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Be an RTI Activist not a Habitual Complainer.

30 May 2011 No Comment

RTI Activist Krishnaraj Rao explains how an RTI Activist can refrain from being a Habitual Complainer, Enclosed along is also the RTI Handbook which is written by Rakesh Agarwal and provides  insights on the use of RTI,It has lots of sample RTI application formats with questions you should ask in various situations. It has tips for doing RTI inspection too. Whether you want to file a single RTI application or you are in it for the long haul, this handbook is a must-read.

Rao states while he was browsing this handbook, some thoughts went through his mind, which he want to share with all of us.

In government offices and police stations, they refer to some people as “habitual complainers”. Sometimes, an RTI activist who doesn’t know where to draw the line becomes a habitual complainer or an egotistic troublemaker.  It’s a thin line…

Where to draw the line?

1.      RTI is an Important tool, but not the only tool. Think of RTI as one tool in a toolkit – say a screwdriver. You can’t tighten or loosen screws without a screwdriver, but on the other hand, you mustn’t try to drive nails into a wall with a screwdriver. For that, you use a hammer. Similarly an RTI application is not a substitute for a complaint or representation, or a meeting with the concerned authorities. Sometimes, a simple phone call and a friendly word is all that is needed; RTI applications may needlessly complicate matters.

If you are an aggrieved citizen, please consider the merits and demerits of using RTI as a pressure tactic or a way to shame the public authorities. It may sometimes work, but using RTI instead of complaints for grievance redressal blunts the RTI tool. Instead,  consider writing one or two complaints or letters of representation, supported by facts and photographs. Then follow up your complaints with RTI applications asking for documents of the action taken. (More about writing complaints in point no. 6)

2.      Playing ‘20 Questions’ is Dangerously Addictive. Even RTI experts make the mistake of thinking that a lengthy RTI application will force the public authorities to admit their “guilt”. But this doesn’t happen. As one Public Information Officer (PIO) memorably said, “I have the duty to give you an answer… but I don’t have to give you the answer that you want from me.” Writing RTI applications with expectations of specific replies sucks people into a cycle of endless grievances, complaints, appeals, fresh RTI applications, vengeful action from the opposite party, etc. The chain of action and reaction becomes a whirlpool that sucks up the activist’s energies, and clouds his good judgment. Also, writing lengthy and complicated RTI applications makes the appellate authorities more sympathetic towards the PIO.

3.      RTI Work is about Bringing Social Change, not Winning Personal Victories. We all know people who have been engaged in conflicts with public authorities, PIOs, appellate authorities etc. for years, but haven’t achieved too much change. Ironically, all the meaningful work that they have done gives them no joy, because they are so obsessed with the idea of totally crushing their opponents, who have found new ways of troubling them! They keep on trading blows with their opponents, and lose connection with friends, family and sympathizers! Information Commissions are swamped with appeals filed by such persons.

4.      Know when to Quit and Cool Off. If what I described above is true of you, please stop. Please don’t be obsessed with following your matters to the “logical conclusion”. Sometimes, giving up and preserving your energy and your sanity is necessary, because in the long run, it enables you to be a true system reformer and a better human being. The willingness and humility to give up some of the causes we have taken up is useful to activists. Every cause is not equally important; we need to give up the less important ones in order to channel our energies into the more important ones.

5.      A Tool, not a Weapon. In order to retain an arms length distance from your RTI work, remember that RTI is a tool and not a weapon. Our work is about using RTI as a tool to repair this existing system; it is not about using RTI as a weapon to overthrow the government or shame some individuals. Now and then, we may enter into a fighting mood, but in the long run, it is important to think peaceful thoughts while using RTI.

6.      How to file Proper Complaints, Representations etc. Complaints must be written in a clear and factual tone, and not angry or sarcastic. Complaints are not angry rants, they are an appeal to the other person’s reason and sense of fairness. Also, they should be addressed to the proper administrative authorities in whose jurisdiction your work falls. If the proper authorities fail to take action, the complaint should be gradually escalated to higher authorities. For instance, if your matter concerns municipal work in your area, please write complaints to concerned department in your ward, or, if you are unsure about the department, address them to the Ward Officer. If no action is taken, go to the Deputy Municipal Commissioner, and then to the Municipal Commissioner. Please don’t start out at the top e.g. with the Municipal Commissioner, because that messes up the system. And please, please don’t blindly cc to the Chief Minister, Prime Minister, President of India etc; that makes you look like a loose cannon and messes up your mind.

Fellow citizens, there is a long, hard journey ahead. This country has deteriorated over several decades due to our collective inaction and neglect. The deterioration happened because while all of us were preoccupied with money-making, career-building and looking out for ourselves and our families, we turned away from the task of nation-building and left governance to a small group of career politicians. And so, it will have to be repaired and improved over years or decades by our collective action and nurturing, and engaging with the system. Nurturing is not about winning victories, it is about nation-building with faith, patience and love.

And so, I would like to propose a shift in outlook from:

Warrior RTI Activist: “Our job as RTI activists is to fight with corrupt people and put them behind bars.”


Gardener RTI Activist: “Our job as RTI activists is to water the neglected plants of garden, and to trim the overgrown branches.”

Like gardeners who willingly take on their toil with seeds, soil, manure, spades, lawn mowers and all, we should tend the neglected garden of this nation with different tools and implements. And we should mentor large numbers of citizens, through the power of example, how to engage with the system, to cherish it and care for it.

Do you agree?

Anyway, regardless of whether you feel like a warrior, a gardener or a casual bystander, do read Rakesh Agarwal’s RTI Handbook. You will surely think some productive thoughts; that much I can guarantee he ends.

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