The RTI is a powerful tool for the persons with disabilities, but there is a need to go beyond simply providing information and offer meaningful solutions.
India has a large population of persons with disabilities – 26.8 million according to Census 2011. Traditionally, this section of the population has struggled to access the facilities, such as the Right to Information Act (RTI), that it is entitled to.
According to Pankti Jog of the Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP) – an organisation working to promote the use of the RTI in Gujarat and in India, “Within the deprived sections of society, the disabled are at a double disadvantage. The RTI is a powerful tool that they can use but awareness is still low.”
With World Disability Day (December 3) having just gone by, let us look at three instances of persons with disabilities in Gujarat who have successfully made use of the RTI.
A blind man’s vision
It was the poor condition of the approach road to the Rangpar village near Rajkot that prompted the 38-year-old sarpanch, Ratna Ala, to consider filing an RTI application. “I had heard about the RTI helpline run by the MAGP on the radio so I phoned them up and they guided me on how to file it,” he recalls.
However, to his dismay, the officials at the panchayat office made fun of him. “They said as a blind man, you have no right to ask such questions and even laughed at me,” he said.
Unperturbed by their comments, Ala filed the first appeal under the RTI before the taluka development officer and found that according to official records, the road had been repaired twice. Owing to the outrage among the villagers when they learnt about it and the publicity in the local press, an approach road was built to his village in 2009. Later that year, the Times of India awarded Ala the Rahul Mangaonkar Award in recognition of his judicious use of the RTI for a common cause.
Since then, Ala has used the RTI extensively. He even succeeded in eliminating bogus voters from the gram panchayat electoral list in 2011.
In 2012, 281 acres of gauchar or grazing land in the village was illegally allocated to a clock manufacturing company without the approval of the gram sabha. Through the RTI, Ala pursued the case. It eventually reached the Gujarat high court, which ruled in his favour.
Currently, Ala is focused on the illegal mining taking place in the gauchar land in his village. Even though he has received death threats for his activism, he maintains, “I am not deterred.”
Discovering medical negligence
In 2014, Himesh Vankar, a tailor living in Himmatnagar in Gujarat, was overjoyed to become the father of a girl.
His happiness, however, was short-lived. Just 20 days after giving birth, Vankar’s wife Ganga passed away. For the last two years, he has been using the RTI to prove that her death was caused due to medical negligence.
“My wife was admitted to Ahmedabad Civil Hospital on January 31, 2014, and delivered on February 1, 2014, and discharged thereafter on February 4. She started complaining of pain and was admitted to General Hospital, Himmatnagar on February 9 before being referred to Ahmedabad Civil Hospital again on February 11. She then died on February 20,” he said.
Vankar has filed seven RTI applications to ascertain the cause of her death.
The 32-year-old suffers from a medical syndrome called kyphoscoliosis due to which he is only 135 cm tall. The condition afflicted his wife too.
“The report I got under RTI from Ahmedabad Civil Hospital was that an infection had set in due to septicemia caused by the presence of a foreign body. Dr. Bhamini Pandit, who operated on her on February 9, wrote that she had removed an epistolary pad kept to stop the bleeding but the doctors at the Civil Hospital never informed me that such a pad had been kept. Such pads are supposed to be removed within 24 hours. So I requested the report from February 1 but the hospital initially said they didn’t have the same. They later gave me the report from February 11. When I filed another RTI application, they gave me the same report but wrote zero in place of one and claimed that this was a printing mistake and that it was actually [the report from] February 1,” he alleged.
“Even the Mamata Card, which every pregnant woman in Gujarat is allotted, was tampered with post my wife’s death. It was written in the card after her death that my wife was in delicate health and that a pregnancy could potentially be life threatening. If such details had been written down before, we may never have had a child,” he added.
“I have even written a letter to the Gujarat Medical Council and the State Human Rights Commission. The matter is now pending with them. Though the council has promised a hearing but nothing has happened.”
Neeta Hardikar from Anandi, an organisation that works for women’s welfare in Gujarat, observed that “Vankar’s case shows that facilities for women to deliver safely are even today absent in our country, especially [for] differently abled women.”
Woman reclaims her livelihood
In a small PCO booth near Ahmedabad’s bustling Vijay Cross Roads sits Usha Dhawan. Althought Dhawan lacks 80% of the function in her right hand and 50% in her left, she continues to successfully use the RTI in order to reclaim her telephone booth that was her source of income.
Fifty-year-old Dhawan is a single woman. In 1993, she was allocated a phone booth near Subhash Chowk by the Blind People’s Association from where she had done a tailoring course. After an earthquake destroyed the booth in 2001, another was allotted to her near the D.K. Patel Hall. However, in 2006, it was demolished as part of an anti-encroachment drive by the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (AMC).
“I was clueless as to what to do as it was my only source of income. I then read an article about an RTI camp in Gujarat Samachar. After filing an RTI application in 2006, I was shocked to get a reply that the booth was not in my name at all. I sought an explanation as to why the booth was taken away but got no answer,” she said.
“I then filed the first appeal but still didn’t get an answer. I even borrowed Rs 5,000 from a moneylender and paid it as a bribe to a man who claimed to be close to the local corporator Dr. Kamlesh Patel but even then nothing happened. Finally, after filing a second appeal, the State Information Commission allotted the booth in my name and then transferred it to G.B. Shah College in Vasna.”
Her troubles, however, were far from over. “As a single woman who is disabled, I had to deal with harassment from [drug addicts]. So in 2013 I sought the AMC to change the location of the booth and it was transferred to its present location.”
All’s not well
Although Ala, Vankar and Dhawan have successfully used the RTI, they have their share of criticism. Dhawan, for instance, has criticised the delays in getting justice and the expenses involved in using the Act. According to her, “The Act only gives you information. What after that? There are delays in getting information as well, and often one has to go to first and second appeals which is time consuming and expensive for a disabled person.”
Vankar, on the other hand, considers the RTI to be a powerful tool but believes that bodies like the Human Rights Commission must have the power to take action instead of just recommending steps.
Need to prioritise persons with disabilities
According to R.N. Das, former state information commissioner and current advisor to the Odisha State Planning Board, there is a need to prioritise the RTI appeals and complaints of persons with disabilities.
“Widows, differently abled and senior citizens need to be given priority when it comes to the appellate stage under the RTI Act. The problem for the differently abled is that the process of hearing appeals takes years in many states; so the cases involving these sections should be taken up out of turn. The PIOs [public information officers] must not regard the RTI Act as merely a tool to provide information but must instead go to the root of the problem and then solve them instead.”