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What Have We Learned From 10 Years Of RTI?

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By Prashant Sharma

Note: This article has been republished from Down To Earth.

There was indeed reason to celebrate. It was 2005. A new law had come into being. One which would give ordinary people the extraordinary power to question the government on a daily basis. One which in one fell swoop would hack away the ossified layers of opacity that characterised government decision-making. One which would change the power dynamic between the citizen and the state by placing people at the centre of the democratic process. One which would make an arbitrary and venal state more responsive to the needs and aspirations of citizens. And of course, one that would rid our country of the scourge of corruption that was immutably entrenched in the body politic.

Illustration by Sorit

We know that we love rights.

And indeed, the RTI has brought us much joy. Several large (and small) scandals have been exposed through its use. Many entitlements have been provided when it has been used, at times even at the prospect of it being used. Scarcely a day goes by without a mention of the RTI in the news. It has brought in a palpable sense of empowerment in the lives of many ordinary Indians, not to mention activists and citizen groups. We even have a new kind of social worker – the RTI Activist.

We know that we love the right to know.

But 10 years later, we also know a few other things. We know that the government that brought in the Act presided over the greatest corruption scandals that the country has ever known. We know that with thousands of appeals waiting to be heard (regardless of whether the Chief Information Commissioner has been appointed or not), a piece of legislation that had been supposedly designed to ensure effective implementation is collapsing under its own weight. (We already knew it, some would say, given the state of our judicial system.) We know that political parties love to take credit for the RTI, but are loath to submit to it. We know that NGOs love the RTI, but rarely make public details of their finances and functioning anywhere close to the extent which they want the government to. We know that the media uses the RTI with great gusto, but we do not know who owns the media, and we certainly cannot use the RTI Act to find that out.

Perhaps we also know that we don’t really know a lot.

But we do know that we are living in a period of great transformation. And amidst all the churning and turmoil, we know that the RTI is our brahmastra. We know that the more we use the RTI, the stronger we become. With the RTI we can prove every day that the state is arbitrary, inefficient and corrupt, and using it keeps the state in its place. We are relieved. We are empowered. But so is the other. Because the more we show the state to be inefficient and corrupt, the easier it becomes to outsource, contract-out, hybridise and privatise.

We may think we know what good action is, but we can still harm ourselves unknowingly.

At the same time, there is nothing inherently immoral or unethical about outsourcing and privatisation. That the state must focus primarily on regulation and ensuring the rule of law, and leave implementation to other actors is not an invalid argument.

Consequently, if a non-state entity provides public goods and services equitably and efficiently, there is nothing intrinsically wrong in that. But when it doesn’t, what can we do? We can no longer summon the RTI to our rescue. The brahmastra lies inert as it was designed to work only against the state. Then how do we hold to account a private entity performing public functions? Perhaps as consumers. Perhaps as shareholders.But as citizens?

Do we know whether we are consumers, or shareholders, or citizens?

It would be easy to blame the state and protest (yet again) that the democratic space is shrinking, that institutions are being compromised, that big capital rules our lives. But perhaps it is here that we need to look within. To what extent have our own ‘good’ actions in the past unknowingly (or knowingly) contributed to the challenges of the present? We fetishised legislation as a panacea for all manner of ills, knowing fully well that the ability of the judiciary to deliver timely justice was next to impossible. We restricted our notion of social and political change to bringing in new laws and rights knowing fully well that the state does not have the capacity to implement any of it widely or effectively. We limited our demands for transparency only to the state because it was politically expedient to do so. We saw no harm in compromising institutions and processes in our haste to make the best of “windows of opportunity”. Because we knew we were doing good and changing the world. We willingly and knowingly played the game. And it was worth it. Because we wanted to have the state and beat it too.

Might it be true that a little knowledge is indeed a dangerous thing?

Because as things unfold in the fullness of time, they often don’t go according to script. Especially once institutions and processes have been compromised. Once that genie is out of the bottle, it’s about who possesses the lamp. And if it’s no longer with us, we go back to our comfort zone. We protest. We seek more democratic space (is it ever enough?). We demand new legislation. We wait for new “windows of opportunity”. The cycle continues.

We think we know how to fix the world, but do we know how we relate to it?

Perhaps the best way to reflect upon the first decade of the RTI Act might be to introspect. What is our imagination of the role of the state and our relationship with it? What is the role of the market and our relationship with it? Is legislation the only way to define and mediate these relationships? When we talk about transparency and accountability, why do we think only of the state? Is the state the only location of power? And if it is not, should we not be thinking about holding power to account rather than the state? And how is this to be done individually, collectively, and politically?

Until we are willing to expand our imagination of social change beyond rights and legislation, we might discover that the more we know, the less we understand.

The writer is a Fellow of the Open Society Foundations, New York and Visiting Research Fellow at the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), Geneva. He is the author of Democracy and Transparency in the Indian State: The Making of the Right to Information Act. He can be reached at prashantx@gmail.com

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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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