Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Ration at last!

Kanti who lives in a slum settlement in South Delhi is happy because the Government is providing her with 25 kg wheat and 10 kg rice per month at highly subsidized prices. This is a new phenomenon for her despite the fact that she has been living in the slum for over 15 years. Till about two months ago, she would not have believed it if someone told her she would actually get her ration entitlement from her ration shop keeper.

The Delhi Government provides foodgrains and kersone oil at very low rates for every poor family but due to large scale corruption, the poor never get their entitlements. SNS has taken steps to fight this malice in low income settlements of South Delhi. It started it’s work from Jagdamba Camp, a slum settlement in Sheikh Sarai by distributing pamphlets regarding the quanity of ration and kersone oil each poor family is supposed to get and the prices they should be charged. The pamphlets also listed the rights of the poor under the PDS.

On reading the pamphlets many women contacted the volunteers of SNS and complained that they had never recieved the correct amount of ration at the prescribed rates . In one shop in Malviya Nagar, women said that the shopkeper had not sold even a grain of rice or wheat to them in fifteen years. About 50-60 women along with the volunteers of SNS contacted the ration shop keeper and the food inspector of the area. The shop keeper eventually had to succumb to public pressure and had to distribute ration properly. For the first time in their lives, the women got their ration from the rationshopkeeper at the correct prices and in the right quantities. Many, in fact, said that it was such a new experience for them that they did not even know how to carry back the 35 kg of grains they had received.

Within a short span of time it is almost as if a revolution has come about related to the PDS in slums like Jagdamba Camp, Begumpur, Lal Gumbad Camp and Swami Nagar. According to the ration shop keepers themselves, if this trend does not stop, it will no longer be lucrative for them to run ration shops in the area. According to Vinita Singh, a representative of the SNS, they are supported in their work on the PDS by several senior Government officials who want that ration meant for the poor actually reaches the intended beneficiaries.

Securing Jameela's Future

The beaming face of Jameela Begum says it all as she walks into SNS’s Information Centre with a box of sweets and a toothless smile. She has finally started getting her old age widow pension.

Diminished by old age, Jameela is unable to do much remunerative work. Five years ago she lost her husband and was forced to live with one of her three married daughters. The son-in-law used to threaten to throw her out lest she willed her jhuggi – her only possession – in his name. Old age widow pension was her only hope of income. Her first application for pension to the Municipal Corporation of Delhi was rejected citing her name on the form as incorrect. With the help of SNS volunteers, she made the requisite correction and applied again. However, the correction was ignored and her application was rejected again. When she approached the concerned officials she was told that she would have to give them money for “chai paani” (bribe) for her application to be processed. “Agar mere paas rishwat dene ko paise hote to mein pension kyun leti? Lagta tha pension kabhi naseeb nahin hogi”, says Jameela. (If I had money for bribing why would I need a pension? I thought I would never get the pension).

Members of SNS encouraged Jameela to file an RTI application asking for an explanation for the rejection of her applications, as well as the list of documents necessary for applying for the government’s pension scheme. MCD failed to provide this information on time, and she filed an application in the appellate authority, the PGC.

At the hearing in the PGC, unable to provide any valid reasons for rejecting her pension applications, the flustered MCD officials promised to instantly put in motion the procedure for making pension available to her.

Jameela has now started getting her pension and can lead a life of dignity at long last.

Hum Honge Kamyaab....

In 2004, the Delhi High Court passed an order making it mandatory for public schools to reserve 20% seats for students from economically weaker sections of society. By this order, all public schools dependent on government grants in any form are required to waive admission costs and fees for poor students applying through this reserved quota. The order also states the criteria for deciding which families fall in this category.

SNS disseminated information about this order to residents of slum settlements in Malviya Nagar. Several people, keen to explore the option of public schools for their children, approached Apeejay School (public school in the area) for admission forms but were turned down by school authorities on various pretexts.

When people approached SNS with this problem, SNS volunteers accompanied them to meet the principal of the school and helped them file RTI applications to the Directorate of Education seeking information regarding availability of seats for the poor in Apeejay school and eligibility norms. Response to the questions asked revealed that Apeejay School was obliged to give admission to a large number of poor students and very few admissions had been given so far.
The information helped mount pressure on the school authorities, with the result that the school made seven token admissions. However, armed with information about the existence of many more vacant seats, guardians and SNS volunteers created pressure on school authorities to follow the stipulated procedure. After much effort, the school was compelled to interview 66 students out of which 25 were selected for admission. Hari Ram, a resident of Jagdamba camp, is overjoyed about his son’s admission to Apeejay School. He says, “Hamen vishwas nahi ho raha ki hamara beta itne bade school me padh raha hai. Soochna ke adhikar ke bina ye mumkin nahi hota.” (We can’t believe our son is studying in such a big school – it wouldn’t have been possible without the Right to Information).

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Cleaning Delhi, the RTI Way

“Please withdraw the RTI application you have filed, we promise to fix all the sanitation related problems in Sheikh Sarai”, said the exasperated MCD Sanitation Inspector to the volunteers of SNS who had filed an RTI application in the MCD when residents of Sheikh Sarai complained in SNS meetings about the non-performance of duties by MCD sweepers. The application sought the names of the Sanitation Inspector and sweepers responsible for cleaning the area and a copy of the attendance register of the sweepers.

As soon as the application was filed, employees of the sanitation department of the MCD started contacting SNS workers asking them the reason for seeking the information and attempting to persuade them to withdraw the application.

“A simple application has caused panic in the department, clearly the ‘Lahori system’ is prevalent in Sheikh Sarai as well” says a resident of the area. ‘Lahori system’ is a term coined for the process wherein MCD sweepers give 50% of their salaries to the Sanitation Inspector responsible for taking their daily attendance in exchange for the Inspector marking them present (without them having to show up for work). The MCD sweepers then take up other jobs in the private sector and the colonies assigned to them remain un-swept and filthy.

Encouraged by the fact that merely asking for the attendance register of the sweepers is eliciting such a response from the MCD employees who are notorious for not listening to pleas of the people, the residents of Sheikh Sarai have started maintaining a parallel attendance register for the sweepers. They ask for the monthly attendance register maintained by the department and compare the two registers. This has exerted such tremendous pressure on the sweepers that they have started turning up for work regularly and cleaning up the area.

“This experience has established that if citizens exercise their right to information, they can gradually bring about a revolutionary change in their surroundings and localities”, says Vinita, a member of SNS.

Will You Spend Rs.30 a Day to Use the Toilet?

Can a person who earns Rs. 60 a day to support a family of 6 afford Rs. 30 a day for using the toilet?

These seemingly absurd questions are everyday struggles for the residents of Jagdamba camp. Lack of a sewer system in this slum settlement makes it impossible for individual homes to have toilets, rendering the residents totally dependent on a public toilet run by the Municipal Corporporation of Delhi (MCD). The MCD sub-contracts the operation and maintenance of this toilet to an NGO.

The contractor (NGO) demanded Re.1 per person every time anyone used the toilet. Even small children, who need to use the toilet more frequently, were required to pay Re.1 every time. The prohibitive cost of this facility left most people with little option but to defecate openly, which became a health concern in the area. Asma, a slum resident, says, “Bachchon se kehta tha paise do nahi to maroonga. Dar ke bachche jate bhi nahi the. ” (He used to threaten to beat the children if they didn’t pay. The kids refused to go to the toilet out of fear).

When the camp’s Mahila Mandal (women’s self help group) approached SNS with these issues, SNS volunteers used the Delhi RTI Act to ask for a copy of the contract awarded by MCD for the operation of the toilet. They also sought information regarding the penalty to be imposed on the contractor for violating the terms of the contract in addition to asking the name and designation of MCD officials responsible for ensuring proper functioning of the toilet.

The information obtained in response to the RTI application clearly stated that as per the contract signed between the MCD and the contractor, children below 12 years of age are to avail the facility free of cost, and the toilet is to be maintained by the NGO on a no-profit no-loss basis.

This information was publicised among residents of the camp and published in SNS’s newsletter Apna Panna, causing uproar. People were furious to know that for over ten years, they had been cheated into paying for the use of the toilet by children below 12 years; and that the non-governmental agency which was supposed to run the facility as service to society had been earning profits of about Rs.50,000 a month!

Empowered with this information, residents approached the MCD Slum department which is responsible for the functioning of MCD toilets in slums and registered a complaint. The community’s pressure resulted in the contract being cancelled and given to another NGO which is now running the toilet properly. Residents, particularly members of the Mahila Mandal, are also insisting that the NGO display the terms of the contract on a board outside the toilet so that no one can be fooled again into paying more for the use of this essential service.

Armed with information about their rights, people are not only better prepared but also more willing to stand up to defend them. Sabina, another resident, exemplifies this change, “Pehle aise mein hum dar jaate the, chup ho jate the. Par ab jab jankari ho gayi hai to hum bhi lad jate hain.” (Earlier we used to get intimidated and keep quiet. But now that we have information, we can also stand up for ourselves and put up a fight).

Hum janenge, hum jiyenge
(We will know, we will live)

For the residents of Ashok’s slum, water problems are a thing of the past. They get a regular and timely supply of water. But things were not always this good. Residents of the slum depend on a Delhi Jal Board (DJB) tubewell for their water requirements. Malfunctioning of this tubewell meant the inhabitants going without water for days together. Ashok says, “We had severe water problems. The water supply was irregular and the water that we got was full of dirt. The tubewell which supplies water to the camp was operated by an employee of the Delhi Jal Board (water utility) who either forgot to switch on the pump or used to turn it on and forget to turn it off thus burning the motor. We often had to got for upto four days without any water”, Water crises in the camp forced residents to either trudge long distances to fetch water or buy it at exorbitant rates.

In the summer of 2005, when water problems assumed mammoth proportions and all pleas to the DJB karamchari to oprate the tubewell properly failed to yield any results, Ashok filed an RTI application asking for the duty timings and attendance records of the karmachari supposed to be on duty at the tube well. He also sought information regarding the official responsible for putting dawai (chlorine) in the water, and the stipulated frequency for putting the dawai. In the absence of a reply to this application within the stipulated 30 days, an appeal was made to the appellate authority, the Public Grievance Commission (PGC), which instructed the DJB to furnish the information sought at the earliest.

The information obtained revealed that the appointed karmachari was supposed to be on duty at the tubewell everyday, and was also supposed to put the dawai daily. The attendance records showed the karmachari to be present everyday, while the residents knew that he came only once a week and did not check the functioning of the tube well even then. When these anomalies were brought to the DJB’s notice, immediate action was taken – the tube well was repaired, a new chlorinator was installed and the concerned karmachari was reprimanded following which he started coming regularly. For Ashok and others in the community, this experience validates the fact that use of the right to information is the first step towards tilting the equation of power between the government and people in favour of the latter.

Cleaning up Act

Jagdamba camp slum in South Delhi is settled around a very large open drain or naala. Sanitation and health issues in the area centre around the naala. It is for this reason that lack of periodic cleaning of the drain till recently was a matter of grave concern for the residents of the camp. According to residents, the cleaning and desilting of the naala, which is the responsibility of the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, was not done for over ten years and as a result its depth reduced from 6 feet to less than 3 feet.

The drain often got blocked, filling people’s homes with filthy water laden with garbage and pests. Manjuran, a resident of the camp, says “Mere ghar mein khane peene ke bartano mein nale ka pani bhar jata tha. Keede chadhte the.” (Sewage water used to get filled in my utensils, the house used to be crawling with pests). She is one among many who had to grapple with this plight.

After repeated pleas to the MCD to clean the naala went unheard, residents took up this key concern at Satark Nagrik Sangathan’s meetings. An RTI application was filed by residents in January 2005 seeking information from the MCD about the stipulated frequency and extent of the cleaning of this naala as well as names and attendance registers of karmacharis and officials responsible for the task. They also sought the names of the relevant authorities to address their complaints to. The reply obtained stated that the naala is to be cleaned once every year before the rainy season. Records obtained included a completion report stating that the naala was thoroughly cleaned in 2004. The said expenditure for this was Rs.1,10,252!

Faced with this information people were indignant and decided to file a complaint in the MCD on the basis of the records obtained. However before they could do anything, the MCD Junior Engineer and inspector visited the slum and assured the residents that they would get the naala cleaned properly. The result of Jagdamba Camp residents using the DRTI Act to seek information has been that the naala has recently been thoroughly cleaned and desilted for the first time in over ten years bringing much needed relief to the residents.

The real impact of the process of seeking information, however, goes beyond the cleaning of the naala and is summed up by Sushila, the president of the camp’s mahila mandal, “Sangathan banakar soochna ke adhikar ka prayog karne se jaise sabki aankhon pe pada parda ekdum se hat gaya. Ab kabhi bhi bedhadak hokar apna hisab apne aap le sakte hain.” (Collective use of the RTI has led to total transparency, we can now demand accountability from the government without any fear).

Reforming the rationwala

“Who’d have ever imagined that we would actually receive our full share of ration one day and our children would not have to sleep on empty stomachs!” says a visibly ecstatic Sunita Devi, a Below Poverty Line (BPL) ration card holder of the Malviya Nagar constituency of Delhi.

Her mood reflects the sentiment of the 7000 families living in slum settlements in Malviya Nagar, who till two years ago, were deprived of their rightful share of ration due to large-scale black marketing and corruption rampant in the Public Distribution System (PDS) – a government scheme to provide essential commodities at subsidized rates to the poor.

For years, ration shopkeepers in Malviya Nagar denied people their ration on the pretext that they did not get any ration supplies from the Government. If cardholders asked for their share of ration, shopkeepers misbehaved with them. Repeated complaints to the Food department fell on deaf ears.

When, in 2003, SNS workers distributed pamphlets in slum settlements giving information about people’s rightful entitlements under the PDS including the quantity and price of ration they are entitled to every month, it stirred up a storm. The Soochna Ghar of SNS became a scene of hectic activity with local ration cardholders meeting to decide how they could set about seeking their legal entitlements under the PDS.

In February 2004 people took the help of SNS to file RTI applications under the Delhi Right to Information Act seeking records of their ration shops– including the stock and sale registers of the shops. Records obtained revealed that the shops had been regularly withdrawing wheat, rice and sugar every month at highly subsidized prices under the PDS but had not been selling the commodities to the intended beneficiaries. The entries made in the daily sale registers of the shops showed that the commodities had been sold to fictitious cardholders. When members of SNS deciphered and disseminated the information obtained to slum dwellers through street corner meetings and discussions, people demanded a forum where they could openly question ration shopkeepers and the concerned officials about the pilferage. The idea of holding a public hearing or jan sunwai was mooted.

A jan sunwai was organized by SNS on July 25, 2004. It was the first of its kind to be held in Delhi and for the first time, a forum was provided to cardholders to publicly demand accountability from government officials and fair price shop owners. The hearing was attended by about 500 people including local ration card holders, representatives of the Food and Supplies (F&S) Department, media persons and interested citizens. The sunwai was presided over by a panel consisting of eminent personalities.

At the public hearing records of ration shops in the area obtained by SNS and local ration cardholders were scrutinized. Ration cardholders of the area publicly testified about the numerous problems faced by them in accessing their quota of ration. They demanded an explanation from the representatives of the Food department as to why no action was taken on their repeated complaints and why the officials were not fulfilling their basic responsibilities.

The jan sunwai was a prime example of people’s empowerment – the first step in shaking up systemic corruption that has been taking place in the PDS, a scheme meant to ensure food security for the poor. As a result of the jan sunwai, show cause notices were served to several ration shopkeepers, their security money was forfeited and shops were suspended. Disciplinary action was initiated against the concerned officials. The pressure created and sustained after the sunwai through regular use of the RTI, has resulted in a marked improvement in the functioning of the PDS in the area– ration shops have been supplying most cardholders their full quota of grains and oil and opening their shops more regularly.

The behaviour of the Food Department officials towards cardholders has also changed significantly. “The department officials who did not even meet us earlier have suddenly become extremely responsive – they now even come to our jhuggis asking us if we have any problems”, says a thrilled Shiela Devi from Lal Gumbad slum. These efforts have had a systemic impact upon PDS delivery not only in the Malviya Nagar area but in the rest of the Capital as well. This is evident by the fact that as a result of such efforts, the Food and Supplies department has decided to throw open all PDS records for public audit on designated days of the month – a step that is likely to enhance transparency in the PDS and act as a deterrent to corruption in the system.

Monday, August 21, 2006

A Glow in Their Lives

A constant refrain of ration cardholders in the weekly meetings at the Information Center of SNS was that they were getting little or no kerosene oil at oil depots meant to distribute subsidized oil under the PDS. Safe in the net of the corruption nexus in the system, the shopkeepers were opening their depots to the cardholders only twice a month instead of six days a week. Women and children had to make innumerable futile trips to the depots only to find them locked.

On the rare occasion when the depots did open for a short while peole used to be blatantly refused oil on the pretext that it was in extremely short supply. Anyone who protested would be abused and bullied by the shopkeepers who were openly selling the subsidized kerosene oil at lucrative prices in the black market (kerosene oil is available at Rs 9 per litre under the PDS as opposed to Rs 27 per litre in the open market). Not surprising then, that there was no oil left to be distributed to the poor cardholders for whom subsidized kerosene was the only source of fuel since other sources were unaffordable.

Ration cardholders finally decided they had had enough when Fatima Begum, a BPL cardholder, was doused with kerosene for demanding her full quota of oil (SNS had informed people about their rightful entitlement of oil under the PDS). With the help of SNS volunteers, in a mass whistle-blowing exercise against corruption in the PDS, local residents lodged 54 complaints with the Food Commissioner against two kerosene oil depots in the area who were notorious for selling their quota of kerosene oil in the black market.

A departmental inquiry was ordered into the matter but no further action followed. Finally, cardholders filed an application under the Delhi RTI Act seeking a copy of the daily progress report of the action taken by the department on the 54 complaints lodged. As soon as the RTI application was filed, the department got into action and hurriedly began investigations. Show cause notices were served to the two shop keepers and their security worth Rs. 5000 each was forfeited.

The penalty, though not too large, has had a near miraculous effect on the two kerosene oil depots. “The two shops now open more often and distribute the correct amount of oil to us – the shopkeepers constantly assure us that they would continue to behave themselves and request us not to complain against them or file RTI applications seeking information about their shops” remarks a visibly elated Fatima Begum.

The road to victory

Retired rear admiral JDM Sodhi has been no stranger to battle, but few victories have tasted sweeter than the one he’s had over the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. As President of the Residents Welfare Association (RWA) of Sheikh Sarai Phase I, he, along with other residents had long campaigned in vain for the repair of his colony roads which were in a shameful state of disrepair for the past eight years or so. Finally he resorted to using the RTI Act to seek information from the MCD about these roads.

“I’d never imagined that my filing an RTI application would have the consequences it did,” he smiles. “Ever since I moved here in 1993, the colony roads hadn’t been repaired or relaid, When we heard in 2002 that the roads were finally going to be relaid, we were elated. But this was short-lived, as the work was suspended two days after it began” says Sodhi. They pursued the matter with the MCD but without much success. Mr Sodhi then took the help of SNS in November 2003 to file an application under the Delhi Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2001, seeking information about the colony roads -- when they’d been last repaired, at what cost, and by whom.

The information he received was staggering -- over Rs 1 crore (10 million) had been sanctioned to carry out dense carpeting of the roads in Sheikh Sarai in October 2002. The reply also stated that the road had to be laid by May 2003 but work had been stalled because of some `mishappening’ with the contractor, and would resume within a month’s time.

In December 2004, in the absence of any sign of resumption of work, Sodhi and his RWA team were afraid that if they didn’t pursue the issue, their potholed roads might just remain that way, one of MCD’s many `ghost works’ – public works projects that existed only on paper. They then sought a certified photocopy of the contract signed between the MCD and the contractor.

But exactly three days before the MCD had to give the RWA this information, a strange thing happened. The residents woke up in the morning to find that road construction had started in full swing in their colony. The roads were re-laid within three days! “Basically, the MCD officials realized that armed with the certified copy of the contract, we could pressurize the government to take action against those responsible for pilfering funds. This spurred them into action and they got the road constructed.” says Sodhi. It was a proud victory for the old admiral, who’s now become such an enthusiastic user of the RTI act that he’s already submitted applications for information about several other public works in his locality. “Having used it so effectively, I can say that the RTI Act is a great tool!”

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Ideology of the SNS

It is no secret that the government’s functioning in India is characterized by large-scale misappropriation of public funds. In addition to corruption, there are other problems such as non-performance of duties and inefficient functioning that plague government departments in the country. One of the underlying causes for these problems is lack of transparency in the government’s working, which makes it impossible for citizens to participate in their own governance or monitor the activities that are to be performed for their welfare.

At SNS we believe that where citizens are vigilant and have information about the government’s activities, they can monitor public works and exert pressure on officials to ensure that public funds are utilized effectively and that government employees perform their duties efficiently.

The SNS recognizes that the RTI Act is a tool that provides citizens with an opportunity to keep themselves informed about the activities of the Delhi government. It aims to create awareness at the grassroots level about tools like the RTI Act and seeks to facilitate peoples’ participation in governance by encouraging them to monitor government activities in their respective localities. The SNS also aims at getting policy changes introduced that are likely to result in greater transparency and accountability in the working of the government.

About SNS

Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS) is a citizen's group with a mandate to promote transparency and accountability in government functioning and to encourage active participation of citizens in governance. It aims to empower and mobilize people so that they can understand, demand and use their legal entitlements for their everyday needs of food, sanitation, water and basic infrastructure.
The key strategy of SNS has been to assist people exercise their Right to Information (RTI) using tools like the National Right to Information Act and the Delhi Right to Information Act. These acts provide the citizens with the right to seek information from government with respect to their working. It is often difficult for people to access their entitlements because of lack of information about their rights and more importantly because of the inherent fear of a common person to question the system. SNS works on all these fronts so that ultimately people have the information and the confidence to effect change.

SNS's endeavor is to empower individuals to fight corruption and arbitrary use of power and participate in the effective utilization of public funds. It also helps them engage with the government on issues of policy formulation and implementation.

The activities of the Sangathan are carried out by the volunteers and by some full time workers who draw a monthly stipend. The funds for SNS's activities are raised primarily through individual donations.
Members of SNS have been working closely with the residents of slum settlements in various fields including sanitation, education and the Public Distribution System.

In 2003 SNS began its activities in five slum clusters of Malviya Nagar and Hauz Khas constituencies of Delhi, namely, Jagdamba Camp, Malviya nagar Corner, Begumpur, Lal Gumbad and Swami Nagar. Most of the 7000 families residing in these slums live below the poverty line. The literacy rates are very low and people have little knowledge of the government systems and schemes operating in their area. As a result they are often deprived even of their basic rights. To educate people of the slums regarding their legal entitlements, SNS volunteers hold regular meetings at different locations in the bastis. They help slum dwellers use the RTI Acts to get information from several government departments responsible for the delivery of critical services to them. Based on the information obtained, SNS helps local communities carry out social audits and demand accountability from government functionaries.

In the middle and high income colonies, SNS assists individuals and resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) to use the RTI Acts for obtaining information on several issues including civic works like road maintenance, sanitation and water supply.

SNS has set up a Soochna Ghar or Information Center in Malviya Nagar. People get together at the Soochna Ghar to attend regular meetings, to get assistance in preparing applications and to take part in workshops on legal literacy, role of government, RTI and other subjects.

SNS's work on the RTI has resulted in empowering communities and has led to several instances of successful community action in the fields of food security, habitat, education and social security.