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A railway porter and TC taught me a lesson: Only RTI, No “Agar-Magar”, No Ifs & Buts

A profound account shared by RTI activist Krishnaraj Rao, Mumbai

Some weeks ago, I had an argument about the RTI Act with a railway hamaal… and I lost the argument.

Railway porter Rambhau and I were standing on the platform, talking casually, waiting for my train to arrive. I asked him whether he knew about Suchana Prapti Adhikaar Kanoon. What was the meaning, he enquired.

"RTI Act gives ORDINARY PEOPLE LIKE YOU the power to write a chitthi to any sarkaari office for information about its working, its duties, contracts awarded, monetary dealings etc. There are some officers who must COMPULSORILY give you this information within roughly 30 days," I said, putting it in a nutshell.

Rambhau was middle-aged like me, but his tired eyes had seen the world more than mine. He shook his head. "Saab, how can such a thing be compulsory for affsar-log? They run the sarkar and own the sarkari kachehree," he argued. "Agar woh sacch bolenge, toh sabki pol khul jayegi. Saab, how can a chhota aadmee make them reveal something that goes against them? Meri aukaat hee kya hai? They will give my name to the police for interfering in sarkaari affairs! Maybe saab-log like you can question the sarkar, but small people like me cannot do that."

"No, no, it is really compulsory to give information," I argued. "You are a Bhaarat-ka-naagrik, and all naagriks are equal. Your aukaat is the same as mine or any sarkari officer's. The kanoon says that if an officer does not properly give suchana that you are demanding, including xerox copies of government kagzaat, Rs 250 per day will be cut from his salary. They will deduct Rs 25,000, and also start karwahi to punish him by halting his promotions. There are special officers called Information Commissioners just for punishing such people for not obeying the law."

The hamaal shook his head and fell silent. He did not believe me. He knew the ways of the world. He knew that things just did not work in this way.

I stopped arguing and looked away. In my heart, I knew that he was right. What I had just told him was a lie. All citizens were NOT equal in the eyes of the law. No matter what was written in the RTI Act, a government officer could very well deny him proper information, and Rambhau had no remedy against this.

Even people like you and me -- privileged, well-networked, well-read and influential -- get some scraps of information with great difficulty. Only the most persistent ones among us occasionally succeed in getting an evasive PIO penalized. For Rambhau, it would be impossible… and therefore, most information was beyond his reach.

We stood in awkward silence until my train came. The hamaal loaded my luggage on the train, took Rs 70 from me and then gave me some parting advice: "Sir, bura mat maanye… You are a well-meaning person, but please don't misdirect small people like me and make fun of our majboori. Sarkaari-affsars are big people. A chhota aadmi cannot question the actions of sarkaari-affsars, no matter what the kanoon says. This is the way of the world."

Mahatma Gandhi had a formula for choosing the right course of action whenever he was in doubt: "Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him." Gandhiji called this touchstone Daridra Narayan, meaning, God in the form of a poor man.

Gazing into Rambhau's tired eyes that afternoon, I saw Daridra Narayan.

If people like Rambhau are to have any hope of using their so-called Right to Information, penalties must be routinely imposed; no ifs and buts, no agar-magar, should be entertained. It must become part of the normal accepted procedure for a PIO to be fined for delay, denial and false information.

While I was thinking about all this, the Ticket Checker came. "Ticket please," he said politely but firmly. I knew that I must either produce a valid ticket or face the consequences – no excuse, no ifs and buts were acceptable.

At that moment, I prayed, "Let every Information Commissioner stop exalting himself to the position of a judge, and humbly serve the citizen as a Ticket Checker, unfailingly taking a fine from every PIO who fails to respect and follow the law.

Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake!
(Rabindranath Tagore, Geetanjali) 

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