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Saturday, January 6, 2007

Striking the right chord

HT, Rathin Das, Ahmedabad, June 30, 2006: The hand has right to know why it is without work; the leg has right to know why it has to walk long; the hungry has right to know whyfood-grains rot in the godowns; the child has right toknow why he toils day and night; the river has right to know why its waters are being poisoned by the factory effluents.
These are just few lines of a song composed by activist couple Vinay Mahajan and Charul Bharwada to enthuse the volunteers working for the fortnight-long campaign for assisting citizens in the use of the Right to Information Act (RTI Act).
Nearly 70 civil society organisations in Gujarat have teamed up to coordinate the campaign under the banner of Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (Gujarat Initiative for Right to Information). Though the campaign is being officially launched from July 1, a telephone helpline started by the apex body has received more than 900 calls in the 45 days of its operation. To the surprise of the campaign organizers,it was found that 67 per cent of the calls were from common people like street vendors, labourers, farmers and poor villagers.
They all enquired about the reasons for lack of school, or PHCs not having medicines, or non-issue of ration cards — much the same as some lines of the song composed for the occasion. But what the emotive song composed by the singer duo could not anticipate was that in some cases poor people have indeed faced harassment for having asked embarrassing questions under the RTI Act.
Upon asking the municipal authorities whether his house was due for demolition under the new Town Planning rule, a house owner in Ahmedabad was threatened by an Estate Office staff. In Mehsana, people living in shanties have genuine fears that they might attract municipal bulldozers if they dare to seek information about delays in ration cards distribution, said environment activist Rahul Mangaonkar.
Prof Jagdeep Chokar of IIM-A, the campaign coordinator, said that misuse of the Act cannot be ruled out but hastened to add that the main purpose is to bring in transparency in administration.

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