On being asked his age, Kolebor Kalindi, a resident of Karru village in Baghmundi block of Purulia, fumbles for an answer. The 20-odd neighbours and relatives surrounding him do some loud thinking, and conclude that he cannot be more than 40. Kalindi, a farm labourer with a family of seven, looks older. His neighbours, Shombari Machchua, Gangadhar Hembram, Raghu Majhi, Bhojohori Kumar, don’t seem to know their ages either. More occupied with trying to eke out a living as farm labourers, the community, mostly belonging Scheduled Castes, doesn’t spare much thought to birth dates.
Yet, they are all familiar with the Right to Information (RTI) Act, thanks to the efforts of some students in the US who trace their origins to West Bengal and a local organisation called the Mandra Lions Club. The two groups joined forces to educate the people of the three blocks in Purulia — Baghmundi, Jhalda I, Jhalda II — about the importance of using RTI to gain information about the workings of government agencies in matters that directly affect their daily lives. This year they plan to launch a website which will feature these stories from the grassroots.
Like the story of Kalindi, who got an educated farmer, Basudeb Kumar, to file an RTI about the amount of ration a BPL card holder is entitled to under the public distribution system. The RTI, filed at the village panchayat office, also sought the list of people under the Annapurna and Antyodaya schemes.
“We are labourers. After a day’s work of making cane baskets, I don’t get more than Rs 50 to feed seven mouths. The ration shop would usually give us one or two kg of rice every week,” says Kalindi. But after the RTI, he found out that he was entitled to five kg of rice every week, at the rate of Rs 2 per kg.
What followed was a movement against PDS dealers, and the families now get more ration than before. “Earlier, they would threaten to beat us up, saying we were demanding more than what we deserved. We hardly ever got sugar. Now, they are compelled to give us our due because we show them the official papers,” says Raghu Majhi, another villager.
While they are yet to get all that they are rightfully entitled to, the RTI awareness has made a significant change in their lives. In the last two months, the villagers have filed 100 RTI applications; more than half have got responses. Jagabandhu Kumar, 37, of Gobindopur village in Baghmundi block, filed an RTI at the panchayat office demanding information about the provisions under the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme.
“My youngest daughter, five-year-old, goes to an ICDS centre. There were times when they were not given midday meals, or when the teachers didn’t take classes,” says Kumar, a farmer. Armed with the written reply from the panchayat secretary, Kumar took up the issue with the ICDS centre. He claims midday meals have now become regular, with better food quality.
Ashish Sinha, another labourer, filed an RTI about the number of days the local ration shop should remain open. “The ration shops only open once a week, when they are supposed to keep them open for five-and-a-half days in a week. Armed with the RTI reply, Sinha hauled up the nearest dealer. As the word spread, eight PDS dealers were questioned. The shops are now open four days in a week and the dealers have put up boards indicating the stocks they have and the prices,” says Tathagata Sengupta, 25, one of the students involved in the movement.
“We are mostly insulated to the realities of nearly 80 per cent of our country. We have the resources to bring about development, individually and also as a part of an organisation. There are lots of people willing to work, but they don’t know how to go about it,” he says.
The aim, eventually, is to get the website maintained and updated by the locals. “There are people around here who can write in Bengali. Their accounts can be translated later. We will facilitate that,” says Somnath Singha Roy of Mandra Lions Club.
There will be pages in both English and Bengali. The technology will be kept simple, so that the site’s administration can be handed over to the local youth in Purulia. “We are using a Joomla website management system for the site. Anyone can edit it. You don’t need to know HTML to operate it,” says Sengupta.