Those appointed as a ‘public authority’ by companies as well as government, often look for every trick in the book to avoid giving information under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, rather than facilitating the flow of information. Elected representatives, like those of Padra municipality near Vadodara in Gujarat, went a step further and passed a resolution to blacklist an RTI activist who sought information on civic works. Fortunately, it did not work.
A bunch of RTI replies received from the Gujarat state information commissioner, the general administration department (GAD) of the state, the governor and the central information commissioner, have clarified that there is no provision to blacklist RTI applicants and overturned the malicious resolution passed by the Padra municipality.
In a further triumph for the RTI activist last week, the court of the regional commissioner of municipalities at Vadodara issued a suo motu order asking the Padra municipality to revoke the resolution passed by the general body.
Pankti Jog, secretary of the Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP) says, “This order was revoked saying that it amounted to illegal use of power by the elected body of the municipality.” MAGP has been doing commendable work in empowering youngsters in villages and towns of Gujarat to use RTI effectively.
The person who was sought to be blacklisted is Paresh Gandhi, a 38-year old RTI activist and journalist, who has filed over 100 RTI applications over the past four years. Of these, as many as 22 had sought information on various civic works of the Padra municipality. He was blacklisted by a general body resolution of the Padra municipality in April 2021. Mr Gandhi’s effort at overturning the ‘illegal action’ and his eventual victory has given a boost to RTI activists and whistle-blowers across India who face harassment when they try to expose corruption and dubious dealings, especially in the issue of government and municipal contracts.
Mr Gandhi fought the action against him by filing RTI applications to the information commissioners, the state secretariat of Gujarat, and the governor’s office, seeking information on whether there is a provision to blacklist RTI activists.
The Gujarat state information commissioner replied in the negative and also clarified that there is no limit on the number of RTI applications that an individual can file!
Mr Gandhi says, “I run a small community newspaper Padra Darpan and found that my readers had complaints about roads, civic amenities, ration cards, land records and so on. So, I started filing RTI applications on their behalf, which brought out corruption and financial irregularities that were happening not only in the Padra municipality but also in gram panchayats and the zilla parishad in our area.”
“I have usually received information under the RTI ever since I began to use it. I am convinced that RTI is a very effective Act and should be used as a weapon by the common man, as well as journalists, to demand transparency and accountability,” he added.
However, elected representatives of the Padra municipality found it hard to digest these ‘exposures’ and decided to teach Mr Gandhi a lesson.
Pankti Jog from MAGP says, “Blacklisting an RTI activist was a blot on participative democracy. It would have reversed the good done by the RTI Act. Thanks to the revocation of the order, many more RTI users and activists will be encouraged to use this citizen-friendly Act to procure information and demand accountability and transparency.”
A decade ago, Pankti Jog had helped 18-year old Bhadresh Vamja to use RTI effectively to find out why the two ration shops in his village Saldi were not supplying food grains under the public distribution system (PDS). The Gujarat state information commissioner directed the food and supplies department to make it mandatory for fair price shops to pro-actively disclose supplies every week. Later, Mr Vamja became a sarpanch of his village and is actively involved in spreading this sunshine law.
Kudos to such common people who keep RTI strong and going!
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the 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”.