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Dear RTI Activist, Please Solve My Problem For Free

28 June 2011 One Comment

RTI Activist Krishnaraj Rao or as we all fondly call him “Krish”, brings to light few facts which many people dont give a thought, ranging from the mind frame of people, to the mind frame of RTI Activists who put in their efforts for a cause and not for money, below are the thoughts which every RTI Activist thinks :

There is a widespread problem that demands our proper application of mind. With a clear response, this problem can itself be an opportunity and a challenge, but if our response is a confused one, it is a threat and a weakness. Our response will determine whether growing numbers of RTI activists vigourously fight for social justice, or whether disheartened activists watch passively as India is slowly taken over by powerful vested interests.

The topic of this discussion is activists and their connection with society. It is about whether activism must necessarily remain a side pursuit, a sort of hobby. It is about our uncomfortable relationship with Money.

It is a well-accepted principle that if those who create value for society receive remuneration from society. Give a thought to how the RTI movement – or rather, the MOVEMENT FOR JUSTICE & GOOD GOVERNANCE – should deal with its present disconnect from the life-giving flows of resources from society.

We are in the grip of a collective illusion that the battle for good governance must be fought with our right hands tied behind our back.

UNDERSTAND HOW ACTIVISTS ADD VALUE TO SOCIETY

RTI activists have specialized knowledge of various organs of governance such as municipal corporations, police, slum rehabilitation authorities, registrar of cooperative societies, district panchayats etc. They get this exposure by battling the system for many years, seeking justice in their own personal causes, and also good governance for society. They are also very good networkers. Besides filing RTI applications and campaigning, they are adept at guiding citizens to resolve personal difficulties by sensibly engaging with the administration. Large numbers of citizens benefit from their guidance.

What is the nature of this guidance? Very superficially, an activist is like a lawyer without educational qualifications; he can advise you on lawful remedies to practical problems. But scratch deeper and you see a huge difference.

LAWYERS ARE ORIENTED TOWARDS SEEKING COURT REMEDIES. They perceive the whole problem from a legal perspective. The training and practice of a lawyer predisposes him to convert a problem into a court case, and then push it into court. If the case is admitted, it is tareek-pe-tareek for months and years, and the person with the problem turns into a helpless bystander. His hands are now tied, as he can no longer seek any alternative remedies while the matter is sub-judice. In rare cases, the lawyer gets a good order or injunction very quickly, but again, if the order is not implemented, it is a lengthy battle to seek action against the offender for Civil Contempt of Court. Many a times, after the judicial remedies are exhausted, the lawyer has nothing more to offer.

RTI ACTIVISTS THINK STREET-SMART. They think in terms of innovative uses of rules and laws, just like crooked entrepreneurs! Unlike lawyers, they do not have a law degree, but they are self-taught, unorthodox and audacious. They avoid going to court, because they are realistic. Unlike lawyers who study only papers, activists may go to the scene and study various dimensions of the problem – not just the legal angle, but various other practical down-to-earth aspects of the problem, such as the political, economic, social and psychological aspects. They take a very broad view of the various pulls and pushes acting on the other side, including the need to maintain secrecy… and then they set out to tear off that veil of secrecy!

Instead of rushing to court, RTI activists encourage the aggrieved person to dig out various kinds of information that may not be directly related, but which has a bearing on the overall problem. Equipped with such information, they guide people in exploring various administrative and quasi-judicial solutions, pressure tactics etc. If the grievance has a public-interest angle, they may advise publicizing the issue in the media, organizing protests etc.

And so, people who take guidance from RTI activists, as against those who go to lawyers, mount a vigorous guerrilla battle and create great pressure on the wrongdoers. The effectiveness of this approach lies in its unpredictability.

And if all this fails to give results, the court option remains open, and their case will probably be stronger as they would have exhausted other remedies, and armed themselves with lots of information before moving the court! This is the beauty of the RTI activists’ methods.

RTI activists are constantly innovating, and even while asleep, their mind is always devising guerilla methods – not only in their own matters, but in other people’s matters also. For citizens willing to follow their guidance, activists go to great lengths, backing them with efforts, knowhow and networks – and that is not something you can say about lawyers.

RTI ACTIVISTS’ WEAKNESS — EAGERNESS TO HELP

Guidance alone cannot solve all problems. Not everybody is capable of following the advice of RTI activists. Not everybody possesses all the soft-skills and energies needed to do what activists can. Some problems call for a hands-on approach by the activists themselves. And so some activists progress from being mentors and advisors to being UNPAID SERVICE PROVIDERS. They personally enter into such problems, hoping to solve them within a few days. But many cases go on and on, and new developments occur, requiring further responses. After some weeks or months, the activists regret getting involved in problems that are not their own. They find excuses to exit the situation, leaving the private individual stranded with unsolved difficulties. Both parties feel hurt and misunderstood. The mission has failed.

What is going wrong here? Firstly, under-estimation of the energy and time needed to solve a problem. And secondly, the continuous absence of remuneration kills the enthusiasm.

THE HARSH REALITY OF BEING A FREE PROBLEM-SOLVER

An RTI activist’s help is expected to be free-of-charge i.e. ‘giving back to society’. The principle of ‘beneficiary pays’ is not applied, or is applied with great reluctance. Even while helping someone defend a private property worth crores of rupees, an activist has to typically ask for reimbursement of taxi fare and xerox charges! Naturally, he is left feeling bitter about people who exploit him and refuse to recognize the value of his efforts.

In the absence of a proper monetary relationship and an agreement detailing the expectations of the beneficiary and the activist, there is no accountability, and no way of ensuring that the RTI activist will stay with the problem until its logical conclusion is reached. Without such an understanding, the whole venture is doomed to fail.

And yet, some RTI activists keep getting sucked into other people’s problems. How do they make ends meet?

OCCUPATION VERSUS RTI ACTIVISM – A TUG-OF-WAR

Except for those few who are paid a salary by an NGO, most activists depend on other occupations for their livelihood. Their occupations divert their energies and mental resources away from RTI work. Maybe this is a good thing because it keeps them sane, and maybe not, because it takes them away from their passion – helping people get justice from the administration.

Think about the massive numbers of RTI activists who are working at other occupations instead of doing what they do best! Think about the diversion of their energies every day! To me, it seems that a vast army of revolutionaries, rather than proudly marching, is limping along because of social ignorance. India’s best and most active citizens are chained by their collective belief that they must continue to deny themselves their just dues in the name of purity and selflessness.

While we are held in the grip of this mythology, vested interests with plenty of spare time, money power and manpower are corrupting the administration on a daily basis. This negative mythology is keeping the RTI activists and the common people – even those who are being exploited and victimized — from pooling their resources. Our false beliefs prevent us from teaming up to fight the forces that steal our fundamental rights in broad daylight.

WHAT RTI ACTIVISTS THINK

(a)   There is a great fear that talking about payment will cause loss of reputation. “What will people think? They may think that we are only after money, and they will stop coming to us,” they worry.

(b)   Some activists feel that one may enter into dealings privately, but not discuss it openly and in public. In other words, taking money is fine, but it should be a closely guarded secret. However, this approach endangers the RTI activists’ reputation, as they can be blackmailed. Also, it threatens to seduce and corrupt the activists.

(c)    Some activists feel that money may be legitimately sought only after setting up an NGO, trust or society. They feel that money should not be sought as a direct payment from the beneficiary, but instead, from a donor or sponsor — a form of social subsidy. Also, the payment to the activist should not be a salary in proportion to the true commercial value of the services rendered, but a small fraction of it – a sort of subsistence wage that is termed as “honorarium”.  This sort of a financial chastity-belt is needed to keep the activist pure and above taint, it seems.

(d)   The term “RTI activist” itself seems to cause emotional turmoil. Instead, if terms like “RTI consultant”, “RTI professional” or even “RTI trainer” are used, it appears to make both sides – activists and beneficiaries — comfortable with the idea of remuneration.

In this regard, read the views of Shrikant Soman, an AGNI activist for better governance http://tinyurl.com/AGNI-activists-thoughts

WHAT THE PEOPLE THINK

The common man looks at the RTI activist and wonders, “What is this guy doing, and why? He doesn’t want votes, and he doesn’t want notes… so what does he want?” He has great difficulty in comprehending the hunger for clean administration that drives the RTI activist.

The common man understands NGOs, because they have visible sources of funding, and everybody who works there gets a salary. He understands paid social workers, although he despises them because they are underpaid and unappreciated. He understands journalists and lawyers, because the connection between their work is their livelihood. But he looks at the RTI activist and wonders, “Who is feeding you if you are doing RTI activism for 6-8 hours per day? Where is the connection between this activity and your remuneration?” If he gets no answers, he suspects that the activist must be a political worker or blackmailer, secretly backed by someone and provoked to do RTI activism. If nothing else, he concludes that the RTI activist is a habitual troublemaker with nothing better to do in life.

If the common man wants the RTI activist’s help, he doesn’t know on what terms he should approach him. Should he offer money, or will it be seen as offering a bribe? Should he give a donation up front? Or should he wait until his work is done? Or will he be expected to pay hour? The terms of their relationship are completely beyond his comprehension.

As I see it, the common man does not really need RTI activists who act like idealistic monks. He needs a band of practical warriors whom he can relate to and possibly also join.

EVALUATE THE MERITS OF DIFFERENT FUNDING SOURCES

  1. LARGE DONORS. Well-known NGOs more-or-less plead with large donors, “See the good work that we are doing for the public, and support this activity with a large chunk of money.” For NGOs, the donors are trusts, foundations or companies with Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) budgets. Individual activists (the lucky few) find well-to-do friends who contribute towards their favourite activities on event-by-event or case-by-case basis. Disadvantages:

(i)                 In the long run, donors cause distortions in the work; rather than doing what they initially out to do, activists may end up doing what their donors want them to do. They go where the money is, rather than where the genuine need is… and thus they lose their integrity.

(ii)               Beneficiaries often speak badly of the NGOs. They accuse them of making a profit from the donations, instead of using the amounts on beneficiaries.

(iii)             As the funding and work output are unrelated, there is a indeed good chance that corruption will set in sooner or later.

  1. SMALL-SCALE DONATIONS: Some NGOs solicit small donations (say Rs 50 to Rs 500) from a large numbers of individuals. Disadvantage: Fund-collection becomes a time-consuming task. Sometimes, the time spent in collecting money, issuing receipt, accounting etc is more than the time spent in doing the actual work! Also, the public becomes cynical as soliciting funds is a highly visible activity, whereas the work is relatively less visible. Other disadvantages are as in (ii) and (iii) of point A.
  1. FUND-RAISER EVENTS. Fund-raising events are organized (such as charity lunches and movies), and the NGO sells high-priced tickets through a network of friends to its well-wishers.  The funds mobilized enable it to carry on its activities for a few months. Disadvantage: It puts repetitive stress on friends and well wishers, who may turn cold and inaccessible after a few such events. Also, flashy fund-raising events are more publicized than the work that the NGO does. This can damage its reputation.
  1. BENEFICIARIES — The most straightforward sources of funding. People who benefit from the activities the NGO or individual activists can be asked to pay in some proportion to the benefits received. Currently, our mindset presents great difficulty in implementing this.

(i)                 MAI-BAAP MENTALITY. Beneficiaries – including well-to-do people – habitually feel that those activists should serve for free or for a pittance. People are against paying for a ‘welfare activity’.

(ii)               GULLIBLE PUBLIC IS ALSO SUSPICIOUS. People who hand over their home worth crores of rupees to a fraud redeveloper without even reading the agreement, hesitate before paying a few thousand rupees to an activist to rescue their asset.

(iii) ACTIVISTS ARE NOT CLEAR WHAT TO CHARGE. Even activists who are businessmen fail to apply business and accounting principles to activism. They find it objectionable that an activist who rescues an asset may charge as much as, say, an estate agent i.e. one percent of the asset value. Or say, a lawyer, who charges Rs 25 – 50,000 to prepare a brief, and Rs 5 – 10,000 per hearing. Activists are uneasy about being equated with estate agents or lawyers, even if their value addition is comparable, because they do not want to be seen as commercial service-providers. They want to be in a category of their own!

(iv)  ACTIVISTS SUFFER FROM SELF-DOUBT. Deep inside, RTI activists lack self-esteem. Examples of this are abundant. They will never apply for the job of information commissioner, although they are entitled to it. Activists do more genuine work than their local MLA, but they find it unthinkable that they too can stand for election, even as independents. When newspaper reporters use activists’ information without giving them credit, they do not object, but are tongue-tied. Even if their information commissioner is a crook, activists make him the chief guest at their award ceremonies, and happily receive awards at his hands. Although activists criticize DOPT for non-implementation of the RTI Act, they crave recognition of their knowledge of RTI in the form of a DOPT certificate.

In short, in a variety of situations, activists are unable to stand up for themselves and ask for the recognition, honour and remuneration that is their just due. Activists just want to keep their imaginary halo intact. They want to be saints, even if it means being ineffective!

WHO BENEFITS? NOT SOCIETY, BUT UNLAWFUL ELEMENTS

All our campaigning work for better governance is out-of-pocket, and must be so – because the government will never pay us for exposing its scams and forcing it to act. Also, the costs of voluntarily educating the public and spreading knowledge of Rule of Law will probably continue to be borne by us. These are high-energy pursuits, but they can be done with minimal funds… and so we bravely soldier on.

But it appears that we CAN afford to let private individuals – rich and poor both — stand undefended against the combined onslaught of the builder mafia, vested interests, corrupt officials etc. We activists are actually letting this happen; we are standing by, watching, commenting and advising, but not getting involved. Is this how it should be?

In Shakespeare’s immortal words, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

One Comment »

  • JAI BHAGWAN said:

    In the issue of ” INDIA TODAY” for the month of Dec. 2010, there was a story regarding corruption in E S I Corporation department under MINISTRY OF LABOUR AND EMPLOYMENT, BY MR. P.C.CHATURVEDI,IAS , PRESENTLY WORKING AS LABOUR SECRETARY, AND WHO WAS DIRECTOR GENERAL IN ESIC EARLIER, WHAT ACTION HAS SINCE BEEN TAKEN AGAINST HIM , AS HE IS GOING TO RETIRE 31-08-2011. DO SOMETHING ACCORDING TO LAW URGENTLY .