An In-form Activist

  • Abhishek Behl / FG
  • India
  • Feb 15, 2013

When Aseem Takyar filed his first RTI in 2007, to know why the ESI/PF cards of his factory’s workers were not being delivered on time, he did not know that this action would change his life forever. Within a couple of days of filing the RTI, the department—which had been dilly-dallying for months—delivered the documents, and also ensured that he remained in good humour. Takyar has now filed almost 2,000 RTI applications, has asked questions from all levels of the government, taken up cudgels on behalf of Gurgaonites as well as people in other parts of the country, and has become a full-time Information Activist. His goal is to bring more transparency and accountability in the system, and he has complete faith in the power of the RTI Act. “Once I started to get more information I realised that RTI could be used to shake up the system.” His latest RTI application has forced the Haryana Police to file a Special Leave Petition (SLP) with the State High Court.

Takyar had asked the Haryana Police how much money and resources were being spent on providing security, vehicles and other support staff to MLAs and MPs. “The Haryana Police denied an answer, saying that it could compromise the security of important state functionaries. However, the State Information Commissioner, and even the Court, did not agree to the contention put forth by the Police. Hopefully we will know soon what cost the people have to bear to protect their representatives,” he asserts. Last year it was an application filed by him with the Gurgaon Fire Department that led to the purchase of ladders that could reach the tops of multi-storied buildings

The RTI Act has led to a free flow of information, which was earlier kept wrapped up as a secret, and did not allow healthy debate on issues that are relevant to people, Takyar asserts. He further says that democratising of information and knowledge is crucial, as it leads to balanced development, and provides equal opportunities to all. The involvement of a large number of NGOs in the development process has also ensured that RTI applications are now used on a large scale, to detect inefficiencies in the implementation of various schemes launched by the government – such as MNREGA, supply of food grains, and massive building of infrastructure across the country, he adds.

In cities like Gurgaon, where the Administration has failed to keep pace with the growth, Takyar has constantly asked questions which have forced them to wake up. For instance he asked HUDA as to how many times the underground and overground tanks for water storage had been cleaned, and why boards were not fixed at the site to inform the schedule for cleaning. “This is public information, and HUDA has to provide it. As result of the RTI the Department was asked to fix the boards across the State. However, it is important to get such orders implemented both in letter and spirit. The ownership by government departments is important,” says Takyar. “There is no proper mechanism to check whether the directions have been complied with or not. Many time officials try to give misleading information, just to satisfy the authorities,” he says.

In another instance, his RTI application forced the authorities to act  when he found that two post offices in Gurgaon—one at Udyog Vihar and another in DLF Galleria—were not booking railway tickets because of non-availability of blank ticket rolls. “I was surprised by the non-functioning of the postal department for such a reason. I filed an RTI with the railways, as to why this was happening, and within a couple of days the booking counter started functioning,” informs Takyar. A couple of weeks ago, he asked the MCG to reveal how it had spent almost 75 lakh rupees on capturing stray dogs and pigs, while there was no perceptible change on the ground.“There is rampant corruption and no accountability in the system. But the RTI has given us a tool which enables us to ask prickly questions. Many times it has led to positive action,” he says. Villagers across India have managed to pin down doctors, health workers, teachers, public distribution officials and employment generation programmes, using the RTI applications effectively.

“This Act has allowed people to get the requisite information, and take the concerned officials to task for non-performance,” he says. Many times the system starts working merely with the filing of the application. However, in cases where the corruption is entrenched and political interference is high, as in the case of real estate in Gurgaon, it is difficult even for an RTI activist of his calibre to scratch beyond the surface. Takyar had tried to get information about the various ‘Change of Land Use’ orders issued by the Haryana government, that favoured some people. This information could not be obtained as there was political pressure, and all channels were tried to dissuade people who had filed such a contentious RTI. Apart from a few cases, he has been able to get information about the various issues related to governance, and public projects of the State and central government.

Another positive of the RTI Act is that is has helped in increasing the participation of citizens in the poverty alleviation and socio-economic development programmes. The RTI empowers people to question the feasibility, targeting, implementation and goals of a major government project, and has led to a citizen-centric approach to development, says Takyar. It was an RTI filed by Takyar which forced the DTCP to act on EWS Housing, and the Gurgaon DC was asked by the Department to get information about the implementation of the scheme by various private builders. This led to an official acknowledgement that the EWS scheme was not working, and was being manipulated by the builders for their own benefit, he asserts. 

Takyar filed an RTI with DHBVN when he found that the rate of burning of electricity meters was as high as 20 per cent every year, and consumers had to bear the brunt. “I have asked the department why it is not stopping companies that supply poor quality meters. This loss to the public could not have been revealed without the RTI application. The government needs to look into this, and the public must put pressure to end this menace,” he asserts.

Another strength of this Act is that Section 4 calls upon the central and state public authorities to suo motu provide to the public the information as prescribed therein, so that the public has to take a minimum recourse to the use of this legislation for obtaining information. Takyar says that the provision for seeking information as provided in Section 6 of the Act is very simple. A citizen has to merely make a request to the concerned Public Information Officer (PIO), specifying the information sought by him. The fee payable is reasonable, and information is to be provided free of cost to citizens living below the poverty line. An individual can file an RTI concerning central government departments even in a post office; the disinterest shown by postal authorities forced him to file an RTI, asking why some officials were not designated as PIOs. This led to a change, and now post offices have designated officials to handle complaints, he says.

The RTI Act gives the citizen the right to inspect work, documents and records;  take notes, extracts or certified copies of the documents or records; take certified sample of material; and obtain information in electronic form, if available. After the implementation of the Act, Takyar says that transparency has improved, as officials are now wary of issuing incriminating orders, include file notings, as these are now needed to be put in the public domain. Efforts are also being made to implement the programmes seriously, as state functionaries know that questions can be asked about the same, he adds.

When asked about the functioning of RTI Act in Haryana, he observes that there is lack of information and training about the Act in the State. Across the board, the officials are not interested in sharing information, and an RTI application revealed that only 12 training programs were conducted by HIPA last year in Gurgaon. “The officials do not know about the Act, they are not trained to handle applications, and this leads to appeals and more delays,” he complains. Lately, the Haryana State Information Commission has become more active, after Naresh Gulati took over as the State CIC. Takyar says that the holding of a Camp Office in Gurgaon has given a new lease of life to the Commission, as there are a large number of activists from Gurgaon who are using this tool to help ensure improved governance.

The State must find ways to implement the Act in letter and spirit. “The private sector companies, which have a major impact on society and the economy of the country, and are working closely with the government, should also be brought under the gamut of the RTI Act. The private companies are scaling up like never before, and they need to be made accountable,” he asserts. Takyar also wants that PIOs should be made responsible for their acts, and should be penalised for withholding information

When asked about threats to, and the intimidation of, RTI activists, which has been on the rise in the past few years, he says that it is the duty of the system to protect whistleblowers and activists. “If people are revealing information that saves the tax payers’ money and reduces corruption, then they must be protected,” he asserts. His own goal is to keep on filing RTIs in the larger public interest, so that development becomes citizen-centric, and the weaker sections also get their due. 


“It is surprising that the Prime Minister’s Office is more open and co-operative than the local HUDA or HSIIDC,” he says.


To make it easier for the people across Haryana to get information from the State Information Commission, RTI applicants from this week will be able to attend the hearings from their district head quarters, through video-conferencing. Takyar says that since people from distant parts of the State had to visit Chandigarh multiple times, he had requested the State Information Commission to install a video-conferencing facility. “Since all the DC offices in Haryana already have this facility, the applicants can now go to the DC Office and attend the hearings,” he says. 


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