What exactly does a 'campaign' look like? What do people actually do when they 'protest' against something? And how do the protesters get hold of all the facts that they quote? These questions surfaced every time I read about a campaign or a protest on environmental or human rights issues but I never got any answers that made me wiser. Until this summer.
I visited Varanasi to meet organisations working on water conservation and there, I met Sanjay Jaiswal who answered my questions. His story illustrates how the Right to Information act can be used constructively to run a campaign in an efficient and strategic manner. Sanjay talked openly and plainly about the methods he uses to drive strategy - a valuable source of information for any budding activist.
He has been volunteering with the Lok Vikas Samiti , an NGO that works in Mehdiganj for the last decade. Primarily, he participates in their protest against the excesses of the Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages Ltd (HCCB) plant in Mehdiganj, Varanasi. The amount of groundwater withdrawn by the plant has led to a decline in groundwater levels in the entire area. In addition, the company has been allegedly flouting many laws as well. Before he came onto the scene, the campaign was almost entirely a reactionary protest. There would be an incident at the plant; people would stage a 'dharna' outside its gates and that was it. Nothing much came of it. Sanjay knew the importance of having facts and accurate 'official' information. He also knew that the RTI act would furnish this information.
The Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005 allows people 'to secure access to information under the control of public authorities, in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority'. This has also now been expanded to include private companies implementing projects with public funds. This act has been alternately celebrated and maligned. However, used correctly, it remains a valuable tool in the hands of people who are trying to ensure just governance.
During our conversation, Sanjay told me of the various applications he has filed, the reason for wanting that information, and his experiences with obtaining that information.
You can listen to the talk (in Hindi) below. Alternatively, you can download a PDF translation of his talk.
The Lok Vikas Samiti at Mehdiganj has sought information on groundwater levels - before the company was established and what it is at currently. Further, they have also requested information (such as minutes of meetings) that allows them to keep abreast of any further developments. Sanjay has not mentioned it in this interview, which confines itself to the series of applications they filed in the beginning, but they also use the Act to keep tabs on correspondence between HCCB and the groundwater board. It is through this that they found out about the company's applying for a four-fold increase in withdrawal well in time to intensify their campaign.
Some of the requests that they have submitted through the RTI act seem frivolous (the story of how Cola travelled from a pharmacy to a general store?). But considered in another light, they are evidence of people's faith in the RTI act. It is now considered to be the best source of all information possible.
Like most other laws, the RTI can, and is being, abused. I cringe every time someone introduces himself or herself to me as an 'RTI activist'. It usually means that the individual spends his or her time showering already beleaguered officials with broad applications in the hope of getting a nugget to raise a hue and cry about. Activities like these give the act a bad name. It is therefore refreshing to learn from someone like Sanjay who has a clear goal, a well-defined cause, and a respect for the tools he uses to achieve his goals.
There is also a clear difference in attitude towards the way information is handled by the Lok Samiti's and HCCB. Through correspondence, media and through vigilance, information needs to be prised out of HCCB while it is the opposite with the Lok Samiti. When I sat with Sanjay and other members of the Samiti, they pressed documents upon me. 'Take it, use it' they said. 'The truth can only do us good.'