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The RTI Act Is Dying, Should We Be Worried?

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By Bestin Samuel:

Answers to questions, sometimes, would be clear as daylight. Sometimes they would be hazy, and you will have to strain to make out the words. Sometimes, the answer would just be silence. And if your country feels like you are asking too many questions, it just makes you forget that you had a right to ask questions in the first place. That is exactly what happened in Rajasthan recently, where a chapter in the Right to Information (RTI) Act was removed from the Social Sciences textbook of Class VIII. Why teach children that they have a right to question and to information, and later be forced to expose your own blemishes? If you teach them to be silent now, their questions will not haunt you later – this seems to be the mantra.

It is still a fairytale that an incredibly powerful legislative tool like the RTI Act is extant in the world’s largest democracy that scored 38/100 in Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perception Index. The milestone Act has a stated objective to “empower the citizens, promote transparency and accountability in the working of the Government, contain corruption, and make our democracy work for the people in real sense”. An informed citizen is better equipped to keep necessary vigil on the instruments of governance and make the government more accountable to the governed, adds the RTI Citizen Gateway. All this in a country which still holds dear the archaic Official Secrets Act, 1923, which talks about not divulging “information or the destruction or obstruction thereof, or interference therewith, [which] would be useful to an enemy” – well-intended but with an exponentially risky purview. It would be time-consuming to even consider initiating a debate on who constitutes an ‘enemy’ in these times of troubled nationalism, but the fact remains that the RTI Act boldly says it will deliver, notwithstanding the Official Secrets Act, if “public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm to the protected interests”.

Yes, the RTI Act was indeed monumental. As it confidently promenaded along India’s public front, the writing on the wall was clear – corruption, which had permeated every crevice of administration, had to stop. As the fear grew in the echelons of power, applause and relief grew among the poorest of the poor. According to studies, the total bribe amount involved in a year in below poverty line (BPL) households availing just basic services was estimated to be INR 883 crores. In many of India’s villages which house these families, the RTI Act has been used to avail social benefit schemes like getting food ration for individuals, ensuring quality and quantity of mid-day meals, and pushing for teacher and doctor attendance. When it comes to the relatively better-off citizens, the Act was still used largely for issues like cleaning up the locality, availing scholarships, getting EPF money, receiving passport and processing education loans – going by the success stories displayed in the government’s RTI website. At this juncture, India cannot afford stray incidents to determine the fate of a tested and proven law that has benefited millions of lives.

Despite multiple attempts at diluting one of the strongest public interest legislations, the Act has survived – but the same cannot be said of many of its users. Lawyer Ram Kumar Thakur from Bihar exposed the MNREGS corruption of around 40 lakh by the corrupt village sarpanch, and was killed in 2013, shot at point blank range. Rinku Singh Sahi, a civil servant who exposed a 40 crore fraud in Uttar Pradesh was assaulted, detained, and admitted in a psychiatric ward in 2012. Reportedly, 289 attacks on RTI activists have occurred since the passing of the Act in 2005, including instances of murder, assault, kidnapping and threat calls.

However, with a well thought-out and futuristic plan, Rajasthan – the fountainhead of most things RTI – has taken giant leaps to censure the way a generation thinks; a way that does not feature questioning status quo, corruption, and injustice. This is not an isolated attempt at nipping free thought and an attitude of questioning. It is, in fact, one of the most recent nails in the coffin that aims to bury the rights to know and understand.

The world’s largest democracy, founded on justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, cannot afford to erase one of its biggest achievements – the right to information. Miserably, the recent past has painted a picture of a country which is increasingly intolerant when it comes to dealing with critique and uncomfortable questions. From lambasting the UN special rapporteur’s report that mentioned caste discrimination to concealing of caste figures of the Socio-economic and Caste Census 2011 (SECC), India has been playing its cards very, very close.

A full-fledged RTI Act retaining its original form is imperative to knowledge-empower India’s citizens. According to a 2009 study, the awareness levels about RTI among men was 53% higher than women, and the OBC/SC/ST categories trailed behind the ‘general’ category by 48%. Poor quality of information and officials’ perception of RTI as a time-wasting tool is also a much common complaint, despite an overwhelming majority of the RTIs being related to the delivery of basic needs and amenities. Additionally, implementation of RTI is an area that needs urgent attention, especially protection of whistleblowers, maintaining confidentiality of applicant identity and effective deduction of penalties. A dedicated office for RTI is required, with a focused effort to enhance the range and quality of the usage of RTI among citizens.

In 1910, Tagore visualised a land where the “mind is without fear” and “knowledge is free”. However, the Bard of Bengal certainly might not have imagined that things would turn drastically different a century later. The mind is with fear, and knowledge definitely comes at a price. An attitude change is a must – public information is a right, and not charity. Any attempts to dilute the Act and diminish its ambit must be warded off, ‘in public interest’, especially when it comes to denying upcoming generations their right to know about their right to know. It might profit the country to treat the blight before it consumes it, and make the essence of democracy an official secret.

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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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