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Anti-corruption RTI activists arrested while protesting

September 13
01:42 2010

The drama of the opaque appointment of Mr. KS Sripathi as the Tamil Nadu Chief Information Commissioner on Sept 1 ended with his “secret” swearing-in at the Governer’s office (Raj Bhavan) and the arrest and subsequent release of three prominent activists working towards a transparent and accountable government in Tamil Nadu.
Madhav Vishnubhatta, supported by the Los Angeles chapter of the Association for India’s Development, along with Gopalakrishnan and Siva Elango (Makkal Sakthi Katchi) were protesting outside the Governer’s office with placards reading “Save RTI”, “No transparency in Appointments”, “Non-transparent appointment to uphold transparency?” when they were picked up by the Police, taken to an undisclosed location and released after several hours. Madhav has been leading the efforts for the appointment to be made in accordance with the law.
The Right to Information (RTI) Act of India, 2005 (equivalent to the Freedom of Information Act in the US), since its inception has been instrumental in enabling the common man to hold the officials to account and participate in the process of governance.
The Central and State Information Commission are mandated to ensure that the citizen’s fundamental Right to Information is upheld.
The RTI Act states that “The Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners shall be persons of eminence in public life with wide knowledge and experience in law, science and technology, social service, management, journalism, mass media or administration and governance.”
However across the nation, the Information Commissioners appointed have mainly been bureaucrats. As a result, in the last five years, the culture of secrecy, of leniency towards officials and of disdain towards information seekers has prevailed at the Information Commission. Left unchecked, this could sound the death knell of one of the most progressive laws of independent India.
Madhav, a software engineer by training, quit his Infosys job to take up the cause of RTI in Tamil Nadu. After having used RTI to expose unused funds in the Tsunami Relief Fund and Tamil Nadu MLA Development Fund, he embarked on the crusade to hold the Tamil Nadu State Information Commission (TNSIC) to account. It was due to his relentless efforts that the TNSIC put up decisions and cause lists on its website.
His intervention also helped increase the hearing rate from about 150 cases/month to about 50 cases/day. To disinfect the TNSIC from within, he with his fellow RTI activists strived for democratic, transparent and fair appointment procedure for the Information Commission.
He was instrumental in the national-level consultation of RTI activists and bureaucrats organized at IIPA in Delhi on 4th August 2010. He also used RTI to unearth a racket of some top-level bureaucrats in Tamil Nadu who had virtually selected themselves for the post of State Information commissioners.
As per the RTI Act, the State Information Commissioner is recommended by a committee of the Chief Minister, Leader of the Opposition in the State Assembly and a Cabinet Minister. Mr. Sripathi was selected in the absence of J. Jayalalitha, the Leader of the Opposition in Tamil Nadu. According to her she was not provided the bio-datas of the candidates for the post of Information Commissioner and hence abstained from the meeting.
Madhav also met with Jayalalitha before the selection meeting to apprise her of the sentiments of the RTI activists regarding the appointment procedure.
Supporting RTI activists like Madhav is one of A.I.D.’s strategies to promote better governance and fight corruption in India. The Los Angeles chapter of AID has been one of the key players in this initiative.  Fighting corruption has taken a deadly turn this year with the murder of nine RTI activists and attacks on dozen more. This infant movement to strengthen democracy in India needs nurture from like minded Indians across the world. Let’s come together to protect and support what started as Madhav’s fight in his words ‘my right my fight’ and embrace it as ‘our right our fight’.

Gaurav Shah, Vishal Kudchadkar & Nidhi Pathak

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