RD: What do you mean by I was never victimized?
AK: I don’t know about other departments but at least in Income Tax, if you are honest I don’t think you are victimized. I mean there is a general perception that if you are in the government and if you are honest you are victimized. I had good postings, I had a good stint and the reason for leaving the job was not that I was not happy. I’d thoroughly enjoyed it.
RD: I’ve read that you saw so much corruption going on, which you couldn’t stand, and that is why you quit.
AK: No, I saw lot of corruption going on and I also realized that you can’t do anything about this corruption by being in the government. I started taking interest in anti-corruption activities through various other means, but not with the knowledge of my seniors or colleagues.
RD: What did you do, for instance?
AK: There were some friends who were outside the IRS. At one dinner in 2000 we decided to start Parivartan. An uncle of mine and my brother donated, in all, `50,000 for cloth banners and pamphlets that were distributed or displayed all across Delhi. They said: ‘Don’t pay bribes in the Income Tax Department. If you have a problem, contact Parivartan. We will get your work done free of cost.’ We also gave our phone number and e-mail.
RD: Was there any particular case that triggered this?
AK: No, it was just that we had to do something against corruption. Where do we start? We started with Income Tax, because I was in Income Tax, so this was the department we knew from the inside. If it were some other department I would at least need to understand their rules and policies before taking on this.
RD: When did colleagues find out?
AK: After about two years. Anyway, I was on constant chutti [leave] after that—first two years on study leave, then leave without pay. I stayed in the background; there were our volunteers doing the work.
RD: What effect did it have?
AK: People started approaching us and we solved some 800 cases in 18 months. We also filed a PIL [public interest litigation] for some systemic changes in the Income Tax Department. Then we started, simultaneously, with the Electricity Department. I also thought that income tax actually involved middle- or upper-class gentry who could fend for themselves, and income tax often involved mutual corruption.
But electricity involves all kinds of people. A very poor person from a juggi [slum] came to us saying that he had been slapped a bill of about Rs8 lakh although he has only one fan and a few lights—a case of faulty billing, so he was crying. They’d disconnected his power supply. We got his case solved and the bill was finally reduced to about Rs800. Anyway, that’s the kind of people who used to come. Then we started helping out with PDS [public distribution system—ration shop] complaints. But after a while, we started wondering… I mean, how long can we continue like this? It is not sustainable nor replicable.
Earlier the people were dependent on touts; now they were depending on us. The people themselves are not empowered, I felt. Tomorrow if Parivartan is not there, then they’re back to Square One. That was my worry. That was when the Right to Information law was passed by the Delhi Government, in October 2001.
RD: You worked for that too?
AK: No, but I worked for the enactment of the Central Right to Information Act. I came upon the Delhi RTI accidentally, in a small newspaper report. There was also some drama with respect to its implementation. The government passed the law but it was never notified, so when we tried to submit some applications to some departments using it, they said ‘we don’t know about this law.’ So we did a dharna and we wrote letters to the CM and the law finally got notified to all departments.
RD: How did you use it?
AK: Right to information is a fundamental right, an extension of the Constitution’s Article 19. We tried our first case where a man called Ashok Gupta came to us saying he had applied for a new electricity connection two years earlier, and that they were asking for a Rs5000 bribe. ‘I refused to pay any bribe,’ he said, ‘now you tell me what to do. I heard that you guys get such grievances solved.’ So we told him ‘sorry we will not accept your grievance,’ but we drafted the first RTI application for him asking the department some basic questions. Gupta got his electricity connection within 10 days!
RD: How did that make you feel?
AK: We thought this was very powerful. So if we explained RTI to people, helped them draft their applications and asked them to go and submit it themselves, we’d stop playing middleman, empower people and create awareness.
RD: When you started Parivartan, there must have been a lot of hurdles you faced. I mean, if your volunteers went to an office, they definitely were not going to be well-received.
AK: You see, when your struggle against injustice or corruption is known and accepted, resentment will be there. There have been a series of attacks, physical violence also, especially when we started addressing corruption in the PDS. Once, the throat of one of our workers was slit by [ration] shopkeepers.
But I think the biggest challenge, more than all this, is how do you break the cynicism of the people in this country? Because if people just give up, that is the biggest challenge. How do you ask people to join now in the various struggles? So when you say hurdles, the most difficult one is to tell the people ‘Why don’t you participate? This will work.’
People see a ray of hope in RTI. Now we are telling you that the Jan Lokpal Bill, if enacted, will have an impact. It will reduce corruption. But it’s been so difficult to tell the people to participate in this movement and support the Jan Lokpal Bill, because people have just given up. People would say, ‘Is se to kuch nahin ho sakta.’
RD: We understand that you have also set up a Public Cause Research Foundation. What does it do?
AK: After I got the Magsaysay Award in 2006, I donated the prize money, about $50,000, as seed money to set up the Foundation because we realized that there was no systemic research being done. Over the last two years we have analyzed thousands of orders passed by all the information commissioners [there is one in every state, who is responsible for implementing RTI]. We also do research on self-governance issues in a big way.
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