As India grapples with the Naxal menace in Left Wing Extremism affected states with no concrete long-term solution in sight for now, the CIC suggests simple measures using the RTI which may prevent further outbreak of the problem.
Medha Chaturvedi: What is the genesis of RTI in terms of being utilized in Naxal affected areas in the Eastern Tribal Corridor?
Wajahat Habibullah: At the time when the Naxal uprising first appeared in India in Naxalbari, another revolution was taking shape in Rajasthan, that of demand for Right to Information. In both places, the dispossessed excluded population was demanding the right to ask questions from the authority and equality and parity. However, one group took to arms, while the other pursued the RTI for the same demands.
MC: Can effective implementation of RTI reverse the trend of violence in the tribal hinterlands which are the worst affected by Left Wing Extremism?
WH: RTI can be an effective tool only as long as it is utilized before the violence starts. Once a trend of violence is set, it cannot be used to reverse the cycle. It is only a preventive and not a corrective measure. If used properly, it can be effective in the tribal heartlands of India, which are taken over by the Naxals at present.
MC: Has the failure of proper implementation of Panchayat Extension to Scheduled Areas (PESA) Act, 1996 proved to be an element in increasing tribal anger towards the government?
WH: The tribals have been displaced, marginalized and victimized. It is critical to put PESA to proper use now. It has not been effectively utilized so far as it has not been able to bring much voice to the tribals. It must be given an opportunity and means to empower the tribals.
MC: Has the government been able to reach out to the vulnerable tribal population through the RTI?
WH: Government and administration have been oppressive since the British expropriated tribal and government areas. Now, with RTI, they have an opportunity to be heard. The tribals of India have suffered exploitation for far too long. Now, growth of education has allowed them to project what they have been denied. The redressal mechanism could include RTI as the initiating point. Unfortunately, so far the RTI has not been able to be properly implemented in the affected states.
MC: Which state has benefited the maximum from proper implementation of RTI? Which states show the worst implementation of the RTI?
WH: Except Andhra Pradesh, all Naxal affected states have the worst implementation record of RTI. This is the reason why Andhra Pradesh is now the state which is least affected by violence despite being the state where the genesis of the problem emerged with the Telangana uprising.
Andhra Pradesh has had very effective implementation of both Panchayati Raj and RTI. YS Rajasekhara Reddy was himself a big propagator of the RTI. He had said that the RTI Act was a big part of his success as it allowed him to reach out to the rural areas of the state and Telangana.
MC: RTI pendency has been steadily going up over the years. How far will it prove to be effective, even if implemented properly, in tribal areas when the pendency in areas with educated and aware problems is so high?
WH: RTI implementation position is much better. Statistically speaking, the pendency numbers have gone up - about three years ago, pending applications stood at 10,000. Now, they are 14,000. However, three years ago, total applications settled were 22,000; the number now stands at 65,000. So, in that context, while pendency has gone up, so has the number of people using the RTI.
MC: How can RTI result in a decline in violence?
WH: The expectation of people to get a reply for their grievances and making the system accountable has risen. This tendency will give way to a decline in overall violence. People may get agitated, frustrated or more demanding, but will not take to violence. It gives some sense of responsibility and accountability.
MC: How can the awareness about RTI spread in the interiors of Naxal affected areas where accessibility is still a huge problem for authorities?
WH: Spreading of awareness about RTI in tribal areas can be done through various NGOs working with the Naxals in the areas as they have better accessibility among the population rather than the authorities. Allow the civil society to function properly in these areas. Tribals are not even aware of the RTI as of now, let the NGOs and other agents of civil society spread the awareness about what can be done with the help of RTI as an alternate to taking up arms.
MC: Can RTI prove to be a tool for reforming the existing Naxal cadres?
WH: I don’t know if the RTI can prove to be an effective tool in reforming existing Naxal cadres. It can definitely be used to wean away their support base in the tribal belts. Right to Education, Whistleblowers’ Act etc, all go hand in hand.
MC: Has the media been playing a responsible role in the spreading of awareness about the RTI in Naxal areas? What else can they do?
WH: Visual media is playing a role in the spread of awareness about RTI. Doordarshan has given coverage in collaboration with the respective state governments to promote community television or education through community televisions and computerization through NREGA (already in place) by putting up computer systems in rural areas. Furthermore, the PDS system needs to be strengthened and visual media’s support can be sought for that.
MC: Can the corrupt practices in Indian politics and bureaucracy be reformed towards changing the pattern of uneducated vulnerable tribal population being targeted by the Naxals for support?
WH: Taken with RTE, if the RTI is promoted successfully in rural and tribal areas, it will help engender a demand for awareness. Political demand for the same will automatically follow if the masses demand for it. Effective utilization of RTI will also have a remedial effect on corruption in the Indian political and bureaucratic system; it will not eliminate it, but can be used for imposing restraint.