Sunday, July 30, 2017

Religious Preacher In Kashmir Trains His Followers In RTI Activism, Changing The Way They Live Srinagar: Sunday, July 30, 2017.
Away from the maddening crowds, from the stone-throwing and the militant attacks, a quiet revolution is on in the Kashmir Valley thanks to a preacher-cum-faith healer who discovered the power of the RTI.
In little over a decade, Ghulam Mohiudin Sheikh has created an army of 12,000 RTI warriors out of clueless villagers, most of them from his congregation of faithful. Also known as Peer Sahab, Sheikh lives in the foothills of the Pir Panjal in the picturesque Pannard hamlet of central Kashmir’s Budgam district, some 25 km from Srinagar.
Every Sunday, people throng his single-storey three-room house to learn from him the art of filing RTI applications, the questions to ask et al. The 45-year-old’s ‘students’ include the young and the old; men and women. They come from Budgam, Kupwara, Sopore, Baramulla and Anantnag. 
“People come to me with all sorts of grievances. A BPL ration card, Indra Awas Yojana (IAY) or to do with Widow’s Welfare Fund,” says Sheikh. “A taveez (a chit of paper with verses of Holy Quran) cannot be a remedy for such problems.’
Religious preachers and faith healers in Kashmir usually steer clear of government affairs. But Sheikh was disturbed by the grievances voiced by the people who came to his Sunday meetings. “I did not know how to help them,” says Sheikh.
Then, he discovered RTI!
In 2006, Sheikh met Dr Shaikh Ghulam Rasool, who had launched the Jammu & Kashmir RTI Movement on 21 November 2005, and is its chairman.
“He suggested I join the RTI Movement and expose corruption and scandals in the Budgam administration,” says Sheikh. “I was hesitant but after a second meeting, I agreed and participated in training workshops to become an RTI activist.”
Since then Sheikh has been training people on how to file RTI applications. 
“I started writing RTIs in Urdu and filed them in the Rural Development and Social Welfare departments with which people mostly have grievances,” says Sheikh. “Muje nusqah milgaya, aur logon ko dard ka elaaj (I got the prescription and people got the treatment for their grievances).”
Sheikh admits he himself used to be scared to walk into government offices and talk to officials. “But RTI empowered and emboldened me, it gave me voice,” he says. His first RTI application, to a Block Development Officer, seeking details on IAY beneficiaries in Budgam, was an eye-opener. The BDO was visibly nervous, full of questions.
“A few days after I filed the RTI, a man came with a cheque of Rs 25000! I was startled. He told me the BDO wanted me to withdraw the RTI,” says Sheikh. “It was then that I realised the power of RTI.”
Sheikh threw the man out with the cheque.
Some days later he got the reply to his RTI. “I was shocked. Government officials and people close to politicians were on the list of IAY beneficiaries.” What happened next thrilled him. “The list was cancelled and deserving beneficiaries got IAY cheques,” says Sheikh with a grin.
Narrating another instance of RTI power play, Sheikh says that a widow asked him for a taveez to get her widow welfare fund released.
“I told her I have a new taveez for her. I wrote an RTI application and asked her to file it in the Social Welfare department. The reply she got stunned both of us,” he says.
“Unmarried girls were listed as widows! But with the exposure, this real widow got her piece of the fund within a few weeks. She spread the word in her locality about RTI and people swarmed my home.”
One of them, Nazir Ahmad Deenda, 37, of Mujipathri hamlet, had three children enrolled in a government school. As per his tribal category status all his children were entitled to a tribal scholarship.
“But my children did not get theirs. The headmaster would always fob me off with some or the other story. I went to Peer Sahab. He told me to file an RTI,” says Deenda.
“Until then, I did not know what RTI was. Peer Sahab filled the application form seeking details of the names of scholarship beneficiaries. I filed it and two days later a school teacher came to my home and handed over several years’ scholarship money of all three of my children that had never been paid!”
Sheikh says his locality in Budgam has developed 60% since people started filing RTI applications to disclose fund allocation and works sanctioned.
“Transparency has increased in government offices, especially in the delivery of welfare and rural development schemes,” he says. “Every Sunday, I train 30 people on RTI.” 
Ever since 2009 when the RTI Act was re-enacted in Jammu & Kashmir (the first time was in 2004) local governance and officer accountability has improved considerably in the state, says Dr Shaikh Ghulam Rasool.
Dr Rasool says Sheikh is one among the 12 pioneers of RTI activism in the Kashmir valley. “Sheikh turned it into a grassroots revolution in the Valley. RTI awareness is more in Budgam than in any other district. The credit goes to him,” he points out. Sheikh was elected Sarpanch in 2011 when Panchayat polls were held after decades.
J&K’s Chief Information Commissioner (RTI) Khurshid Ahmad Ganaie says that the CIC in Srinagar received nearly 30,000 RTI applications in 2016.
“According to our statistics, some 1000 applications were received from each district. The numbers show that people are still unaware of the RTI Act,” Ganaie, a retired IAS officer, told Indiatimes.
Abdul Majeed Poswal, 24, of Rangazabar, Budgam dropped in at Sheikh’s home one Sunday in April for a “taveez” to make the Rural Development Department construct a road in his locality.
Peer Sahab told him of RTI and informed him that taxpayer-money paid for all development works.
“Now, I will file an RTI,” says Poswal, adding that he wanted to know the details of funds allotted for the road and why it was being delayed.
Ganaie says the Valley needs more Ghulam Mohiudin Sheikhs to make RTI a subject of everyday conversation.