Sunday, January 30, 2005

The right to information in Karnataka

Charity begins at home, and so does volunteerism... In this spirit, this entry will profile the activities of my father-in-law, Mr. Ravindranath Guru. Appaji had decided to do only voluntary work post-retirement, and luckily or unluckily for him, he didn't have to go very far to find something to do. Two doors down from their house in Bangalore is located the 'Udupi Hall', which rents out space for marriages, parties etc. The traffic on 24th Cross, BSK IInd stage is already high – the presence of the Udupi Hall means a parking nightmare, noise pollution and general nuisance to residents. Bangalore city's by-laws require commercial enterprises to provide parking facilities (generally in the basement of the premises) and Udupi Hall is in clear violation of this.

Using the Karnataka Right to Information Act (KRIA), Appaji's group, the Banashankari II Stage Welfare Association obtained drawings submitted by the owner to the BMP (Bangalore Mahanagara Palike, the municipal corporation). These drawings in no way reflect the actual layout of the Hall, which has two party rooms instead of the one proposed. With this and photographs of road congestion as proof, the Welfare Association has been following up with the Engineer, Chief Engineer and so on, all the way up to the Lokayukta.

The Lokayukta is a special office created by the Karnataka government to provide accountability in governance. The Lokayukta has judicial powers and can issue directives to officials who have been derelict in their duties. The current Lokayukta met with members of the Welfare Association and asked them to submit a complaint in writing, which he will follow up on.

Appaji is also keeping track of what is happening in the greater world of Right-to-Information. With him, I attended a meeting organized by KRIA Katte, an informal group that comes together to discuss various issues relating to KRIA. The issues discussed included advocacy for amendments to the Act to strengthen it. For example, in Maharashtra, officials who fail to provide information can be fined – in Thane district alone, Rs. 68000 has been collected as fines.Further, Parliament is discussing a Central RIA, whose impact on State Laws is yet to be understood.

Attendees shared their experiences. One old gentleman, a member of a group called Suprajaa, is trying to obtain property tax information for his ward to follow up on those who have not paid property taxes. Others have followed up on commercial properties which are often more egregious violaters. Yet another attendee obtained information on the number of licenses issued for hairdressers, medical shops etc in his neighborhood and began counting them on his morning walk. He found that only about a quarter of the businesses in his neighborhood were registered!

Attendees advised each other on how to best obtain information and debated vigorously on approaches to follow. Most appeared to be senior citizens. A few middle-aged and young people were present, including a lawyer from CHRI. But the preponderance of age in the room made a few people remark on how happy they were to see me, even though I was just visiting.

Last, but in no way the least, a note on my mother-in-law, Vinutha Guru. Along with monitoring Appaji's health (he's had heart surgery and is diabetic) as best as any mortal can and managing the household with military efficiency, she tutors indigent children. Currently, she is wading through fifth grade material with an eighth grader who attends an underfunded, substandard government school. Who is a tougher challenge for her – Appaji or the eight grader – I am yet to ascertain!

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