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RTI Trends: The Good, The Bad And The Bizarre!

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By Charumati Haran:

“Information is the oxygen of the modern age. It seeps through the walls topped by barbed wire; it wafts across the electrified borders.” – Ronald Reagan, former US President

RTI — Right to Information; A seemingly harmless, basic and simple right — the right to ask questions and the right to demand answers. RTI is a natural consequence of a large democracy with complicated structures and a population rife with lack of education. If we think of it like a company in the market, the citizens are simply the stakeholders who are questioning the firm’s decisions. Additionally, since the bureaucracy is an enormous system, it is very difficult to police. The sweeping powers of the RTI make it an ideal weapon in the hands of a concerned common man.

From detecting favouritism in government contracts to fighting illegal constructions on public land, so many success stories of RTI are there all over India. It had a prominent role in exposing the Adarsh housing scam, the public distribution scam in Assam and forcing IIMs to reveal their admission criteria. Needless to say, these same powers have sometimes been criticized by our lawmakers on various counts. There have been many attempts to dilute the powers of the RTI. It has been 8 years since the Act was passed. Therefore, before such a drastic step is taken, let us examine some of the recent trends in RTI usage and their implications.

Combining RTI with Public Interest Litigation — The RTI has given a boost to the number of PILs being filed. This has led to the judiciary taking a much more active role in law-making and redressing grievances. The Court has expanded its scope into many social, political and economic areas and is having its say in many diverse issues. While the common man is often stereotyped as helpless, but many nameless heroes have managed to get wrongdoers punished. The Court criticizes the government for its inaction on and cracks down on corrupt officials. On the other hand, the increase in judicial activism is creating a huge backlog of cases for the legal system to deal with. The lack of infrastructure is delaying the decisions. Litigation is often costly and time consuming. Many people, despite their problems, would rather avoid the ‘court-kacheri ka mamla’ than use it. Petitioners often complain of the lack of useful and timely information from public authorities. The inherent tension between legislature and judiciary makes it difficult to get judicial recommendations accepted.

Strange RTI and PIL Applications —

a) “What’s the Intelligence Quotient of Father of the Nation Mahatma Gandhi?”
b) “Why did you attend Nani Palkhivala Lecture? What time did you leave? Did you eat lunch or had tea? Which lawyer invited you for the function? We are working hard but we are not being able to concentrate many a times because these kinds of questions,“- SH Kapadia, CJI.

While bringing up niche issues is understandable, sometimes the petitions filed are absurd. These issues seem neither important nor helpful. In fact, they are wasting the time of the country and taking away time from more vital issues. This is one of the main arguments put forward by the government about why RTI should be modified.

Children are filing RTI applications — One of the things we can be very proud of is the fact that children are also taking an active role in filing petitions. These children, especially those from the vulnerable sections of society are setting a great example for the rest of the country. Students of Sarvodaya Vidyalaya, West Vinod Nagar were able to obtain fans, water and sanitation facilities for their government school. A 10 year old Aishwarya managed to get a garbage dump cleared and replaced by a public library. Many students have filed RTIs highlighting the presence of shops selling tobacco within 100 yards of their school. In particular, NGOs in hill regions have been actively teaching and encouraging children to use RTI. Children there have complained about a range of issues — why roads only exist on paper, littering, the lack of electricity connections, why their teachers don’t show up and so on. It seems that India can look forward to a more aware, empowered and responsible voters and citizens.

RTI Activists and the threats to their life – Too many RTI Activists and whistleblowers have been threatened, mobbed, assaulted, stabbed, injected with poison, shot and hit by vehicles. No doubt that these attacks originate from those harmed by an activist’s efforts, but this is a breakdown of law and order. When a person makes use of a perfectly legal provision, he must be protected while doing so. Infringing on RTi is no less than infringing on any other right, like right to speech and expression. Innocent men and women should not be killed for exposing rot in the system.

But on the bright side, RTI activists have taken recourse to creative solutions. First, filing under another person’s name, usually the name of some well recognized public figure. This maximizes the chance of getting a reply and also safeguards the identity of the actual person filing the application. During the time of the Anna Hazare Jan Lokpal protests, many people began filing petitions with the name of Anna Hazare or Arvind Kejriwal! This got them speedy, accurate answers, since officials were afraid of tangling with them. Second, websites like RTI Anonymous are making it much safer and easier by providing a network of volunteers who draft and file an application for you, in their own names.

In the end, RTI has proved to be a very proficient tool. It’s easy to file, it’s cheap and it’s often effective. It takes care of the common complaint that one can’t help “the system”. Even as some issues are resolved, new ones crop up. Sadly, the issue of safety of whistleblowers has not been given enough attention as yet. But the process of getting an answer starts with asking the right question. 

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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