RTI awards: North shows the way
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If the RTI Act is a weapon, North India surely has a winning team of warriors. Out of the five citizens selected for National RTI Awards-2010 from the country, two are from Haryana, while the government official declared winner in the 'Best Public Information Officer' (PIO) category is a 30-year-old Block Development Officer (BDO) from Himachal Pradesh.
Hisar-based RTI activist Ramesh Kumar Verma, who bagged the Best RTI Citizen award, exposed that substandard medicines were being given to patients in government hospitals of Haryana and Delhi, PGI and even to paramilitary forces. Verma told The Indian Express: "I had always wondered why patients at government hospitals would say medicines were not working. This impelled me to file RTI pleas in the health departments of Haryana and Delhi, the Union Ministry of Health and the PGI. I asked them how many medicines were found to be substandard in their tests and what amount was administered to the patients before the report came."
"When the first appellate authority in Haryana remarked that they doubted my intentions, I moved the information commission, where Commissioner Meenaxi Anand Chaudhary directed the authorities to remove the comments and provide documents," said Verma.
Finally, when he got information after six months, he found that five crore substandard medicines of 49 types had been given to patients. "And the patients included pregnant women, children and paramilitary forces staff. The matter was raised in the Lok Sabha, and finally a decision was taken to test the pills before giving them to patients and allow suppliers a Rs 25-crore turnover," he said.
Incidentally, the second winner is also from Hisar. Manoj Kumar Karwarsa, 46, a teacher at Skylark International School in Barwala, Hisar, exposed that panchayat members of his native Kirdhan village in Fatehabad district had encroached upon four kanals meant for a primary health centre. On being denied information, he moved the information panel, where Commissioner Asha Sharma ordered the PWD and the financial commissioner to get an inquiry conducted and submit report within six months, he said. "The illegal construction was demolished in four months. Now, the villagers, too, have started filing RTI pleas, forcing the panchayat and other bodies to maintain transparency," said Karwarsa, who is also an ace athlete and has won two silver and one bronze in the Asian Masters Athletics Championship that concluded in Kuala Lumpur on December 12.
While the government officials have been calling RTI Act a burden, Himachal BDO Pradeep Kumar has set an example by giving information to all 65 applicants who approached his Bilaspur office. He told The Indian Express: "This is a victory of my staff. I personally call up applicants in case information sought is voluminous or unavailable, and also inform about the status of their applications."
He said he had been trying to change the mindset of people towards PIOs and vice versa. Giving an example, he said: "Once a man asked for various details of 44 panchayats. Though I put my staff on the job, it was a Herculean task. I called up the applicant and offered to take him in my car to all panchayats so that he could inspect records and then tell us what exactly does he want. He felt embarrassed and changed his application."
The awards, which were instituted by the Public Cause Research Foundation of Magsaysay Award winner Arvind Kejriwal, will be given away in January. The jury included Narayana Murthy, Justice J S Verma, Madhu Trehan, J M Lyngdoh and Sanjay Gupta.