Far from the sound and fury of street protests, media campaigns or online activism, an RTI activist labours in near-isolation

It was six months before the first petition he filed under the newly enacted Right to Information (RTI) Act in 2006 coughed up any information. “It was such a new act, even they didn’t know what they were supposed to give and what not to give,” K Saravanan, 33, recalls when we meet at the Vettiver Collective, an environmental rights organisation in Chennai. The office is a stone’s throw from Urur Olcott Kuppam, the age-old fishing village that is home to Saravanan. The future of the village and its residents appears to be at the centre of Saravanan’s actions, including his foray into RTI activism. “I filed my first petition when I heard rumours about a plan to build a bridge over my village along the beach.”

After filing countless RTIs, and following up with information commissioners, appellate authorities and state highways department, what came to light was a controversial proposal for an elevated highway along the coastline. If implemented, it would destroy 14 fishing villages, put the beach out of bounds for residents and further endanger the already vulnerable Olive Ridley Turtles that come to nest on the shoreline.

The proposal was resisted by various stakeholders and was shelved following a public outcry against it.

A lone struggle

Unlike street protests, media campaigns or online activism, RTI activism garners little visibility. “It does require a lot of patience. I’ve seen many people file an RTI and forget about it. Or when they don’t hear back after repeated attempts, become exhausted and give up,” says Saravanan. Over a decade of filing more than 1,000 RTIs, most of them in Tamil, he has met with both great success and significant failure.

Besides the scuppered elevated highway project, Saravanan’s successful campaigns include acquiring information about special economic zones in Madurai and other districts in the state, sand mining in the Adyar and Cooum rivers, coastal zone management plans and the Marina loop road proposal. He counts among his failures the denial of information on land acquisition for a Michelin tyre factory on Chennai’s outskirts and a proposed atomic energy plant at Tuticorin, the latter under the pretext of ‘national security’.

“There have been times when the CIC (chief information commissioner) not only refused to give information but also argued on the companies’ behalf,” he says. “But like I said, taking information to the people is important. Whoever is affected by a project in question needs to know about the issue. So, in one sense, we act as intermediaries; any information we acquire through RTIs, we always share it. That’s the first priority.”

Changing patterns

Over time, Saravanan has seen the RTI act and its implementation evolve drastically. “Earlier, a generic question about a project would be enough to acquire information. Now, they have to be really specific,” he says. “I also learnt that however much those in power try to use loopholes in the law, we will have to be one step ahead, frame questions better, and tame the system ourselves before they do.” Apart from the constant dilution of the RTI act, especially its implementation, he finds that those in power “are doing whatever they can to make it harder to get information.”

Unfazed by it all, he believes that RTI activists should pool their resources to overcome the hurdles in their way. “While we share information when someone asks for it, there is no community or forum for RTI activists,” says Saravanan. His support system includes his mentor — environment activist Nityanand Jayaraman — and members of the collective, who come to each other’s aid in times of need. “It’s been almost a decade now but I feel the same energy and am continuing with the same fervour,” says Saravanan. “This RTI is a great tool. Earlier people had no access to any information. I have often wondered how they managed to do anything. But with RTIs you can expose, get to know about anything you like, instead of merely trusting your MLAs, councillors or collectors.”