Right to reject what? Democracy?

The year was 1787. Dr Benjamin Franklin was just coming out of the ‘constitutional convention’ which was deciding whether US will remain under British Crown or will become a democracy. As Dr. Franklin stepped out, a woman asked him, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”. He replied with a serious face – “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

As the election schedules for 5 assemblies were declared today, the election commission also announced its intention to add a ‘None of the above’ (NOTA) option at the bottom of list of candidates. Since last 3-4 years, this ‘Right to Reject’ has caught fancy of many well-meaning citizens. It shows the anger at the present bunch of politicians, and frustration at failure of the electorate to throw up any better options. During last loksabha elections too, the mails requesting each other to make use of some form 17 A at the voting booth circulated all over the net. It promised that if more than half the votes were for NOTA option, the election will get cancelled. The decision by Hon. Supreme Court last week has just added to the credibility of this entire untrue and undesirable proposition.

Let us first go into the truth.

Conduct of Election Rules 1961 always had a section 49 O. It, in essence, said that if a person came to voting booth and declared he does not wish to vote, the officer should ask him to fill up a form and submit the forms so collected along with the ballot boxes or EVMs. It never said anything about counting these forms, and there no mention about any impact on results of the election.

Therefore, if a seat has 100 votes and 99 opt for ‘none of the above’, the person getting the single vote will be declared successful.

The recent decision just asks Election Commission to do away with form and add a button to EVM for this ‘none of the above’. Even this decision says nothing about impact of election results. And today’s declaration about NOTA is also exactly the same. Because neither court nor EC can go beyond what is there in the law book. The possible changes that this new system will bring are, the name of the person making this choice will remain secret, and secondly these votes will be automatically counted. That’s all!

So, if you dream of a sea change in the attitude of voters or political parties, please wake up. Its not going to happen.

And how about the desirability of such negative vote? 

Is the ‘No-Confidence-In-Politicians’ vote really an option? We live in a multi-party democracy, and we have only ourselves to blame if we cannot elect good leaders. If a social group is strong enough to convince 50% voters to take the effort of coming to the booth and registering this protest, can they not field a good candidate?

What is the message that the advocates for ‘NOTA’ want to give? That all the present politicians are rogues. This seems to be acceptable to every one. But what is the other option? Monarchy? Military Rule? Aristocracy?, Emergency? Imperialism? Fascism? Iron rule of the proletariat? Is that what we are endorsing?

If we are not satisfied with the present bunch of leaders, that is perfectly acceptable. If we think that the present election system is responsible for this, then may be this is true to some extent. But then, maybe we should be taking effort of studying and suggesting other ‘democratic’ voting systems. May be presidential system, may be proportional representation, may be preferential transferable voting, and may be many other ideas prevalent in democracies all over the world. But let us keep those options within the frame of democracy. It may not be perfect, but it is the available best.

Actually, I think, we as a society are responsible for this mess. And we are just shifting blame to politicians. Let us think how much we all participate in the democratic process. Let us remember the last time we studied a civil issue, and expressed our opinion. Let us remember that the simplest democratic systems in urban India, co-operative housing societies, are crumbling because people are not ready to take responsibility and participate. Let us remember that many of our urban brethren do not bother to vote, even when a ‘good’ person is a candidate, confident that no one else is going to vote for him/ her. Let us remember that many urban voters vote thinking of caste, religion, or ‘son of soil’. Also, urban people have found creative ways to even accept money from candidates. May be they do not like to take cash, but they do not mind a sponsored tirthayatra, a bore well in the society, a coat of paint for the building. And then they go on lamenting that all the slum dwellers and such types sell their vote. Democracy is a government for the people, of the people, and by the people. But if the people are too busy or too lazy to participate in it and supervise it, it will be taken over by some smart people, and used for their own benefits.

Let us better make more effort to improve the good system that we have. Look at the larger picture, and find out how better off we are. Let us start investing a little time in making this country a beter place for our future generations. Let us at least start questioning those in power, and make them answerable and accountable. And let us remember the NOTA option is not going to do this for us. If many elections do get cancelled, the country will be taken over by babudom in the name of emergency or presidential rule. And we will just have a blank EVM next time we are asked to vote! Any day I (and I am sure you too) will prefer an imperfect democracy over perfect dictatorship -be it of a monarch or of a religion or of the proletariat or a military junta. In democracy, we do get a chance to improve it, or at least express our dissatisfaction and anger at its problems. Let us take what we have got, consider ourselves lucky, thank our leaders in independence moment, and try to improve the functioning of the system.


I, too, have a dream (Part 3) – A big step to make it a reality

On 27 August 2013 , the Information Commission conducted the final hearing of our appeal. Being an experienced administrator, the Commissioner saw through the arguments of the Deputy Collector’s staff immediately. Mr. Shailesh Gandhi’s presence also helped us retain our confidence in these completely novel circumstances.

Finally, Mr. Gaikwad, Information Commissioner, pronounced his ruling. He asked the administration to compensate each applicant who came to Mumbai Rs. 2,000 each. Also, he issued show cause notice to the information officer for levying fine under 2 different sections of RTI Act – in each of the 1,272 cases. He ordered that all the information sought must be given to every applicant before 31 st October – and promised further stern action if this was not done.

But the most useful part of the order is that – he ordered all the district administrators to publish information about claims under the FRA , and action taken thereon. This has to be collected for last 3 years, published on their websites and on notice boards ad district and subdivisional levels. It has also to be kept updated every month. So, though the issue started with some 6000 tribals in a single tehsil, the resultant benefit has flown to all the tribals in the whole state of Maharashtra!

In the final analysis, we believe, we were able to make these points :
1. It has proved that RTI is actually useful – the urban volunteers always doubt this.
2. It has proved that ‘powerless’, ‘uneducated’ tribals can bring the govt machinery to its knees if they have knowledge of correct laws and training and patience to use them.
3. It has proved that for a revolutions guns are not necessary. Pen is more potent than a gun
4. It has proved that one can make the system work even without agitation, political support, sloganeering – just information is sufficient.
5. it has created a model for tribals elsewhere to replicate
6. It has created and proven strength of the concept of ‘Mass RTI’ – the bad things that happen to govt people get manifold; and it becomes impractical to use threats or violance against the person who dares to question the system. So, similar method can actually be used by urban people – for potholed roads, water suppy in new colonies, cleanliness, railway FOBs, etc

Here, allow me to conclude the first part of our fight to realize our dream. We still have a long way to go – to get information, to get compensation, to pressurize authorities to process our claim, and to finally become owners of our land. But this fight has given us additional dreams – we want to help jungle dwelling people everywhere to claim the land looted from them by the British – and Indian – rulers. We want to help our people gain the self-esteem that comes from a successful fight against a system which looks like a giant. May be, we think, our urban friends too start fighting the system to fight the injustice that they face. And maybe they will understand our dream and try to adjust their living style to leave our rivers, jungles and living styles alone.

Martin Luther King (Jr)
Martin Luther King (Jr)

On 28th August 1963, a great man in America dared to dream. 50 years after that, almost to the date, we are doing the same. And this dream we are seeing with our eyes wide open. We know it’s not easy – but we know it’s not an impossible pipe dream. We know we are not alone, that there are many who are awakening to dreams of their own. Keep watching this space for stories about dreams, fights, disappointments, and small victories. And start having a dream of your own too!


Click here to read the decision (in Marathi)Jawhar-CIC-Order-of-Tribal-s-Forest-Rights

Click here to read an excellent media report about this news http://www.moneylife.in/article/rti-battle-of-jawhar-tribals-get-a-fillip-with-a-favourable-cic-order/34248.html

I, too, have a dream (Part 2) – The fight to achieve the dream

The fight to achieve the dream


First, we started learning the steps to lay claim over our forest land. We learned that a meeting of all the villagers (gramsabha) hears our claim, may visit the plot, make enquiries with neighbors and elders, and then approves it. Then, a copy of the resolution, along with land map and other papers moves up the ladder in various government departments. But, the most important part is that, those on the ladders of power can not reject claim or pass only part of it. They can just see that all the procedure is completed and all the papers are in order. So, equipped with this new knowledge, we started approaching the authorities to submit our claims.

That was when we faced our first hurdle, and a big shock. We were told that all our villages had already conducted the meetings to consider the claims under FRA – and rejected all the claims made! No one in our villages had ever heard of any Gram Sabha, so it was clear the smart babus had just painted the process on a piece of paper. We felt defeated, cheated and frustrated. We felt that this was just what happened every time about any government scheme. Just as we were on the verge of forgetting about any attempts to get our land, our urban friends in the Vayam said we can fight the system and make it work again. After some thought, we decided to use the Right to Information Act. We made several applications, seeking copies of attendance sheets and minutes of the Gramsabhas. That gave us the first taste of victory. The authorities ordered the Gramsabhas to be conducted again, and deputed a couple of our volunteers to attend these, and see that they were conducted properly.

In next few days, a lot of villages in our vicinity completed the Gramsabha, and many tribals submitted claims for agricultural plots. But, may be, allotting land to us hurt some vested interests. May be just responding to a simple application did not go well with entrenched egos too. So our applications just sat in government offices, gathering dust, for almost a year.

Once again, we decided to use the RTI. We realized there were more than 6000 tribals whose FRA claims were awaiting outcome, for reasons undisclosed. Now, we thought, if one is suffering from injustice, one has to put up a fight himself, right? So, we got a draft application from an urban friend, and appealed all the tribals to fill in the personal details and submit all applications on a single day!

RTI application queueIt was a site worth seeing when more than 600 people actually made it to the office of the Deputy Collector at Jawhar. Many had travelled 40-50 kilometers, spending a days wages. Most had foregone the wages they could have earned that day. All of them lined up to ask for a most improbable thing – not food, not job, but information – as a means to further their fight for land. Like a true satyagrahi, they were completely non-violent, polite and ready to make a sacrifice. Our urban friends told us they hardly know any other case where the applicant sacrificed 2 days earning just to make an application under the RTI

For next 10-15 days, the applications kept on showering on the authorities. At the final count, some 1,278 people made applications to get information about fate of their claims under FRA act. They asked for information about the documents required to go with the claim forms, documents actually attached, and daily progress of their applications. If at all the administration chose to give correct reply, they will have to admit that all correct documents accompanied each application, and that they have done nothing after getting the application. This may make the babus liable for action under the Human Rights Act, Consumer Protection Act, Prevention of Delay in Discharge of Official Duties Act, to name a few!

The RTI Act requires that each application is replied within 30 days. So, when 30 days got over, the applicant started making appeals to higher authorities. The authorities called us for hearing in batches of 10 – and tried to bully us! The officer asked us who was paying us for making applications, who was instigating us to fight against government, who was going to bear the travelling and other expenses, etc. He also asked us to choose – he can either give land or information. At the end of hearing, our trained volunteers asked for proceedings of this, including the threats! Of course, the officer rejected this demand too.

(Click for final part)

I, too, have a dream (Part 1)

I, too, have a dream

FACELESS TRIBAL YOUTHActually, I am from among those faceless masses who are not supposed to have dreams. I also have a name. But it is not important. It can not give me a face. By whatever name you call me, I just remain a forest dwelling, tribal landless labour, inarticulate, uneducated, and underfed. We just have votes, and those who want them do come to us to throw us some crumbs. But I, too, have a dream – a dream when I am just left alone – to cultivate the land of my forefathers, to drink water from the same springs, to roam the same jungles. May be the readers will be surprised to read that my dreams do not include SUVs, penthouse, and a top end cell phone. And may be it’s because I am more interested in my own happiness than my neighbors’ envy.

So, to cut a long story short, I have a dream. And this tiny piece of land that gives me a coarse staple once a year has a very important place in it. Its totally rain cultivated, on a hill slope, and full of stones and boulders – but its MINE – it has been in the family for generations together. And for me and my brethren, it’s as important as my mother. But just owning that tiny piece looked like a pipedream just a couple of years ago. Today, I can dream openly about it, and say that soon I will have my name as owner of that land. This here is a story of how we brought this issue from the realm of impossibility to that of achievability.

The story starts when the gora sahibs were ruling India. They had a very clear idea, that the forests in India are a source of timber and such other commercial product, They felt no need to consider any ownership rights of the natives, least of all the aborigines. So, sitting in Delhi, they came out with a list of all forest lands all over the country – and grabbed the land without offering any compensation. Our forefathers had always lived off jungle – by farming tiny plots, by foraging and by hunting small animals not as trophies but as necessary part of food. All these activities were banned to us. They were exclusively reserved for the gora sahibs either as commerce or as pleasure.  Our illiterate forefathers just could not think of a means to fight the menace, and learned to live with it. We remained busy trying to grow coarse food from tough, unrelenting land, and then saving the crop from forest guards, and then moving in and out of lock ups because in the law books, it was a crime to till the ‘forest’ land. We were poor to start with, but this actually made us destitute.

The situation remained same, or may be got worse, when the brown sahibs replaced gora sahibs.

Somewhere in 2006, we started hearing about a new law called ‘Forest Rights Act’, and how it’s the magic wand which will make us rich, once and for all. My father had taught me to treat all talk about government schemes like the ghost fables the village elders like to recite to us on rainy nights. They make good entertainment, and may even excite us for some time, but to believe them was asking for trouble.

Some time after this, an urban volunteer started visiting my village and those around us. Some of us had met him earlier as a primary teacher. But now, he said, he wanted to help us achieve better life. Initially we had doubts, but soon a bunch of youngsters took to him, and started listening to his ideas. With help from some urban friends, he had started a voluntary organization called ‘Vayam’. We soon started hearing from him about those government schemes, and also how to get actual benefit from them. We also heard about the Right to Information Act, which can tell us about what was written in government files!

And then, we thought, can we actually get our lands under the FRA, with some help from Vayam?

(Next part )

How to find the files about coal scam that PMO insists its not missing!

ImageThe PMO is adamantly saying that the files are not missing. But it is not able to produce them in from of the CBI also. I quite believe the gentlemen from PMO. So, I thought I shall offer my bit of assistance to them. They should remind their ‘record officer’ that the habit of misplacing files, in legal language called ‘unauthorised removal, may land the poor record officer in jail for a short term of 5 years. Then they can try replying the RTI application below.


Application under the Right to Information Act, 2005


The Public Information Officer,

Prime Minister’s Office

South Block, Raisina Hill,
New Delhi. India-110011.
Telephone: 91-11-23012312

Sub: Periodic inspection of your record under the Public Record Act 1993

Dear Sir,

I,____________, apply for getting the information described below under the Right to Information Act, 2005. My details are as follows:



Details of Information applied for:

(1)  Name and designation of each person working as ‘records officer’ under section 2(g) of the Public Record Act, 1993 (PRA93); along with the period for which he/ she held that position.

(2)  Dates on which periodic inspection of the records were carried out by the records officer during the period 01 Jan 2005 to the date of reply to this application.

(3)  Number of files found missing/ non traceable/ removed without authorization at each such inspection

(4)  Copies of documents showing appropriate action taken by record officer about missing/ non traceable files from time to time under section 7(1) of the PRA93

(5)  Copies of correspondence between record officer and the Director General or head of the archives under section 7(2) of the PRA93

Is the applicant a person below poverty line? No


 ( S  I  G  N  E  D)


Friends, if you also want to offer your help, just type out a similar application, attach a DD or postal Order payable to “Section Officer, Prime Minister’s Office” payable at New Delhi, and send it on the address above. I am sure Mr. Prime Minister will be eternally grateful to you. Hurry, if you are late,hey may find the files before your application reaches them.

Best luck!

AMRI Hospital in Kolkatta is burning. But are we safe?

They say ignorance is bliss. But you cannot live in the state of permanent bliss. You have to come out, and face your daily life. And there, ignorance can become a life hazard. And blind faith about knowledge, intention, efficiency and integrity of people in authority is just a more complicated and dangerous form of trying to live in ignorant bliss. We, as society, can turn a blind eye on those you have appointed to keep you safe. But then, we cannot avoid the consequences. As the people of Kolkata have discovered yet again. And still we, as a society, are so much ostrich-like, that we like to think that, now that a tragedy has taken place (and personally I am safe, with all my family and friends), the authorities in my town will wake up and do all that is necessary to keep me safe.

WRONG. They will do lip service, and may be give speeches, and sanction a handsome budget to ‘beaf up’ the safety apparatus. But that will not make us safe. They will make more stringent norms and rules. But even these will not make us safe. They may even find out a loophole and two in present system, and deal drastically with it. But even then it will be a mistake to feel safe. And all this, not because the authorities want to put you in risk. But the administration, by human nature, tends to take the path of least resistance. And presently, the path is to ‘adjust’, to ‘ignore’, to ‘be practical’, and all.

In a few days, the fire exits of a building will be blocked by old furniture. The side margins of industrial units, even handling hazardous equipment, will be rented out and hence blocked. The fire extinguisher will not be replenished / replaced when its useful life is over. The fire brigade will face budget constraint to buy spare parts for maintenance, and so on and so forth. Until disaster strikes again.

So what can a single person do? Actually, a single person can do a lot if he is equipped with right tools and training. And confidence.

But we are not sure if we have these. So, let us assume we can do a very little impact. But why not do it? At least, if we face another disaster, we can have the satisfaction that we have done whatever was within our power to avert that.

Let me suggest that we focus on the tragedy that is still fresh in our mind. By now, we know that the hospital might have stored diesel and other inflammable material in the parking area. And that the fire department had no idea where the oxygen cylinders were stored. And where various staircases were headed. So they had to make a lot of effort just to get where they were needed. And te hospital people hae confidently told us that they had all the necessary licenses and clearances from fire department. Which was, of course, issued after due care and after physical inspection by correct authority.

In all our towns, we have such hospitals. Even a casual walk around them will show us the risks we face in case of a fire or similar disaster. We must understand that, in a hospital, at any time there will be a lot of people who cannot move on their own, and who may require stretchers or at least wheel chairs. And even in our towns, the fire department is there to inspect and certify if a building is safe or not.

So let us check how they are doing this job. Let us make an application under the Right to Information Act, to find out what the fire departments are doing or not doing. The format is given below. Can I request all of you to take the effort to print the same, put your name and address, paste a court fee stamp of Rs. 10, and submit the same at Fire department of your town? If you can not locate the fire department, try the fire brigade HQ. . And if you get some reply, can you do me a favour by sending me a copy or by publishing the same on net? So that we will know how much prepared we are for an exactly similar tragedy in our town.


No, RTI is not being used for blackmailing.

It is very fashionable to accuse the RTI Act as being used for ‘blackmail. In every single interaction with government officers, all trainers have to devote a lot of time to hear about the complaints of ‘frequent info – seekers’. To end this discussiion, a leading activist, Mr. Vihar Durve, has saught copies of complaints lodged with police about this black mail. Maharashtra’s Director General of Police has informed that they do not have a single complaint all across Maharashtra where RTI was being used as blackmail.

Now, those who have been making such clamis can either stop making this claim. Or they can start filing police complaints whenever they come across a case of blackmail by an RTI Activist. But they shall not hide behind baseless accusations.

Copy of application:

RTI Activist seeks record regarding blackmail by RTI users.
Vihar Durve RTI Appllication


Copy of Maharashtra DGP replyPolice have no FIRs mentioning an RTI Activist as blackmailer
Letter from DGP Maharashtra