Ignoring intimidation and family pressure, Bhadresh Wamja of Saldi village used the RTI to restore foodgrain and fuel rations that were being denied to villagers and spurred a policy decision by the state government
Saldi village is 13 km from the district town of Amreli and about 225 km from Gandhinagar, the Gujarat state capital. This innocuous village has a population of barely 3,000, and very little information is available about it on the internet. But it is from this obscure corner of Gujarat, that a teenager has succeeded in persuading the state government to list fair price shops also under the Right to Information Act, 2005. This, even though the shops are not public authorities, but are privately owned!
Bhadresh Wamja is a second-year B.Com student, who had been bothered for a while that the two fair price shops in his village never seemed to have enough stocks of wheat, rice and kerosene. His family of four members was among those categorised Above the Poverty Line (APL), and this entitled them to 10kg wheat (at Rs10 per kg), 2kg rice (at Rs7.25 a kg) and 2 litre of kerosene per person (at Rs12.53 to Rs13.43 a litre).
"My family is well off and we don't need to buy the ration; but many of my friends complained that they never received it. So, I decided to go to the shop and buy supplies on my family ration card. Predictably, the shopkeeper said that he had not been getting any stock of wheat, rice or kerosene from the government for the past several months; so from where will he give me?'' That ignited the idea of an RTI campaign. "Not for my personal benefit, but for the good of the village," says Bhadresh.
Newspapers publish stories on the RTI and Bhadresh reads these with great curiosity. In January, Gujarat Samachar, Gujarat's leading newspaper, printed a chart about how much foodgrains and kerosene, families of APL and BPL (Below Poverty Line) should receive every month, along with a table giving the prices per kg. Bhadresh says, "That news along with the price chart opened my eyes and I decided to show this to the shopkeeper. But he wasn't impressed. I asked him why he was overpricing the wheat and rice (selling them at Rs15 a kg)," but the shopkeeper reiterated, "what can I do when the government does not send us any supplies."
He decided to apply for this information under the RTI Act. He sent an RTI application to the tehsildar of Lilia taluka (Saldi is in Lilia taluka) on 11 February 2011, asking him the stock supply that the fair price shop has been receiving every month, between August 2010 and January 2011. And the tehsildar ordered the shopkeeper to disclose the details within 15 days. The shopkeeper did not oblige.
Bhadresh informed the tehsildar about this, and while the tehsildar first declared that he would come to inspect the shop on a particular date, he did not turn up. Subsequently, he assured that he would visit the place on Monday; but on Sunday itself the shopkeeper started removing the sacks of grain, to take them elsewhere, so he could show that he did not have any stock.
Bhadresh called Pankti Jog, a member of the Mahit Adhikar Gujarat Pahel in Ahmedabad which runs an RTI helpline, to inform that the shopkeeper was taking away the ration stock from the shop. Ms Jog asked him to photograph the act with his mobile phone camera.
The tehsildar came to Bhadresh's house on Monday, but instead of inspecting the shop he tried to persuade him to withdraw the RTI application and not to get involved in such activities. The 18-year-old had also been receiving threats from the shopkeeper, which prompted his family to remind him that his career should come first. But Bhadresh had decided not to get swayed and to ensure that the shopkeeper learns a lesson.
Ms Jog says, "We launched the RTI helpline five years ago (number 99240 85000) and since October last year we have also been helping those who have been threatened in connection with the use of RTI. Bhadresh called me up complaining about the threats and the reluctance by the shopkeeper to disclose details of the stocks, despite an order from the tehsildar, the alleged nexus between the shopkeeper and the tehsildar, and the pressure that was building up at home.''
Ms Jog advised Bhadresh that under the Food and Civil Supplies Regulatory Mechanism, these details are categorised as pro-active disclosures, that is under Section 4 of the RTI Act at the office of the deputy tehsildar. Therefore, he should approach the deputy tehsildar for information. She also asked him to lodge a police complaint at the office of the deputy superintendent of police in Liliya.
So, Bhadresh lodged a police complaint. He also visited the office of the district supply officer (DSO) where he found out to his utter shock that the shopkeeper was supplied with 8,306 kg of wheat as regular supply and 1,599 kg as extra wheat between August 2010 and January 2011. According to the documents, the shopkeeper had supplied the entire stock to ration card holders, which indicated that the shopkeeper was lying to the villagers.
Bhadresh spread this information in the village and very soon the villagers started to back him openly. The threats automatically reduced as he built a support group. Twenty villagers even signed an appeal to the tehsildar for an inspection of the shop. The fair price shop is owned by Paresh Shejpal, of Deendayal Grahak Bhandar.
"I also called up the tehsildar and informed him that I had a recorded conversation of Bhadresh complaining about indirect threats to him and that if he did not inspect the shop, I would hand over the tape to the deputy superintendent of police and the district supply officer who could take action against him," Ms Jog said. She also sent a complaint to the State Information Commission.
When the tehsildar visited the village he asked 10 villagers to produce their ration cards and found that nine of the ten had not received even a single kilogramme of grain during the last six months, although the shopkeeper had reported that he had supplied the stock according to the rules. The one person who did get some ration managed to do so after a heated argument with the shopkeeper.
The tehsildar was forced to write a report against the shopkeeper, and the district supply officer ordered an inquiry. Immediately after the check, the shopkeeper began supplying the ration to the villagers without any excuse about not receiving supplies. He has also been made to put up an item-wise list of the supplies that he receives.
Bhadresh's tenacious campaign and the support from Ms Jog, encouraged the chief information commissioner of Gujarat, RN Das, to dash off a letter (17 February 2011) to the secretary of the Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs Department, to order proactive disclosure of ration supplies not only at tehsildar offices, but also at fair price shops across the state.
The letter stated: "… letter received on 15.2.2011 from the Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP) on the subject of difficulties faced by the citizens regarding obtaining of information on PDS in respect of Fair Price Shops. It appears that in the particular application enclosed with the above-mentioned letter, the applicant Shri Bhadresh Kumar V Wamja sought information related to the APL quota of foodgrain and kerosene issued to the particular fair price shop and alleged diversion of the APL quota by the fair price shopkeeper and that after the said application was made on 11.2.2011 the Vigilance Committee did make necessary inquiry, but as stated in the said letter under reference, neither the details (names, etc, and functions) of the vigilance committee were proactively disclosed at the village level/fair price shop level, nor the stocks issued to the fair price shops were proactively disclosed.
"A copy of the proactive disclosure material at the village level which was prepared during the Panchmahal's district abhiyaan in active collaboration with the Panchmahals district administration, the civil society groups, in particular the MAGP, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) and Anandi, is enclosed herein for your easy reference. The proactive disclosure material is in two parts. Part I deals with critical information which is more or less static and is required to be painted on the walls. While Part II deals with substantial information which may be dynamic and is therefore required to be revised periodically.
"I would request you to consider the above-mentioned proactive disclosure material for its adoption and implementation by your department and to issue necessary administrative instructions to the district supply officers, mamlatdars and the fair price shop licensees.''
The Food, Civil Supplies and Consumer Affairs Department in an order, dated 4 March 2011, to all tehsildars and fair price shop licensees in Gujarat directed them to proactively disclose ration supply information on the walls of fair price shops as well as at the tehsil level.
Have shopkeepers been abiding by the order? Ms Jog says, "We had made a template of how to declare information about the ration in shops and adopted it in 22 model villages. This has been replicated in many other villages after the information commission's order. We have been conducting a mass campaign through distribution of pamphlets and advertisements through the media. So villagers are aware about the proactive disclosure of ration supply in their respective fair price shops. They take the pamphlets and show it to the shopkeeper to demand information. Thanks to Bhadresh, the ball is in now in the shopkeeper's court. And this time big brother (the Food and Civil Supplies department) is watching and the villagers are not relenting." Villagers are now demanding village vigilance committees for the public distribution system.
It's another tremendous example of the success of an individual, just 18 years old, in bringing about a mini social revolution through the RTI, in a hitherto little-known village.
(Vinita Deshmukh is a senior editor, author and convener of Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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Former finance and power secretary says recommendations of BK Chaturvedi committee lacks vision and analytical approach to enforce constitutional obligations for protecting environment and resources
The union environment minister's refusal to dilute environmental regulations to allow speedy growth of the coal sector has been welcomed by environmentalists who were concerned that any relaxation of the rules could cause untold damage.
"I am pleasantly surprised that the government has refused to relax the environmental norms to boost coal mining," says EAS Sarma, former finance and power secretary. "Most of the coal mining projects that are happening today are scandalous. I am looking forward to an environmentally sound decision."
Jayanthi Natarajan, union minister for environment and forests, is reported to have specifically rejected the dilution of the forest clearance process at a meeting of a group of ministers on 'go-no go areas' for mining, held on Tuesday. Ms Natarajan, it is said, was supported by home minister P Chidambaram in this matter.
The BK Chaturvedi committee is said to have recommended drastic changes in the process, which includes doing away with public hearing for expansion of existing coal projects and seeking concurrence of gram sabhas for mining. These proposals, if accepted, could weaken the Forest Rights Act and the Forest Conservation Act.
The go-no go areas were demarcated under former environment minister Jairam Ramesh. The matter has been reserved for further consideration. Tribal affairs minister Kishore Chandra Deo will be invited to the next meeting of the group of ministers.
The environment minister has said that scrapping the no-go policy was being pushed by the coal ministry to get quick clearances. She is also believed to have criticised Coal India Limited for extracting only 50 million tonnes of coal annually instead of the 64 billion tonnes promised in their IPO. She also opposed the suggestion to alter the Comprehensive Environment Pollution Index (CEPI) to allow coal mining.
A few days back, Mr Sarma had written to the prime minister, pointing out defects in the functioning of the Chaturvedi committee and its recommendations. "The panel has recommended that the ministry of environment and forests should lift the embargo on coal mining in the notified blocks and that the state forest departments should be given 'incentives' to clear mining projects expeditiously. If this is correct, I am afraid that what Chaturvedi has recommended lacks both vision and an analytical approach to the issue of enforcing the state's constitutional obligation under Article 48A, to conserve the country's environment, particularly its dwindling forest resources," he wrote.
Mr Sarma has written to the government repeatedly, asking for a review of the mining policy. He says, "There is no transparency in granting clearance to mining companies in the forest areas. There is no public bidding and violation of environmental laws is rampant. The impact of such projects on the livelihood of the locals is not considered either by the government or the companies."
The Chaturvedi committee is headed by a planning commission member, and comprises representatives from the coal and finance ministries, but has not environmentalists.
Mr Sarma had said that such a panel cannot gauge the socio-economic implications of such projects. He questioned whether the panel had done any analysis on the energy demands of the country for the future, or considered the rights of forest dwellers, and whether it had consulted local self-government institutions or the ministry of tribal affairs on this matter.
Apart from doing away with the embargo, the Chaturvedi committee has recommended the removal of the condition requiring quorum at meetings of the gram sabhas called to seek consent for projects, to allow 25% expansion of existing projects without public hearing, and further delegation of forest approval powers to the state government.
"The recommendations of Chaturvedi Panel will perhaps open the floodgates to a much larger exploitation of the forest-cum-tribal areas of the country by the mining companies. Chaturvedi seems to have cited a legal opinion to justify his recommendation but any legal opinion will obviously depend on the questions posed to the legal counsel. Instead of arriving at contrived findings to step up coal production, Chaturvedi would have done well by looking at the choices that exist before the country to protect and nurture its forest wealth," Mr Sarma wrote in his letter to the prime minister.