The nation is outraged about the unwarranted amendments in the Right to Information (RTI) Amendment Bill 2019, which have been passed by the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha last week, threatening to downgrade the status of the Central and state information commissions. If the President signs the bill, which is presently on his table, the amended RTI Act will empower the Central and state governments to decide the salaries and tenure of information commissioners, as per their will and fancy. The move is clearly and brazenly calculated to summarily boot out those central information commissioners (CICs) and state information commissioners (SCICs) who give orders that hurt the powers-that-be.
Pune is naturally at the forefront of the protests, since two well-respected public figures, Anna Hazare through on-the-ground campaigns across Maharashtra and Prakash Kardaley through the power of his pen and by connecting RTI activists across the country through an impressive network, fought tooth and nail to help bring in the RTI Act 2005. Well-acclaimed bureaucrat turned social activist Aruna Roy, through her Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatana (MKSS), first pioneered the RTI movement in Rajasthan, which then spread to other parts of the country.
That the RTI Amendment Bill 2019 has disturbed the citizens was amply evident in the citizen protest held near Balgandharva Mandir, located on the arterial Jangli Maharaj Road of Pune, on 30th July evening. Last Friday, some of us working in the RTI field like Vijay Kumbhar, Vishwambhar Choudhari, Asim Sarode, Vivek Velankar, Jugal Rathi, Tanmay Kanitkar (youth leader) and self promptly organised a public meeting under the banner, `Mahiti-adhakar Vachva Andolan’ (Save RTI campaign). About 100 citizens, despite heavy rains, attended it and signed the petition we had made to the President of India, Shri Ram Nath Kovind, appealing to him not to sign the bill. This appeal has been sent to him.
We also decided to hold a public protest with mobile torches at the Balgandharva Chowk. What was interesting is that word went around like wildfire through the social media – particularly Twitter and Facebook. With a number of youngsters and several others who represented various social organisations having attended the first meeting, they spread the word around through their Facebook and Twitter accounts. Such a spontaneous urge to be a part of an important citizen campaign was indeed heartening.
Pune witnessed heavy rains since the morning of Tuesday but the air of concern for the dilution of this citizen-friendly Act seemed so overpowering that between 6 pm and 7 pm, around 300 citizens thronged the venue. Most of us did not know each other, unlike other events where you are connected. Senior citizens, women, young boys and girls joined the chorus. They urged us to start a Twitter hashtag #PuneSaveRTICampaign and a FB page so that they would be in the loop about our next step and it would help them spread the word quicker.
The protests comprised slogan-shouting to save RTI and lighting of mobile torches. The ambience was one of positivity and joy amidst the greenery that dots the hustle-bustle of Jangli Maharaj Road. Vishwambhar Choudhari stated that “The government has taken undue advantage of its brute majority and without any precipitation has assaulted the nerve centre of the RTI Act, that is, Section 3 which pertains to the powers of information commissioners. Hence, this campaign, if need be will conclude with a public protest in Azad Maidan, Mumbai. For this, we will make a network of activists from all districts of Maharashtra.’’
Vijay Kumbhar stated that “We must all understand that the RTI Act, which is the only citizen-empowering Act and the ownership is with the citizens, must be protected at all costs. We must also not forget that in a democracy, citizens are the masters and the elected representatives are our caretakers and so the latter should not do any harm that is against citizens’ interest.”
Youth leader, Tanmay Kanitkar stated that “These amendments should make the citizens suspicious of the intentions of the government as it wants to withhold crucial information that the public has the right to know.’’
The protests ended with the national anthem and with a vow that the network will continue to collectively put pressure on the government.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.