The First Challenge
When SNS was started, Anjali and her colleague Ashok would go to slums like Jagdamba Camp for weekly meetings. They would put up the sangathan’s banner on a wall and sit next to it waiting to help anyone. This continued for about 7 months. While people would listen to them patiently during the meetings, none of them were convinced enough to approach them for help with the RTI.
Then a mahila mandal was organised and some vocal women from the slum were made the office bearers. This was a way to get them to attend the meetings on a regular basis and encourage other people from the slum to put forth their grievances. The sangathan had assumed that the core issues to be tackled were water and cleanliness. But when they would talk about cleanliness, people stopped coming to the meetings. People began to bring to the fore their problem of not being able to access ration despite having a ration card for several years. The sangathan realised that the only way to work with people is to tackle the issues bothering them. While there were three types of ration cards made in 2002, meant for people of different income levels, people using the red card (people who are below-poverty-line or BPL) didn’t even know the rate at which they were supposed to receive their ration.
So SNS along with people from the slums began to make rounds to the ration shop or the oil depot. At both places, there was no rule of law. The dealers were confident that their theft would never come to light as nobody would dare ask them about their record books. When the people filed an RTI application, they found that the stock registers showed that every month ration was reaching the Fair Price Shop, while the sale registers were a complete work of fiction. They had names of people who didn’t exist; they had card numbers which did not match with any card number anywhere at all. There were thumb prints against the names of those people who would usually sign!
The Struggle for Birth Certificates
Many of the children in the slums did not have birth certificates. Even the concept was unknown to the parents. But to get the children admitted to a school, the birth certificate had to be produced. The pradhan of the slum (who acts as an unofficial intermediary between the government and the people) insisted that he could help, but the parents would have to shell out Rs 1,500.
It was through SNS that Pushpa, one of the karyakartas of the sangathan, learnt that one could get the birth certificate made with the help of the SDM. But approaching the SDM was an issue. She somehow convinced 18 other women to walk up to the SDM with her, all of who also wanted to get certificates made for their children. Once the applications were filed at the SDM’s office in 2004, a team was sent into the basti for enquiry. “We were asked to bring forth proof of the child’s birth, but we protested that a woman alone could best testify about her child. But the team insisted that men be involved in the process of providing testimony. Incidentally, one of our meetings was on at that time, and when we went up to the meeting to narrate this tale, we were told by SNS that we ought to fight for our testimony—there was no way that a woman’s testimony could be refuted,” Pushpa says.
Feeling charged with the encouragement, Pushpa and the 18 other women went on to talk to the police, asking them to show written documents which would assert that women’s testimony would not be accounted. While the police personnel began to question her place of origin and morality, Pushpa countered his words rationally and fearlessly.
Report Cards for MLAs & MPs
When SNS filed RTI applications to find out what the 70 MLAs in Delhi had been doing, they found that the Begumpur MLA had spent 40 per cent of his allotted funds on establishing artificial fountains and waterfalls, whereas people in the area hadn’t been receiving drinking water since 7 years! Water would be available at 2 am and all the women and girls would line up from midnight. This gave rise to many law and order problems. Despite repeated requests to the MLA, he would say that he has no funds and wouldn’t be able to spend money from his own pocket. People then took the utilisation information and went up to the MLA, and told him not to step into their homes asking for votes since he had been fooling them for 7 years. He is entitled to receive Rs 2.5 crore every year as Local Area Development (LAD) funds, and thus received Rs 12.5 crore from the government over a period of five years. Worried about losing his vote bank, the MLA soon set up tube wells in Jagdamba Camp and Begumpur.
The sangathan then tied up with NGOs to disseminate this information, as well as with mainstream media—TOI in English and Hindustan in Hindi. The format of a report card for all the 70 MLAs in Delhi was created which showed through a pie chart projects taken up and their corresponding expenditure, attendance at the Assembly sessions and number of questions raised. One MLA who hadn’t asked any questions did not receive the ticket to stand for the next elections. It was a way in which people could engage with their representatives based on objective information. One MLA called up SNS to say that if he had known that report cards would be published, he would have gone to the Assembly more regularly.
The report card exercise was also carried out in Jharkhand and Bihar before state elections. The response was encouraging as people felt that they were now in the know when it came to their elected representatives. People in the five slums in Delhi put up banners saying ‘We don’t want money; we don’t want alcohol; only he who solves our problems will get our vote’. The candidates for MLAs in those areas began to expect questions from citizens instead of flower garlands and obeisance.