes, extracts or certified copies of documents, records and certified samples of the materials and obtaining information which is also stored in electronic form.

In other words, it would have been easier for We The People to find out just why our neighborhood drain is not being covered in spite of the money allotment from the MP relief fund, just why our district has seen seven SPs within a span of two months, just how much money is being spent by our Chief Medical Officer in buying medicines which forever seems in short supply, just how PWD engineers get lucrative postings, just why our country's cabinet decided to buy sugar from Cuba when it could have got it cheaper in China.

The Honorable Government's Not-So-Honorable Intentions

Ms Aruna Roy, the then member of the NAC, along with her associates Shekhar Singh and Nikhil Dey were the chief protagonists of this act. Ms Roy later resigned from her post in NAC.

The honorable government of India has proposed seven amendments after giving a re-thought to its most marvelous creation yet. These amendments seek to exclude most 'file notings' from the purview of the RTI Act. They also propose to 'remove access to the material on the basis of which decisions were taken by the Ministers'. The amendments also propose to withdraw the 'current access to the identities' of those officials who have recorded notings, made inspection, gave recommendation or tendered advice or opinion.

This is not enough. The honorable government also intend to 'exempt all information related to a process of any examination' conducted by any Sarkari officer or department. It is also proposed to refuse any information pertaining to 'evaluation or assessment made for the purpose of judging the suitability of any person for appointment or promotion to any post, or for admission to any course'.

The honorable government also proposes to take away 'access to all documents and records which contain any 'legal advice' during the decision making process'. The government finally intends to take away the independence of the Information Commissions, conferring that end decision on all complains lodged with the said commissions would lie with the central or state government and that the decision of the government 'shall be final'.

What These Amendments Mean in a Non-Sarkari Language

Temporally influenced in the company of the honest social activists and perhaps to appear honorable, this honorable government had gleefully accepted the original recommendations of the act, little realizing the harm that could be inflicted on its and its bureaucrats' self-interests. However 'better sense' prevailed and now the honorable government has decided to continue to mint money in transfers and promotions, to collect bribes in college admissions, to receive mitahi-money from big-time industrialists and small-time contractors, while actually appearing honorable at the same time.

What You Would Not be Able to Have Access to if These Proposed Amendments Are Accepted

Who sees files?
Why is the file being delayed?
Which officer is primarily the cause of the delay?
What were the suggestions offered by the officer on the file?
What is the present status of the file?
What were the other comments of the babus?
How decisions were taken by the political masters?

And, What You Would Have Access to

The full contents of the application that you made to enquire after the information.
The full content of the final decision made by the officer.

Ha ha ha ha ha...

Don't Laugh. Sandeep Pandey is Angry

Talking to this journalist, Mr Pandey said: "It is the first time in our democracy that such a positive development has taken place. If the act is followed in its original form, we will be able to know how public money is allocated for our welfare and where exactly it is siphoned off. We can discover how policies are made and how decisions are reached, apparently with our interests in mind."

"So, what went wrong?"

"Now the government is proposing certain amendments that actually destroy the essence of the act. For instance, it is reluctant to provide access to notes which are exchanged in the cabinet meetings. This is strange. The government desires Gram Panchayat meetings to be open. It has a separate TV channel to telecast the live Lok Sabha proceedings. But it is shying around with its cabinet discussions..."

This reporter tried to present the case for the honorable government which claims, for instance, that leaking of the names of the officers in the notes and reports could even endanger their security.

"Then, what about the Indian Jawans? Do not they endanger their life while on job?" Mr Pandey shot back. "In this country all decisions are taken either due to political pressure or because of the bribes. RTI has emerged as the most effective weapon to fight such evils".

"But why are you so upset, Sandeepji? RTI was UPA government's idea and it has dumped it in the basket. Nothing gained, and nothing lost." This well-meaning blogger reasoned. "Why turn to agitations and hunger strikes? We Indians were not in the streets demanding all these rights in the first place."

"Listen Mayank, we have finally got the best possible deal. We have been given this right. It is not a gift. We won't let them take it back. We will fight. Aakhiri dam tak."

Meanwhile Jantar Mantar Lives Up to Its Name

It is not the number of people (which is not impressive) that is inspiring, but the range of people who have come to lend their support to Mr Pandey in his hunger strike. There is a middle-aged couple from Lucknow who came all the way just to let him know that they are with him. There is a delegation of Hotel Suppliers Association from Benares, its members exhausted of the municipal corruption. There are participants from the far-away Meghalaya. There is an always-smiling student from Moradabad. There are villagers, in their bright lehengas and white dhotis, squatting on the ground. There are, at times, well-dressed, grey-haired, elegant ladies from the Delhi society stepping out of their big cars to give their support to the cause. There are pretty girls in blue faded jeans and khadi salwar-suits sitting on the steel chairs. Occasionally, gentlemen - retired civil servant-types, too, are being spotted.

Somewhere in the venue, some people are shouting Hum Larenge, Hum Jeetenge. Ms Aruna Roy is overheard saying Agar hum iss desh ko nahin badlenge, to kaun badlega?

Yes, indeed.


Mayank Austen Soofi owns a private library and four blogs: The Delhi Walla, Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos. Contact:
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Delhi Diary: Live From Jantar Mantar - In The Midst of a New Information Revolution


Author: Mayank Austen Soofi


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Mayank Austen Soofi
August 14, 2006
06:25 AM

There has been a error in this report. Instead of MP relief fund in 'just why our neighborhood drain is not being covered in spite of the money allotment from the MP relief fund', it should be 'MP's Local Area Development Fund'.

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