The Safety Net: Breaking new ground in leveraging the Right To Information

I have never liked the word "I". It’s indicative of a individualistic stance. But it can’t match up to the power that a “We” can have for “Us”. It is this ideology that Parinamika has sprung from.

Looking towards the law as recourse for justice has become a laughable idea in our country. So much so that citizens often refuse to look beyond to see the competence of our Parliament in passing credible and empowering laws such as the Right To Information Act. Passed in 2005, and brought to fruition after years of struggle, the Act ensured an independent, unbiased and unadulterated model of discussion, deliberation and quicker delivery of justice. Made available in 2006 across every state, the RTI cut through stereotypes about India, because it was a potential instrument that made unearthing corruption, dismantling white-collar antics and enforcing the true meaning of ‘public service’ a possibility. Yet a few in the ‘aam jantaa’ paid heed to its system-changing powers.

Tanuj Kalia, a student of the National University of Juridical Sciences, Kolkata formed the initial group. It was then called "Infocracy". The basic premise was imbibe the principals of the RTI in India’s education sector and channel the power of the emergent Indian youth into the Act. I jumped on board the idea and took it forward in Bangalore city. We soon had quite a following. Several amongst my friends were deeply committed to the idea of harnessing the legislation through the educational spectrum. Several schools and colleges joined in, corporates accepted the idea and soon Infocracy's message was spreading through the community.

This was only a start. Despite being labelled a “bunch of teenagers without direction” we realised that to scale this movement, we would have to take a multi-disciplinary approach. . It would mean covering a lot of unchartered territory, legal fencing and astounding advocacy to impact the hearts and minds of citizens and public officials content with the functioning of Indian democracy.

The name Parinamika was coined as an expression of our resolution for change. The name didn’t mean much to us. Those with me hardly cared as to what we were called so long as the message reached out to people. Parinamika was smart coinage--it combined a strong essence of Indian culture with our approach to changing India at several levels.

Our approach was always very direct. There was no political censorship, friendly-excuses or lethargic delays. The team of 6, (which has now expanded to 4 cities and over 150 core-committee members) included Yateesh Begoore (Student of law), Ariya Das (Student of Commerce), Rahul Kayala (Student of Engineering), Sukumar Murthy (Student of Engineering), Anish Munu (Student of Law) and myself. Our first task was to get the concept of RTI out to the people of Bangalore city. To get them to understand its power, its capabilities and experience India as the framers of our Constitution envisioned it- democratic, free and incorruptible.

Parinamika went ahead with a door to door model. We approach the local schools in every locality in Bangalore city, asked them to give us the opportunity to speak to their students, organized talks with the entire student body and mobilised a small mass.  We went from schools to colleges and universities, and Parinamika developed its stance to a more aggressive right versus responsibility tone, encouraging University students to reach out and connect with the political, economic and social  realities of India.

Our model touched the hearts of people. We had with us excellent orators who delivered the message very well because of their belief in the cause and its effects. Parinamika soon organized a National Conference on the Right to Information Act at Christ University participated by almost 4000 delegates from over 15 colleges/law schools/universities/public departments and government offices. We brought on board renowned RTI activists, Chief Information Commissioners, lawyers, practitioners, and non-believers to discuss and debate the most contentious issues surrounding the RTI arena.

Following this, Parinamika expanded its view point to a more democracy oriented subject area. Three major projects were launched. Paripalan, the online social-debating platform which grew within a few months to a full fledged 2500 member debating channel on topics of social, political, education and economic relevance. Next was The Informed Corporate, a push towards imbibing the principles of the RTI into the corporate model, and spread awareness about the importance of staying socially responsible. Our biggest project came next, Parivartane, a collaboration with the Centre for Social Action towards taking the Right to Information Act to women self help groups around rural Bangalore. The project impacted over 500 women and resulted in six RTI completions in one year. Parivartane is set to begin in December 2012 again.

Parinamika also took the RTI to Chickmangalore, in a walk to save the Western Ghats. The importance of the Right to Information Act in extracting crucial mining information and sand quarrying information was explained to the farming/industrial/activist community in the Western Ghats by a team of Parinamika members.

Furthering the cause of the RTI requires bravery. This was the notion of several judgments passed by the Chief Information Commissioners in India. And it does! Several deaths have haunted the RTI Activist community and Parinamika, and its members have always been aware of the threats that accompany the job. Undeterred, Parinamika has filed over a 100 RTIs, a quarter of which are already successful. RTI’s filed against several governmental initiatives, rural industrial projects and educational institutions resulted in revealing the truth to the public- a motto Parinamika stands firmly for.

Taking the power of the RTI beyond borders, Parinamika also aided and advised in the framing of the Legislation for the Government of Bhutan in consultation with Columbia University in the United States. An enriching experience that resulted in me being invited to a discussion panel on RTI in developing nations, held at Columbia University, and in the successful passing of the draft bill on Right to Information and Whistle Blower Protection in Bhutan.

The future for Parinamika is clear. To establish the Right to Information Act as a common man’s tool and voice. In a democracy where freedom of speech and expression is a basic right, Parinamika shall foster this right to the fullest extent ensuring that no move by the Government, if arbitrary and unfounded, shall go unquestioned. As our motto stands, we shall Result in Change.

 As told to Olina Banerji