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.
Representation image. Credit: Twitter
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
Ratna Ala. Credit: Vikas Joshi
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.
Himesh Vankar. Credit: Vikas Joshi
“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.
Usha Dhawan. Credit: Vikas Joshi
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.”
Liked the story? We’re a non-profit. Make a donation and help pay for our journalism.
What to read next:
SMALL TALK: The sound of writing
By Vinutha MallyaVinutha Mallya, Pune Mirror | Updated: Nov 26, 2017, 02.30 AM IST
PIC: DHANANJAY HELWADE
Creator of podcast series about writers and their craft is set to venture into newer territories
Audio podcasting has been a rage in the West for half a decade now, made easy by voice recording apps, online networks that host and distribute, and portable media players for playback. From entrepreneurship, journalism, sports, entertainment, education, relationship advice and spiritual guidance, to even religious sermons — podcasting is being harnessed in different fields.
Although it is yet to catch on in a big way in India, a spurt in podcasting activity, evidenced by the popularity of shows like Cyrus Says, The Real Food Podcast, and The Intersection, signals that more is to come. “Many people don’t yet understand the concept of podcasting, whereas in America it is a full-fledged industry,” says Vikas Prakash Joshi, the 28-yearold founder of Literary Gupshup, the city’s (quite likely the country’s) first literary podcast of its kind, which was launched in September 2016. Convinced that the human voice allows a unique connect between people, Joshi chose audio podcasting for his project to interview writers and translators in Pune. “When I looked for a website in which I could find the views of different writers based in Pune — whether in English or Marathi — I found them scattered in different places,” he explains.
After 13 episodes, having featured the writers Mini Srinivasan, Deepak Dalal, Leela Gour Broome, Randhir Khare, Gouri Dange, Sowmya Rajendran, Dharmakirti Sumant, and translators Vilas Salunkhe and Bharti Pande, among others, the endeavour has proved to be a learning experience for Joshi. Using rudimentary tools like his mobile phone, he had to learn to record, edit sound files, improve the audio quality, and host them. “I was a nobody with a new concept, but most of the interviewees were very supportive and gave me their valuable time,” he recalls. For Joshi, currently a communications officer at Watershed Organisation Trust — with a master’s degree in development studies from TISS, Mumbai and a postgraduate diploma in print journalism from ACJ, Chennai — his training in interviewing people has come in handy. This has been aided by his stint with a city newspaper as well as independent journalistic work.
By the fifth episode of Literary Gupshup, Joshi realised that he had to market the series. He began by putting up posters at popular venues in the city, and attended writers’ meetups, asked his interviewees to circulate the interviews and did it himself too, all to spread the word. “I once learnt a valuable lesson from a small kid selling ice cream when I was standing outside a bookstore distributing brochures. He told me, ‘Don’t hand it to those who are going in. They won’t pay attention to it because the things inside are more attractive; give it when they exit because they will look at it then’,” recollects Joshi.
While the best podcasts presenting authors’ voices (in English) are coming out of New York and London — think Guardian’s Books Podcast, BBC Radio’s Books and Authors, New York Public Library Podcast — hardly any podcasts focus on the writers’ craft. (The closest is MyKitaab, with interviews of publishing industry professionals including authors, analysing trends and talking about book marketing.) “Literary Gupshup’s attempt is to make readers aware how the writer became a writer, their evolution, and what they went through to get published,” Joshi says.
Currently hosted on the audio streaming platform, SoundCloud, Literary Gupshup has listeners in cities like Delhi, Ahmedabad, Dubai, Perth and Dallas. The podcaster plans to improve the quality of his podcasts with the help of a professional producer, and also branch out into video podcasting, theme-based discussions, interviews with authors from other parts of the country, as well as nurture writing talent.
Joshi is picky about whom he features. “Literature by definition is niche. Everybody won’t be interested these podcasts. I am keen to focus on literary authors, whose books are well known, but we haven’t heard them in their own voice.”