Creating awareness about the Right to Information (RTI) Act is one of the mandates of the government as per the law that was enacted 12 years ago. However, it is thanks to dedicated RTI activists that people know more about the Act; the government, on the other hand, would prefer to bury or neutralise it if possible.
Against this backdrop, Pune based Vijay Kumbhar needs to be lauded for spreading awareness and taking the RTI movement forward though his unique RTI Katta. The katta (which is the Marathi equivalent of an adda or informal meeting) marked its 200th meeting on 29 October 2017, having assembled every consecutive Sunday morning at the picturesque Chittaranjan Vatika at Model Colony. About 70 enthusiastic citizens gathered at the Vatika to celebrate and to felicitate Mr Kumbhar. On most other days, he quietly listens to peoples queries and guides them on how to fight for their rights and resolve issues through the effective use of RTI.
Apart from the general chorus of appreciation for Mr Kumbhar, all the citizens who spoke that day talked about “feeling empowered to fight their issues without fear”. One RTI practitioner said, “We can now take on government officers without inhibition; often the officers are wary of us and tend to provide information more easily. We were unaware that that RTI is such a good tool to sort out your own issues that involved dealing with the government.”
Such views are not surprising. A recent triumph of the Katta and its participants is to unearth the shenanigans DS Kulkarni, once a highly reputed builder of Pune, who has duped thousands of depositors and homebuyers. The complaint that was finally registered with the Pune economic offences wring had its seed in this RTI Katta discussions. Buyers of DSK flats, who attended these sessions, were encouraged by Kumbhar to muster the courage to fight. Another important campaign was the Temple Rose Real Estate scam that duped many plot owners, which was also triggered off here. Students who were not getting their rightful scholarship obtained guidance at the RTI Katta and were able to get their rightful dues. Police constable, Jayshree Mane, who was assaulted by a male colleague because she used RTI to procure copies of the duty chart of constables, also fought for justice through guidance at this informal Sunday meets.
How a Woman Sarpanch was empowered through the RTI Katta
Another heart-warming story is that of the courageous Smita Padekar, Sarpanch of Santwadi, a small village near Ale Phata on the Nashik Road. The village is barely accessible via Internet or mobile. Although it is just 200kms from Pune, the village has long hours of power cuts, sometimes stretching to 12 hours. There is rampant corruption in utilisation of the Rs35-Rs40 lakh of funding that it receives annually from the state and central government for developmental work. For several decades money has gone to bogus contractors for non-existent development work.
Padekar, who joined the Gram Panchayat in 2011 as a data entry operator soon learnt the nuances of the local panchayat is administered. Villagers, who interacted with her during the course of her work, found her sincere and honest. So, when she decided to stand for the Sarpanch elections in 2015, she received over helming support and was elected the Sarpanch. Her elevation however challenged the existing set up and she faced enormous hostility from dubious elements in the village as well as Gram Panchayat members.
Padekar was pregnant when she fought the elections  and delivered a baby soon after she was elected Sarapanch. After working from home for three months, she began attending office. She says “On scrutiny of the panchayat register, I found that contractors, without the required license, had been given contracts and money was paid even without their completion of the contracted jobs. Gram Panchayat insisted that she sign the bills sanctioning payments. When she demanded proof they told her that this practice had been going on for years and she should not contest or oppose it.
When Ms Pedekar refused to sign on the bills, the Gram Sabha dismissed her as the Sarpanch. “They held the Gram Sabha meeting one afternoon, when the villagers go to their farms. Only select members of the Gram Panchayat and their corrupt accomplices were present and the dismissal  motion against me was passed and I was dismissed from the post of the Sarpanch”, she tells me.
Padekar filed a complaint at the Tehsildar office against her dismissal; she said that members of the Gram Panchayat and local officers had stalled her efforts to do any development work. The tehsildar also told Padekar, that this was the state of affairs for a long time. She decided to fight on. She he dug up some cases against the gram sabha members and filed an appeal before the Pune District Collector. Here is when she decided to attend the RTI Katta for guidance. She travelled 200kms one Sunday morning to attend the RTI Katta in Pune.
Kumbhar advised her to file RTI regarding three members of the Gram Panchayat who had not submitted their election expenses. She received information from the tehsildar after 45 days and could prove that they have indeed not submitted their election expenses and hence should be expelled. She filed an appeal with Saurabh Rao, Pune’s District Collector, but things would not move. In fact, the hearing was postponed five times.
Armed with the RTI information she had gathered, Vijay Kumbhar asked her to meet the State Election Commissioner with her complaint, seeking to disqualify the four members. The Election Commissioner directed the Collector to hold a hearing immediately and gave him an ultimate to close the case in 15 days or face action.
Interestingly, the post of the Sarpanch was once again vacant, with the seat being reserved for women in the OBC category. It was at 9pm on 11 May 2017 that the Collector’s office gave its verdict and the three members were disqualified.
The next day, Padekar stood for elections and was re-elected as Sarpanch.
She says, “Kumbharji was instrumental in giving me the courage to stay put at the Collector’s office and not leave it before the hearing. Since the diktat had come from the State Election Commission, they had to hear the case, he said. I thought nothing will happen after 6pm but Kumbharji assured me that they would have to close the case that day itself and it did happen at 9pm.”
Kumbhar says, “What is distressing is that Padekar is being opposed because she is fighting corruption. If this is happening in a small hamlet, can you imagine the depth of goondaism and corruption in lakhs of villages throughout the country?”
Padekar needs more help. She called this writer yesterday and said, “Now once again, I am fighting with my back against the wall. Block level officers too are not sanctioning funds for developmental works. How am I to deliver as a Sarpanch?”