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‘Today, I feel like Amitabh Bachchan’

Monday, April 02, 2012

RTI has given the common man uncommon power --  to access information hitherto out of bounds for him purely because it was in the hands of authority. Yet, because nothing in India is ever clear, simple or easy, even with the law to back one, RTI has given rise to a whole new industry of people who have studied how to use the Act most effectively. One such individual is Krishna H. Rao or Krishnaraj Rao, as he is better known among the class of activists who have specialized in this genre of occupation. So special in fact, that he calls himself, not an activist but an educator. Just before giving a talk on RTI at Mulund, Shwetha Kannan caught up with him for the ADC.

RTI activist is a non-electoral politician
An RTI activist is a non-electoral politician who influences the administration of the city, the state and the country without seeking votes. Being an activist doesn’t mean bashing the government all the time. An activist can be someone who understands the rules that guide governance, knows what are the rules and norms, combines them and does a performance audit.

SITTING on the terrace of the school, dressed in a simple shirt and a formal pant, with no airs about being one of the better known RTI activists of the city, Krishnaraj seemed to be set to be bombarded with questions of all sorts. What he wasn’t prepared for was the photo session: an essential part of any full-fledged interview. But again, exhibiting his co-operative side, he obliged and posed the way the photographer wanted him to. “I feel like Amitabh Bachchan”, he declared, phoning his friends to tell them cheerfully that he was receiving ‘star treatment’ from the media.

Sipping chai from a steel glass evidently helped as he spoke about his journey in the world of RTI.

“I was always into activism and interested in issues that affect the daridra narayan (the common man). In 2008, I had led several agitations and protests about the bad conditions of roads in the city and got a good response. But somehow the impact wasn’t much. But then I was noticed by Shailesh Gandhi (the Information Commissioner), who asked me to come and meet him in Delhi. And there he taught me everything about the RTI Act, clause by clause so that I could use it to get better results. I was a part of a few of his adda meetings where RTI and other related issues used to be discussed. They were fun informal meetings but very useful.”

Thus, year 2008 saw Krishnaraj’s entry into the world of RTI. Surprisingly, for someone so well-known in the field, he has only seven to eight RTIs to his credit. But for him, the number of RTIs he has helped push through are irrelevant.  What helped is the fact that he has been a journalist for most of his working life, both with branded publications as well as with smaller magazines.    
Freelancing occupied him as well, till he found RTI.    

Journalist for 24 years
Like he puts it, “Being an activist is not only about filing RTIs and getting information but also about helping people understand RTI, help writing applications, helping people with the right format to file an RTI and helping them draft the complaint in a way that is precise yet powerful.”
Being a journalist for 24 years has undoubtedly helped. He has a keen sense of news and his writing is precise and to the point, both invaluable skills when drafting RTI applications.

The public as well the media would vouch for this because they look forward to his emails that talk about an RTI finding,  in a way that makes the issue easy to understand for the common man and interesting to write about for the media.

Narrating an incident that turned him in the direction of activism, he said, “Once I met Sanjay Shirodkar (another well known RTI activist from Pune) and saw the body of work and the collection of information. It was amazing, huge.  So I thought, why be a competitor to other RTI activists by filing RTIs? Why not pass on this information in a way that would be helpful to people? Why not use my writing skills to put across useful information in the right manner? So I got into making press releases for RTI activists and putting them up in the public domain where the information can be accessed by one and all.

All said and done, this work does take up time and energy and not to mention some money as well. So it goes without saying that an RTI activist, at least in today’s times, needs to have a proper day job. While Krishnaraj says that there are options like being an RTI consultant, charging for filing applications etc., he did not seem much in support of this idea.

“I had also thought about this but it is a difficult journey. People’s perception about you changes and people don’t relate to you. The moment you start charging people, you become a professional from being an activist. And so right now, RTI is social work.”

Comfortingly, he has an agency which he and his wife had started in 1991, which started off as a photo features agency but  is now into content creation for websites and writing scripts for adult educational videos. “The business is good and to be honest, my wife is more involved in it. That is alright but there has to be a job that gives you a steady income,” said Krishnaraj.

Talk about income and sustenance steered the conversation to survival.     The threat that RTI activists receive and with several RTI activists having lost their lives, is very real.

According to Krishnaraj, both the activists and the government have to take steps and make sure that filing RTIs don’t become fatal for the activists.

“The government should implement an effective ‘Whistleblower’s policy’. There has to be a mechanism to protect the whistleblower, investigate and keep in mind the relationship between the whistleblower and the person against whom he has given information. There should a whistleblower centre at all levels. And as far as the activists and whistle blowers are concerned, high risk behaviour like working in secrecy, stock piling information, or not putting it in public domain put activists in danger.”

He also went on say that RTI at times can be misused. “RTI is a new tool and is nice and shiny but there is a myth around it that it is the most powerful and other tools like complaints, petitions, letters, agitation and advocacy are not as powerful. This is not true. Out of every ten public domain RTIs, eight are unnecessary.

They could have been solved using other means. RTI is one of the tools in the kit for bringing about a change and that is all. The entire kit of instruments has to be understood to bring about a change.”

Before signing off, Krishnaraj said, “For the past 60 years we refused to take ownership of the problems of the country, leaving governance to the politicians, administration to the administrators, policing to the police. We were just consumers and critics. But now it is time this changes. We need to take ownership of the problems and see to it that we try to make our country a leader in whichever way we can. Take up an issue that appeals to you the most. Use your domain knowledge to make things better around you. Then see what happens.”


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