We’ve done a good job of saving the Republic from our leaders

At a recent function in New Delhi, Amartya Sen observed that it wouldn’t be right to say there has been a decline in our democracy because “we have enormously more power to make society better than we are led to believe”.

Sen did not say where this enormous power vests but it is safe to assume he was referring to the inner strength of the nation.

Socialist political thinker Surendra Mohan was more specific. Speaking with Governance Now hours before his passing, Mohan echoed Ratan Tata’s outburst about India becoming a banana republic. On the face of it, Mohan seemed to be in agreement with Tata but he was actually making a starkly different point: “It is Ratan Tata who is turning India into a banana republic (voh bana rahe hain),” he said. Obviously, he was not referring to Ratan Tata the individual, but what he symbolises: big business as the Siamese twin of politics, together contorting public policy and distorting democracy.

Mohan was not as despondent as Tata either. He said it will take a long while before India becomes a banana republic because of its resilience and the strength of the fabric that knits the nation. If this inner strength expresses itself unequivocally and powerfully, he said, India may yet be saved.

In a year that epitomised corruption and moral degradation at the highest levels of the executive, politics, business, police, army, judiciary, media and paralysed every limb of the state, it is difficult not to agree with the theory of this enormous unseen power continuing to bind the nation.

However impossible it is to put your finger on this unseen force, it is easy to see where it is NOT coming from. This is not the power that flows from the top of the pyramid down. It is definitely not the power that flows from the integrity, honesty and morality of our leaders because there is so little of it on display. Every leader and every institution, public or professional, has only belied the trust of the people in recent times.

Yet, we are holding on reasonably well as a nation.

It follows then that this national glue, this binding force, flows from the bottom up and can simply be defined as the unflinching faith and trust, even child-like innocence, of the ordinary citizens in placing the destiny of the nation in the hands of the leaders while they themselves wage a daily struggle for survival, resolutely and uncomplainingly. Just one example underscores this innocence of the trusting and the abuse of it by the trusted: the government gifted Rs 1,76,000 crore (one lakh seventy six thousand crore) worth of spectrum to the rich at throwaway prices but allowed millions of tonnes of surplus foodgrain to rot because it was cheaper to throw away than to give away to the hungry!

It might well be the fate of the base to bear the burden of the top, but it takes special strength, stamina and steel to absorb the kind of blows the corroding top has been striking. There are times when we see this strength as a national weakness, times when we hope this patience, this resilience snaps and we land up with the revolution that we believe is just one nudge away.

Maybe we romanticise the common man, maybe we attach great virtue to the ordinary citizens’ necessity, their helplessness. Maybe they have no option other than to just get on, to just be, to just exist. Maybe this resilience is just resignation, an excuse for collective inaction.

But then, maybe it’s their strength, too, because to resign is to face the reality that there are no options and to have options is to have the chance to escape the reality. That’s perhaps why it’s the elite, who have set up the system, run it and exploited it to the hilt, who will talk about the “banana republic” and warn about migrating to habitable shores. For the ordinary millions that is not even a passing thought.

If it is true, as we all know it is, that any structure is the strongest at its base and weakest and most vulnerable at the highest, then it is also true that it is the ordinary citizen who stands between India and the banana republic, not our leaders.

That is why, for this Republic Day (also Governance Now’s first birthday), in our print edition we celebrate the powerhouse of this inner strength: the ordinary citizen, the faceless Indian, the unseen force. None of the protagonists of the stories we have featured in our print edition would have made the cut on another day. None of them (other than H D Shourie who we feature posthumously as the icon of the common man) impacts society in any way or has a message to give. They have all been chosen for their utter ordinariness. We believe that their ordinariness, their simplicity and honesty, raised to the power of a billion and more, is what we generally refer to as the nation’s inner strength.

And, yes, wish you a Happy Republic Day! Minus the banana, of course!

Reproduction of an article by B V Rao, editor, Governance Now

SOURCE URL: http://www.governancenow.com/news/regular-story/weve-done-good-job-saving-republic-our-leaders


How to file RTI plea (without getting killed)

Along with the spread of awareness about the Right to Information (RTI) Act, the threat on those using the law to expose corruption has also increased.

Every time an RTI applicant seeks information which has the potential to unearth the wrongdoings of influential people, he or she is at risk. In some cases, the threat remains limited to phone calls and in others, it cost the applicant his or her life.

Here are some of the points which, if considered, can reduce this threat level and make the RTI law more meaningful:

1. Disseminate the information: As soon as you receive sensitive information through the RTI Act, spread it among others. More people having the information reduces the threat risk to an individual.

2. Multiple applications on one issue: It is always better if many people file RTI queries asking for the same set of information. If the applicants are geographically spread across the country, it is even better.

3. Target the system, not individuals: If you are able to expose irregularities in the system, the officials involved will be held responsible by default. Before filing the application, try to search for a group of activists/applicants working on the cause which you want to take up. If possible, file the application on behalf of that group.

4 When your receive information from a public authority, intimate the head of that public authority about it.

5. Do not use the act as a blackmailing tool. The objective is of the act is to bring transparency in the government functioning and not to blackmail someone.

6. Be polite while interacting with the public information officers. They are just part of the big system.

7. In case your query is directed to an official or an individual, avoid direct contact with that person.

8. Approach police when you get the first threat call/threat in person.

(These suggestions are based on the views of leading RTI activists across the country)

This appeared on governancenow.com, January 25, 2011

RTI: The challenge from within

The other day I was in the office of Delhi’s lieutenant governor (LG).  I was talking to an officer – one of the most honest and efficient in the current lot serving the Delhi government – about the loopholes in the administrative mechanism and the initiatives LG has taken to fix the same.  The focus of the talk shifted to the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

The officer narrated to me an incident, and proudly so, of denying information to an RTI applicant. The applicant, he informed, had asked very technical and specific questions regarding the Yamuna action plan. After going through the questions, this officer phoned the applicant. He turned out to be a research student from the JNU who wanted the information for his thesis.  The officer conveyed to him that it was “unfair” on his part to file an RTI application to obtain this information and he could personally come to the LG office and collect the same.

Legally, the officer was holding the information and could have passed on the same to the applicant. But this, he told me, was one of the many instances in the past, where he had withheld the information.

The officer had just finished telling me about the episode and was expecting applause from me, when another gentleman, an employee in a government office, took the opportunity to recount his experience as a public information officer (PIO).

He told us how he asked an applicant to submit Rs 10,000 towards the cost of gathering the data he had sought in the RTI query. The applicant, the gentleman said, never got back to the office. “You should know ways to deal with such people. They just waste our time and the resources of the system,” he concluded.

One can find such examples of PIOs coming up with flimsy reasons for denying information, in almost all the government offices.

Much has been said about the success of the RTI Act. Praising the law as one of the most revolutionary pieces of legislation, Wajahat Habibullah, the former information commissioner at the CIC, said, “it has caught the imagination of the entire country.”

According to Gopalkrishna Gandhi, former administrator, ‘RTI’ has become the most popular abbreviation in India, second only to ‘CrPC’.

To an extent, they are right.

The transparency act has surpassed many laws in the country in terms of awareness – thanks to civil society.  However, the very objective of the act, that is, to make the system more transparent and accessible to the general public has not been achieved.

And one of the many reasons why the idea of having a transparent democracy has not translated into a reality is the attitude of public servants, who are supposed to provide information to the applicant within a given deadline without asking him/her the reason for demanding information.

Public information officers (PIOs) are the first link between the applicant and the information.

Five years since the law came into existence, the attitude of the PIOs is to keep the records close to their chest rather than passing them on to the applicant who has the legal right to ask for the same.

This is because PIOs are the people who, for years, worked in an environment where they were in the practice of withholding information.

More than anything else, it is about mindset.  And asking for the mindset to change overnight will be asking for too much.

This appeared on governancenow.com on January 17, 2011


Pray heed this call from Shahjahani masjid

The dark blanket over Agra is withering away in the face of the oncoming dawn. As if on cue, and seemingly oblivious of the December chill, a bearded, well-built 35-year-old man dressed in a navy blue Pathani suit and skull cap settles barefoot on a mat and begins to recite the holy Quran. He is seated in the Shahjahani masjid, in the Taj Mahal complex towards the left of the monument to love, a setting that lends an almost surreal aura to the scene.

Within a couple of minutes, he glances at his wrist watch and places the Quran on a surmounted bracket. Soon he is joined by two men and the three together start offering the Fajr namaz, or the first prayer of the day. The two men take leave after the prayer but he goes on with his recitation for another hour and then starts praying with the rosary. He will be back to repeat this ritual twice in the afternoon before the sun sets. The faithful, visitors as well as workers at the country’s leading tourist attraction, are sure to join him in larger numbers for the next two prayers. After the third prayer, he will collect the skull caps left on the mats by the devotees and call it a day.

Imam Syed Sadiq Ali has followed this routine religiously since 2002, when he took over from his father, Syed Sabiq Ali who performed the duty for 26 long years before him.

Syed Sadiq Ali at Taj Mahal outside Shahjahani mosque

For his services, which take up most of his day every day, Syed Sadiq Ali gets just Rs 15 per month as salary from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) which is in charge of the upkeep of the monument.

Rs 15 per month? Isn’t the amount a small fraction of even the minimum daily wage mandated for unskilled workers?

Incredible as it may seem, the ASI has not only neglected to revise the salary but has also refused to pay heed to persistent pleas in this regard.

Syed Sadiq Ali lives in Katra Phulail with his wife, three sons and two brothers in a joint family just a half kilometre from Taj Mahal’s eastern gate. His elder brother, Sajid, is a class IV employee at the monument complex and the younger, Tariq, runs a leather business. Ali himself ran a grocery shop for some time in a bid to make ends meet. However, he had to shut it down because he realised he had no aptitude to recover the dues from his customers who mostly bought things on credit. Being an imam, he could teach the Quran though and so he started offering tuitions at home.

Does he manage to make enough? “Bas kaam chalane jitna ho jaata hai (It is just enough for sustenance)?” says Ali, without offering a figure, but adds that this is supplemented by some help from his brothers.

But why is the ASI paying him just Rs 15 per month? The story goes that when the mosque was built, it was declared that salary of the imam would be equal to the worth of 10 gram of gold. This worked out to Rs 15 when Ali’s father joined the mosque in 1966. “My father told me that the salary used to be Rs 10 earlier, but it was revised to Rs 15 when he took charge,” he says.

But the salary has not been revised since. As per the original formula, Ali should be getting more than Rs 20,000 per month, given the appreciation in the price of gold.

Forget Rs 20,000. Ali is not getting even the equivalent of his 55,000 peers across the country who are paid between Rs 700 (in Orissa, for example) and Rs 5,000 (in Delhi and Haryana) per month by the Waqf Board. Ali’s is a unique case where the imam’s salary is being paid by the ASI, which gets its grants from the central ministry of culture, instead of the Waqf Board.

“This is unbelievable,” says Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, president, All India Imams’ Organisation, “It is a matter of shame. An imam’s duty begins before dawn and ends after dusk, spanning almost 15 hours. How can he sustain himself and his family?”

Gautam Sengupta, director general of the ASI simply shrugs off his responsibility, saying, “This is a very volatile and sensitive issue. I would not like to comment on this.”

Syed Sadique Ali inside Shajahani mosque

Ali says his father had approached the authorities several times asking for a raise. But he was always told that the file was on the move and that he would soon get an increment. Now the powers that be are fobbing the son off on similar pretexts. Ali says almost all ministers and dignitaries who visit the Taj come to know about this issue. Ali himself visited the ASI office in the city several times after taking over as imam. “It was like begging for my due. Lagta hai jaise baksheesh de rahe hain (it appears as if they are giving me a tip),” he says, explaining why he gave up.

Ali says the Waqf Board did not help him either. He says the board members approached him a few years ago and assured him that he would soon be on the board’s payrolls, but that hasn’t happened till date.

A R Siddiqui, former superintending archaeologist of the ASI’s Agra circle, says the issue has been discussed several times over the past three decades. He says he also raised it with the then director general K N Srivastava during his tenure between June 2009 and July 2010. “I wrote to the DG at least thrice. I said that if not more, the imam should be given at least the equivalent of a casual labourer’s salary,” says Siddiqui.

Last August, Syed Munawwar Ali, a resident of Agra filed an application with the ASI headquarters in Delhi under the Right to Information Act. The ASI, however, replied that raising the salary was not in its ambit and that it would write to the ministry concerned for the same.

Siddiqui’s successor, I D Dwivedi, too takes a nonchalant view, “This is not salary. This is just an honorarium that we give out of respect. This is just about continuing a tradition. One should not make an issue out of it.”

While Dwivedi refuses to discuss the attempts made in the past to fix the lapse, Ali admits that he would not have become the imam if he had taken his studies seriously. He says he dropped out of school after class 5 and joined Madrasa Afzal-ul-Uloom close to his house. His father chose him from among the three sons to carry forward the family tradition. “Woh kehta they ye Allah ka kaam hai aur unke baad mujhe ye karna hai (My father said this was God’s work and that I had to do it after him,” says Ali, who belongs to the fourth generation of this family of imams.

Only faith, and a desire to carry on the family tradition, can explain the fact that Ali now wants his son Burhaan, 10, who is studying in class 6 and taking Quran lessons in the evenings, to become the imam after him.

This appeared in Governance Now January 1- 15, 2011 issue