Friday, December 6, 2013

Ghosts from the past

We have a tendency to be very emotional about our history. Their chest swells to twice its size with a feeling of superiority which germs from the glorious tales of their ancestors. Once this sentiment comes into being, the politicians begin to reinforce these beliefs. So, even if they ruin the future by their present actions, their speeches about the past are enough for people to blindly support them.
Once we, as a society, take more pride in our past than what we are right now; it should be inferred that we are moving backwards. And those who criticize this are labeled as being insensitive to the great deeds of historic figures. One is also made to face pointless questions like “Why did you bring this up about this particular persona?” “And why not during another?” “Is your criticism not stemming from your caste?” “Would you have dared to speak up if it were a figure that belonged to that religion instead of this one?” These arguments make you wonder whether our society, in general, is mentally stable.
And like any patient suffering from mental disorders, the society too must take therapy or consultation from a counselor. For the counseling of society, literary greats, journalists, social activists, teachers, professors and others should come forward and persistently show the way forward.

The reason behind writing this is the recent course of events that have transpired in the city. A proposal to change University of Pune’s name to ‘Dnyanjyoti Savitribai Phule Pune University’ has been passed in majority by the senate of the University and has been forwarded to the state government. It is a tradition all over the world to name buildings, roads, government schemes, universities after historical figures, and there is nothing wrong with it. It always is a great reminder of that person’s contribution to society. It can also be seen as a mark of respect shown by the people towards that person. Therefore there is no reason why new roads, buildings or schemes should not be named after these figures.
However, irrationality creeps in when names of existing bodies are changed. Firstly, why is there a need to replace an existing name by naming it after a person from history? Fundamentally, the need for a name is to create an identity. Once a name is given, the place or event or a building for that matter, can easily be identified. Why, then, is there a need to change names? By doing so, all we are doing is living in a past. For instance, the name of Mumbai’s Victoria Terminus was changed to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. If you look at that structure, it is one of the best examples of Victorian architecture.  When the British came to power, they never changed the name of Raigad to ‘Fort Edward’ and neither did Shaniwaarwada become ‘King George Wada’. Similarly, even after they left, it wouldn’t make any difference to its functionality had VT remained to be known as VT. Besides that, renaming a structure built by the British in honour of Shivaji Maharaj is not only illogical, but on some level, defeats the very purpose of honour.
By inflating the pride of the people by this and other such re-namings, the issues of the present often get neglected. By always playing a hand based on the cards of the past, some of our leaders keep abusing power in the pretext of being proud of their history, while doing nothing about the present.
History should prompt us to create new history. But that willingness is never generated, neither is one allowed to act   differently and at the same time, we are simply looking to hold back those who try to change things around us. In summary, our society is trapped in a disparity between singing songs of praise about history and being an escapist when it comes to act. Probably, we are simply trying to hide our present impotence by taking our past out on a procession. That, according to me, is a very serious social problem.
I dream of a society that takes inspiration from history to move forward towards newer horizons – where schools, universities, bridges, roads and buildings are named after historical figures, so as take motivation from them; where people strive to maintain standards of these places named after their great heroes; where people won’t try to erase existing names just in order to demonstrate their superiority for the sake of historical feuds. And most importantly, I dream of a society where civic studies gets more weight age than history; where it is considered more important to be a good citizen in today’s world, than to glorify something that has happened centuries ago.
Reminiscing old times and memories is something people do in the twilight of their life. That is not expected from us, a country known as the world’s youngest nation today. The sooner we rid ourselves from the ghosts of our past, the better chances we have of becoming an omnipotent society.

-Translated by Omkar Rege.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

A step forward- Right to Information Act

In a democratic country the first step towards good governance is voting. But voting is not just good enough. You need to keep a close eye on your elected government. That’s your Step no.2. In order to do that, Right to Information Act is one of the best tools that Indian citizens have got in past 65 years of independence.

The Right to Information Act was implemented in India on October 12, 2005. It is quite possible that our politicians did not completely understand the power of this law; else they wouldn’t have been so forthcoming in giving it a nod. Or maybe, with a holistic understanding of what this law could do, our politicians implemented the law to keep a tab on the bureaucrats that, over the years, had become a thorn in the eyes of the rulers. Whatever the reasons may be, after the implementation of this law, a series of unearthing of several corrupt practices started to roll. The scandals that would remain hidden in the past started becoming accessible to common people at a nominal access fee. The government’s misgivings started getting exposed. This law is based on the simple principle that if this is our government, then we have a right to access its paperwork. Therefore, leaving aside documents of National security and documents that come under the official secrets act, all government documents are available to citizens. The law is definitely one of the most landmark laws made in post-independence India.

‘Misuse’ is a lie
After the law began being used widely, there also began a huge hue and cry about how it is being misused. There couldn’t be a more baseless argument than this one. The information gathered under this law was said to be used to hold government officials ransom. Primarily, how could an official be blackmailed, had he/she not engaged in any wrongdoing in the first place? How is it just to engage in malpractices and corruption and then point fingers at people threatening to expose them? Of course, just like it is wrong for the traffic police to ask for a bribe from an offender, it is wrong if someone is using the information for blackmailing the officials. But at the same time, for the offender to be fined, there is a significant need for the existence of the traffic police. Right to Information Act is also a kind of a traffic police – a vigilante to keep a tab those entering the no-entry lane of corruption. The trouble is that the amount of people entering this lane is so high, that the existing police mechanism isn’t sufficient. Besides, just like traffic officials were beaten up in the city a while back, similar attempts keep happening against the RTI activists. But this will not deter these activists from doing their moral duties because it is the need of the hour. As one can infer, if people start hoarding into a no-entry lane, the traffic comes to a standstill. The same is true of our nation’s progress. To not let this happen, we, at Parivartan, make it a point to train more and more people to join the force.
The second most common accusation against the RTI activists is that they ask for irrelevant information. This charge is equally baseless. Who is to decide whether a certain document has been demanded unnecessarily or whether it is really important? Will the officials themselves decide whether a particular piece of information is important or not? In addition to that, another issue that comes forward is that it is practically impossible for a common man to ask for specific information from a government office. In such cases, it becomes more convenient to simply get a hold of all of the information and then personally sit down and weed out the unnecessary documents. For instance, if I sense some corruption in the functioning of a government project, I may not know at what step in the system the corruption is taking place (let’s be real, how could I?). So, under the RTI, I ask for a copy of all the files related to that project. I also pay the charges of Rs 2 per page to obtain the said copies. Some of the files I obtain may end up not being useful at all, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t ask for them at all.
Everyone has heard the anecdote about Thomas Alva Edison inventing the light bulb after failing in hundreds of previous attempts. Researching through the RTI is a similar enquiry. People who expect RTI activists to specifically ask for the information that is of concern are the same people who ask why Edison didn’t try the 100th way first.
Yet another objection from the officials is that the number of RTI applications is so high that it bites into their work. This may not be a complete hogwash, but this claim is only partially acceptable. Because the RTI law itself states that every government office must appoint an RTI officer to entertain applications from the people. But in most cases, one of the existing members of the office is made into a part time RTI officer. How will that person cater to both his responsibilities? Obviously then, the RTI starts to feel like an infringement into his/her work. The lack of man power shows the inefficiency of the government and also proves that the law is flawless.
Some people also believe that a certain group of people use this law for personal benefits than for social welfare. This is why; the RTI is seen as a whim of a person infected by the bug of activism. However, what needs to be made clear right now is that the personal use of the RTI is a right of every citizen of this country and in fact, such use must be encouraged. What if a senior citizen’s pension payment is being held back by an official? What if the official is then asking for a bribe? Then, under the RTI, he could ask all the questions like – 1. Under which law has the pension been held back? 2. What is the procedure? 3. And if a complaint has to be filed against the officer illegally holding back the pension, where should it be filed? 4. After the complaint is lodged, what are the specifications with respect to time and which laws are applicable for the same? Now, if the senior citizen uses the RTI for this personal benefit, what is wrong in that?
That apart, the law doesn’t ask you to state reasons behind demanding any document. Therefore, whether it is a personal query or for social welfare, is not a matter of concern. Not every oppressed person in this huge country of ours has backing from an organisation and neither is it necessary that every person has to have this backing. Every single independent citizen of India can individually use the RTI to put an end to the oppression by the government agencies.
To summarise, the claims that the RTI is being misused is entirely false and misdirected. The anti-RTI propaganda is itself proof enough of how effective the law really is.

Politicians smothering the law
Maharashtra’s state government has tried to put conditions like imposing a word limit on the RTI application and to restrict applicants to only one query per application. Not a single political party from the state has raised their voice against this irrationality. But an interesting turn of events with respect to the stand on the RTI took place recently.

A few months ago, the Central Information Commissioner (CIC) appointed by this law, passed a decision that brought political parties under the purview of the RTI. That caused chaos in most political parties. Because, all the accounts of the party’s funds, expenditures, would now be open. Everyone would know whether the internal politics of a party follows democratic procedure. Party leadership must be under pressure that people might see the corrupt practices and use of brute force in the operations of the party. Therefore, an amendment that renders the CIC’s decision moot was tabled in the parliament. The peoples’ representatives themselves came forth to strangle and smother the law that empowers the people.
When the Congress party presented this amendment, the aspiring BJP also joined hands initially1. And now that the BJP changed its stand and opposed this amendment2, the proposal was forwarded to the standing committee for further discussion. When this proposal is actually put to vote in the parliament, every party’s point of view will obviously come forth clearly, but there is no need to wait that long. Because according to the CIC decision passed on June 3, 2013, it was expected from all political parties to nominate their Public Information Officer and voluntarily disclose all information (according to section 4 of the law) within six weeks3, i.e. July 15. Of the six national parties, if one checks how many have actually implemented this order, the answer, sadly, is none (check their official websites if you like). Should one assume that the parties are unwilling to come under the purview of the RTI?
Our parliament follows representative democracy. Our PM is not elected directly by the people, but is selected from among the elected representatives. Therefore, no matter which good soul is selected as the head of the nation, the parliament functions majorly due to the other 543 MPs. Laws are passed based on the opinion of the majority party or the majority coalition of 272 members or more. If the BJP, Congress, NCP, BSP, SP, CPI and other major parties in this country are going to refuse to bring transparency in their operations, then it is a matter of grave concern, according to us. And if the parties don’t want to be transparent in their internal functioning, one might wonder how transparent they will be in running the country. And it is fairly conclusive that where there is a lack of transparency, corruption and other malpractices will bloom. Therefore, we urge the political parties to voluntarily show us the willingness to be open about their operations and show that they are working honestly, for the people, through their actions.

Information is Power
The RTI is a very strong tool. However, the fact remains that Government’s mechanism to successfully implement this act has fallen way short, especially with regards to section 4. This section lists the subjects whose information has to be voluntarily made available by any government office. This list consists of 17 categories – all the employees, their designations and duties, their salaries, details of the work undertaken by the office, the law under which this office operates, the agenda set to accomplish the office’s objectives, minutes of the meetings, financial estimates, account details and other such important details. The section also says that this information should be available on the website of these departments for a normal citizen’s ease of access. It is also expected to update this information on an annual basis. If this section is well and truly implemented across all the departments of the government, total transparency will no longer be a utopian dream. But this doesn’t seem to be the consensus in government offices.
Why should the people have to file applications under the RTI? If the government willingly publishes all this information then it will easily empower the people and make way for a cleaner system. Most of the government’s administrative problems begin with a certain lack of transparency. All the laws are not easily available for access to us. What laws govern the functioning of the PMC? Who governs the process of working at such agencies? On the basis of which law was Pune’s Development plan chalked? – These are some of the things a common man can never get his hands on. It is not feasible to go to the market and buy a book every time. The laws keep changing and it doesn’t make sense to buy the same book over and over again, every time there is an amendment. Technological advances have made it possible to store and distribute large amount of information very easily. Why isn’t this information, be it laws, documents or other details, digitised and published on websites where it could be easily tracked by any ordinary citizen. But these websites too are severely sub-standard. The official website of the Indian Parliament, however, is really commendable. It consists of all the new proposals, bills, information about the MPs, the questions they raised in the house and the Government’s response to those questions as well as the attendance of a particular MP is readily available. Why can’t this amount of transparency exist in the Maharashtra State Assembly’s website? Or in the PMC website, for that matter? Pune is known as the IT hub but the PMC’s latest update is not directly available through their site. The decisions taken by various committees of the PMC are unavailable. And no one seems to want to look into this matter seriously.
Recently, while speaking to a PMC officer, he revealed, “Even if we make the laws accessible, what do people understand from them?” My response is that as long as you don’t provide people with material to read, analyse and understand, how will they begin to comprehend what goes on in the system? Was the RTI used only people well versed in the field of law? On the contrary, most RTI activists are common people and have mastered the craft from self-experience and by reading the law. Open the doors of information to the people and see how enthusiastic they are about it. But everything is chaos right now. No one can figure out what goes on inside the offices of the government. When this happens, the people start to drift away from their government. This disinterest and cynicism has developed among the people due to this deceitful operation that the officials engage in. People need to be taken into confidence; it must be made sure that the information reaches to the very last person and they must be made a part of the decision making process. And if our political parties are going to lag behind in doing this, we will have to be bold enough to question them and those rejecting the offer of transparency even after questioning should be shown the door when the opportunity comes.

In today’s scenario, the politicians and government officials know more about the laws than the citizens in general. Therefore they appear to be superior. But when the people have the same amount of information available to them, it is then that we will have set foot on the right course towards an ideal democracy.

-Translated by Omkar Rege.
(Original Marathi article is published in weekly Vivek of 14th October 2013)

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Celebrating over nothing

The Supreme Court recently passed a judgment to introduce a button to select ‘None of the Above’ (NOTA) as an option on the voting machines. The educated middle-class section of the society has taken this decision as a marquee for radical change in our political system and considers it to be a cause for celebration. However, my views on this subject differ greatly and need to be expressed firmly.

Many people believe that this decision will result in an increase in the voting percentage. Some people are also hopeful that this will be a great improvement in our democracy. I believe that the falling percentage in voting isn’t the main problem here; it is lack of faith in politics. The decrease in voting is simply a symptom of this greater sickness. The utter ignorance that our middle-class has towards government and politics is general is as clear as it can get. Blessed with the capabilities of understanding who is governing us and how they are doing it, the middle class is more than proficient to make informed decisions. But, instead of performing their own duties, the middle class shows a tendency of criticizing the government beyond reason.

For instance, after the last Lok Sabha elections, I asked a man why he didn’t vote. “All candidates are the same. You just cannot pick one of them. Sab chor hain!”, he replied. Then, I asked him whether he could name all the candidates he had available to choose from and what his views were regarding the promises put forth in each of their election manifestoes. Sadly, he couldn’t answer any of my questions. He hadn’t even glanced through a simple pamphlet of the candidates who would later represent him in the lower house of the parliament. The next question I asked was that how could he reach to a conclusion that all of them are bad if he had no idea who the contestants were in the first place? The man had absolutely no answers.
When I discussed this issue with a friend the other day, he pointed out that I am expecting too much if I want all the people to read the manifestoes of all the contesting candidates. He said that our people are not that responsible. To that, I ask, if these people are not even willing to make a minimal effort during elections, and if they are so irresponsible, then, should these reckless people be given the NOTA option? Who can guarantee that the innately pessimistic section of the society won’t go ahead and hit the button without any prior thought or rationale? Who can guarantee that a few genuinely good candidates won’t suffer at the hands of these negligent voters?

Our educated class doesn’t show up to choose an option from among those available and neither does it come forward with alternatives in case they are not satisfied with the options that are available at the moment. It becomes the elected candidate’s responsibility to represent his/her people. But just because you don’t know or like a particular candidate, you don’t vote. Add to that an overall lack of courage to voluntarily suggest a new option, and you will get a majority of our citizens today.
“The savior must be born, but in the neighbor’s home” remains the dominant mentality. Plus, even if a savior is born, the tendency then is not to help him, but to hold him back. In such a situation, one may think whether the British were running our country far better than we are. But the shameless masses might go ahead and agree that we should actually call the Brits back to rule us.

Election means the process of ‘electing’ someone. What point are we trying to make by saying we want NOTA? Some people argue that this will force political parties to field a good candidate. But people are not even willing to accept that as an option. It is not that no political party is incapable of providing us with a decent candidate. And even if they do, no one can guarantee that our people will be informed, aware and responsible enough to vote that candidate into power. The candidates fielded by political parties will improve their standards when candidates better than them start contesting elections. And an example that the best candidate will win needs to be set. But this responsibility lies with the voter. In the battleground of democratic elections, the alternative to a person has to be a person. ‘None of the above’ cannot be an option. This will only lead to a rise in pessimism and the process of change will come to a standstill. I am okay with some people believing that the system can be changed without actually entering it. However, if the majority starts to think like this, we can see ourselves going in the direction of utter chaos and anarchy.

With respect to the freedom of expression given in the Indian constitution, it is fair that I have a right to reject all candidates. But it is also important to follow my duties as a citizen. In times where we are aggressive about our rights and least bothered by our duties, this option may end up being a bane. Besides, the romanticized concept of instant change that is being propagated by this decision will only end up in disillusionment.
The only way to improve politics is by entering it, backing the right candidates, voting for them and getting them elected; not by saying ‘none of the above’. Therefore I urge the educated middle class to realize that their celebrations over the introduction of this new button on the voting machines, is short-lived and that the only way that the system will improve is by pro-active participation.

-Translated by Omkar Rege.
(Original Marathi article was published in Maharashtra Times of 3rd November 2013)