Perspectives from women on the margins about the RTI act
In 2017 Sumit Chaturvedi conducted interviews in two slums of New Delhi- Munirka and Kusumpur Pahadi with women who work with or attend meetings of Satark Nagarik Sangathan (SNS), an organisation which works on awareness about Right To Information among other issues. The following are the experiences and excerpts from interviews of nine women who have used RTI act which reveal their perspectives about the act and its impact on their lives.
Pushpa: now aged 44, came to Delhi about a decade ago from Rajasthan with her husband and elder daughter. Married off, when she was only in class six, Pushpa could only study for two more years after being wed. Regretful for an early marriage and not having been able to complete her education she came to the national capital so that same fate did not befall her daughter. Living in Munirka, she started attended meetings of Satark Nagarik Sangathan around 2005. Around the same time, she filed her first RTI with the office of local Municipal Councillor regarding the conditions of roads around her slum. This RTI led to a first appeal hearing where she was threatened and intimidated by the officials, a memory that has had a lasting impression on her till now. Since then Pushpa has filed many RTI applications on various personal issues such as admission for her daughter under Economically Weaker Section (EWS) quota in a private school and now sees a palpable difference in her confidence and resilience since her early experiences with the bureaucracy. Now she is associated with the SNS as a mobiliser and helps other people who attend their weekly meetings.
Her perspective and views about the act- “RTI I feel is like a cane for a blind person. A person can be bold and not afraid and go and ask for information. Earlier there was no such option. Earlier they used to shoo them away like dogs. They used to chide and say “What is RTI”. The law was there. It was there since 2001 itself. But people were not aware. Women like us had no idea. When women like us are facing problems even today, then what about those who are not at all educated. What would happen of them. They amend this law again and again. Still we persist with it. Because I say that if RTI act is finished, the poor and the people from tribal communities in villages or in cities would face a lot of problems. And what all they are getting today, they won’t even get that.”
Vandana: is another mobiliser with the SNS like Pushpa who also lives in Munirka. After getting married in 2002, she came to Delhi a year later. Her life trajectory resembles Pushpa’s in more than one way. She too couldn’t study beyond class eighth and regrets her lack of education. She also wanted her daughter to have a chance at good education. Her first RTI application was regarding her daughter’s admission in a private school for which she was facing problems from the school administration. She also came to know about the act from SNS meetings. Subsequently she filed RTIs on various issues such as the maintenance and operations of the public toilet in her slum, an issue for which she faced a lot of flak from her local neighbours who preferred to side with the corrupt management of the toilet facility than to stand with her. In face of resistance and opposition from many for her activism, much like Pushpa, Vandana too persevered. She regrets that not having a tool like RTI and not being properly informed about her options for education earlier in life, she missed out on opportunities for being better educated. But today she helps people to use the RTI act to get the information and resolutions that they need.
Her perspective regarding the act- “When RTI was not there nobody knew what were their rights and entitlements. They had no information about the RTI act. These schools and hospitals are there since long before us. The government provided them land at cheap prices but on the condition that poor people will get admission or treatment in them under economically backward quota. But I didn’t get admission in the APJ school next to my camp and I couldn’t study. This was because I did not have the information. When the RTI act came in 2005 I came to know that children can study in the school when I asked for information through the act. If this act had already been there, we could have also studied and made something of ourselves.”
Madhubala: is a stay at home mother who stays in Munirka. She came to know about the RTI after she started coming to the meetings held by SNS in Munirka in 2011. Her first RTI was regarding the potholes in the road by the Shamshan Bhoomi near her locality which after some delaying and intimidating tactics from the officers, got repaired eventually. The second time around she had to file it for the widow pension that she used to get, but had been stopped for about three years, without telling her the reason. After the application the pension was reinstated in November last year but stopped again in March this year. The reason for her pension being stopped was that her account information was incorrect, but not having been informed about this reason either, she was unable to fix the problem for such a long time, instead frantically running between different offices trying to figure out the same.
Parvati: is an octogenarian who attends the Munirka camp meetings of SNS. She is illiterate and sells corn or eggs by the roadside to earn her living. To supplement her meagre income, she depends greatly upon her old age pension. Parvati had been receiving the widow pension for a long time which got converted to old age pension later. In all she had been living off pensions for about 25 to 30 years which recently got stopped for about 15 months. After filing an RTI and subsequent first and second appeal hearings, she finally got it reinstated only to be stopped again for past six months because now the money was being transferred to her zero-balance account opened some time back, without telling her about this change. Now she is trying to access her new account to be able to get her money.
Nirmala: attends the Kusumpur Pahadi meetings of SNS. She has twice filed RTI applications, once for ration and another time for Laadli Yojana for her daughter. An illiterate, Nirmala brings her daughter Neetu to appeal hearings when required. From being earlier dismissed, threatened and intimidated by public officials to now being offered a seat and refreshments in their offices, Nirmala notices discernible changes in the attitude of bureaucracy, all due to her foray into RTI usage and her association with SNS.
Kusum: was also interviewed at the Kusumpur Pahadi meeting. She has been associated with SNS since 2008 and now works as a mobiliser. It was her general inquisitiveness that brought her to SNS meetings where she received training for about two years to learn all about the RTI act. Her RTI applications have been about the high prices of ration at the local ration shop, unavailability of oil at the ration shop, maintenance and management of the public toilet in her locality and many other such issues. An outspoken woman, Kusum helps out women who attend the SNS meeting in filing RTI applications and appearing for hearings at the first appeal and the second appeal stages.
Usha: perhaps has had the most harrowing and terrible experiences because of filing RTI out of all the respondents. She got associated with SNS about five years back. She filed an RTI because her local ration shopkeeper was giving out less than designated amount of sugar in monthly ration for about six months and used to give sugar only once in six months. Having had a bullying experience at the hands of the shopkeeper, what followed after filing the RTI was even worse. One of her neighbours from her locality kept forcing her to sign a paper which absolved the ration dealer and the officials in the ration department of all the allegations of impropriety that they had indulged in. When Usha refused, the neighbour left no stone unturned to make her miserable. From preventing her from taking water from the local public pipeline to getting her son falsely convicted, the neighbour did everything to break Usha. Today the case against Usha’s son lingers and she remains affected by her concern for her son. She ponders if there had been more women back then standing with her, if things might have turned out differently.
Her response to what she feels has changed for her since starting to use the RTI act- “Now I am able to speak more assertively because earlier I never used to be able to speak about anything to anyone. I used to start crying if things got tough. Now there is a big difference. I can talk to people now. Now I feel stronger from inside to be able to speak up. If someone says something I can respond to some extent.”
Prema: first used the RTI act in 2012. Her ration card had been stopped for two and a half years. Before filing RTI application she had to keep running between offices to get the card reinstated and the only response that she used to get was that her card is “locked” in the computer. Once after receiving a pamphlet for the SNS meetings she reluctantly came to one of the sessions. It was here that she came to know about the option of filing RTI application. The matter got resolved only after the second appeal stage where it was also ordered that she should be compensated monetarily for the time period that she had to buy ration elsewhere. However, the department challenged the order in the court. Prema has been to the court multiple times but the case is still pending.
Kamala: too like Prema attends the meetings at Kusumpur Pahadi camp of SNS. She had to use the RTI act to know about the irregularity in the supply of sugar at the ration shop. For about four months she kept running to different shops and offices to get her ration but to no avail. It was only when she obtained the information from the official records and confronted the ration shop, that after some dilly-dallying the shopkeeper gave her some portion of her pending ration while still denying some of her share of sugar. Kamla being an illiterate requires guidance to use the act and file applications but her daughter who is educated and receives the youth group training with the SNS helps her out in these matters.