Pune’s traditional katta culture, wherein like-minded people gather informally to chat in public places, has now, RTI, as the new topic of discussion
Although Maharashtra is one of the states with a large number of users of Right to Information (RTI) Act, knowledge and information about the Act, is still found wanting. This is amply reflected during my RTI workshops or public lectures on this topic.
In an innovative and fun-loving approach, leading RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar, who is the founder president of Surajya Sangharsha Samiti, launched the `RTI Katta’ last fortnight at Pune’s premier public garden, Chittaranjan Vatika, in the upper crust Model Colony neighbourhood. More than 50 Puneites attended the meeting, out of which several of them came from across the city. Within a week, the ‘RTI Katta’ fervor has spread to five more public gardens, with the respective local residents taking initiative to host them.
The objective of the `RTI Katta’ is not to preach about the RTI Act, says Kumbhar, “but to empower oneself through discussions amongst each other. It is an umbrella where the attendees get an insight into various issues that crop during the informal chat. A person’s query or problem is answered by several people which results in a healthy and relevant solution than one RTI expert providing the answer. Moreover, it strengthens the belief in RTI movement which is time and again scuttled by the government through various circulars and amendments.”
Kumbhar has laid down some rules for forming an RTI Katta, one of which will soon be launched in Ahmednagar: RTI Katta should be formed in such a public place where no official permission is required, a public garden is the best bet; the name of any individual or organisation should not be added wherever the RTI Katta is being formed; the meeting should be purely a discussion forum and there should be no one-sided speech; any attendee is welcome to seek advice on his RTI applications; any attendee is welcome to give his opinion, however he or she should ensure that he is not misguiding the person; no one should object or scorn if an attendee, new to the RTI Act asks an irrelevant question – he/she should be enlightened through this forum; there should be no exchange of money for either asking a query or answering it; since this forum is all about individual empowerment, no person should try to solve the problem of the other but encourage the individual to fight his/her own RTI battle.
Shamala Desai, a noted social activist who had attended the maiden `RTI Katta’ stated, “there was tremendous curiosity and eagerness to be a part of the RTI movement. It also showed that many people put a RTI application but do not know how to follow up if they do not get a reply. Several youngsters too who attended it were keen to make this citizen-friendly law, stronger, by its constant use.”
Pune is the pioneer of the RTI Library, which was named after stalwart journalist-activist Prakash Kardaley and inaugurated by Arvind Kejriwal in 2008. Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) is also the first city to introduce the 3pm to 5pm walk-in for citizens, every Monday, in all its departments. Pune was the first city wherein Inspection of files under Section 4 of the RTI Act was conducted, the RTI activist being Vijay Kumbhar. With Pune having so many firsts to its credit in the RTI movement, its latest addition–RTI Katta–is sure to bring more people close to RTI.
Here’s wishing that many more cities, towns and villages start `RTI Kattas’ which is a real cool way of gaining knowledge about RTI and using it to good effect. For more details on how to start a RTI Katta get in touch with Vijay Kumbhar at [email protected] or call him on 09923299199
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)
State-run companies need to help the Indian government to overcome fiscal deficit and still make an investment in a profitable venture
Regular readers of Moneylife know that Coal India is the world's largest coal producer, owning most of the coalfields in the country, and producing about 485 million tonnes of coal, with a target to reach 492 million tonnes this fiscal, though this is said to be a difficult proposition because of the troubles they experienced in Talcher.
Coal India is one of the few government-owned companies, where the private shareholding is less than 20%, and it has free cash reserves of over Rs62,000 crore! Last year, it distributed a dividend payout of Rs14 per share, on a face value of Rs10, and this year, its interim dividend was expected to be higher than this! At the same time, due to the government pressure, which has been trying to raise Rs40,000 crore to offset the fiscal deficit, a plan was afoot to go in for disinvestment.
Due to strong opposition from the labour unions, the disinvestment had to be shelved. The best alternative was to increase the dividend payout substantially! This is precisely what Coal India's Board did, this week, on Sankranthi day, by approving an interim dividend of Rs29 per share. The market price of this share was Rs250 on 29 August 2013, and it had closed at Rs328 on 30 May 2013. The share price had hovered around the Rs270 range before reaching the Rs292 range this week, just after the announcement of the dividend. In fact, it had planned to hold the Board meeting to mull the issue in February 2014, but due to the urgency, it was brought up to January 2014, and has cheered up the shareholders.
This interim dividend payment will cover Rs18,317.46 crore for the year ending 31 March 2014, as against Rs8,847 paid out last year. In addition, a sum of Rs3,100 crore will also accrue to the government in the form of dividend distribution tax, all of which will help in reducing the fiscal deficit.
As a matter of interest, government disposal of Axis Bank share holding has also brought relief. It is still possible for the final dividend to be "reasonable" when announced, but that would naturally go into the next year's account.
What can one do to take advantage of the dividend distributed by government-owned companies? To start with, they need to take the advice of their own financial consultants in choosing the companies to buy shares and be willing to hold out for a short duration only.
There are several such companies on the block that they may adopt this procedure to give substantial interim dividends. Take for instance, NMDC (National Mineral Development Corporation); the share prices (CMP – current market price) has been ruling around Rs140-Rs142. NMDC is one of the few companies operating quietly in carrying out its iron ore mining operations, and it may be "persuaded" to give out a good dividend shortly. In fact, if there is no pressure and opposition from the Unions, they may also go in for a buy-back.
Other companies include ONGC, BHEL, EIL, OIL, MOIL and GAIL. A quick look at their balance sheets and free cash reserves will enable the reader to do some homework for self-satisfaction before embarking on this purchase, which must include expert advice from one's own consultant. Some other companies may also find a place in this list!
On general thoughts on the subject, why not these companies think in terms of buy-back programmes from the government only, and not necessarily the shareholding by private investors? They can also reward the employees by making the offer to sell the shares with conditions of no-sale for a minimum of three years?
They can also offer bonus shares to private investors, and, in lieu of this, to the government they can as well pay out the value of this allotment by cash, so that the government shareholding is reduced? Also, there has been talk of using pension funds being made "free" for investment. Why not make sale of the shares—government-owned blocks—to pension funds only, so that the public can get benefited?
Readers can also come out with their recommendations; we need to think out of the box, help the government to overcome the fiscal deficit, and still make investment a profitable venture!
(AK Ramdas has worked with the Engineering Export Promotion Council of the ministry of commerce. He was also associated with various committees of the Council. His international career took him to places like Beirut, Kuwait and Dubai at a time when these were small trading outposts; and later to the US.)
In the course of writing her book, Dragnet Nation, ProPublica reporter Julia Angwin tried various strategies to protect her privacy. In this blog post, she distills the lessons from her privacy experiments into useful tips for readers.
One of the easiest and simplest things you can do to protect your privacy is to be a smarter Web browser.
This is surprisingly difficult because most popular Web browsing software is set up to allow users to be tracked by default. The reason is simple economics – you don’t pay for Web browsing software, so the companies that make it have to find other ways to make money.
The most egregious example of this conflict came in 2008 when Microsoft’s advertising executives helped quash a plan by the engineers to build better privacy protections into the Internet Explorer 8 Web browser. Microsoft has since added additional protections – but they are not turned on by default. The situation is no better at Google, whose Chrome Web browser has “buried and discouraged” the “Do Not Track” button, and is pioneering the use of new tracking technology that cannot be blocked. And it’s worth noting that the other big Web browser maker, Mozilla Corp., receives 85 percent of its revenues (PDF) from its agreement to make Google the default search engine on Firefox.
Even worse, many of the tools that Web browsers offer to protect privacy are not effective. Tracking companies have refused to honor the “Do Not Track” button. And Google Chrome’s “Incognito” mode and Internet Explorer’s “InPrivate Browsing” mode won’t protect you from being tracked. Those settings simply prevent other people who use your Web browser after you to see where you’ve been online.
And so, in order to prevent the most common types of tracking, I ended up loading up my Web browser – Mozilla’s Firefox – with a bunch of extra software. It sounds like a lot of work, but most of this software can be installed in a few minutes. Here’s what I used:
I installed “HTTPS Everywhere,” created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Tor Project. This tool forces your Web browser to use encrypted Internet connections to any website that will allow it. This prevents hackers – and the National Security Agency – from eavesdropping on your Internet connections.
I also installed Disconnect, a program created by former Google engineer Brian Kennish, which blocks advertisers and social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, from tracking which websites you visit.
And finally I set my default search engine to be DuckDuckGo, a search engine that doesn’t store any of the information that is automatically transmitted by your computer — the IP address and other digital footprints — so DuckDuckGo has no way to link your search queries to you. That means DuckDuckGo won’t auto-complete your search queries based on your previous searches or based on your physical location, as Google does. So you’ll have to be a little smarter about your searches, and remember to bookmark the pages that you visit often, to save time.
After browsing with my ungainly setup for nearly a year, I found a Web browser that had all the features I wanted built in — called WhiteHat Aviator. It has built-in HTTPS Everywhere, it doesn’t retain or sell your online activity, and it uses Disconnect to block trackers from advertisers and social media companies. Its default search engine is DuckDuckGo.
It’s built by a computer security firm called WhiteHat Security, but it hasn’t been audited by any computer security experts yet, as far as I can tell. So use it at your own risk (and currently you can only use it on the Mac OSX operating system). But I’ve been using it for a few months, and after some bugginess in the beginning, I’ve started to enjoy the unusual feeling of having privacy as a default setting.