Thursday, August 03, 2017

Armed with RTI, more awareness, better connectivity, Pune’s activism more powerful today

The Indian Express: Pune: Thursday, August 03, 2017.
In the field of civic activism, Pune has always shown the way. Activists have acknowledged that the city’s spirit of activism has not only remained intact over the years, but has also been strengthened by the RTI Act over a decade ago. Activists also point out that the scope, variety and magnitude of the issues taken up by them has expanded tremendously.
The Indian Express led from the front
Over 20 years ago, The Indian Express, under the banner of the Express Citizens Forum (ECF), had, for the first time, raised the issue of pandals that were being indiscriminately set up by Ganesh mandals on the congested and narrow roads of the city. The large pandals occupied most roads, leaving little space for vehicles.
The Indian Express raised the issue with the PMC and police; urging them to discipline the pandals and restore order. Its efforts received a vast amount of support from activists and residents of Pune, forcing the authorities to take action. “After that, activism in Pune took off in the right spirit,” recalled activist Prashant Inamdar, who was associated with the ECF.
Soon, the activists turned the heat on the state government, which had abruptly shunted out Arun Bhatia, the then PMC commissioner in 1998. Activists believed that Bhatia was transferred by a rattled state government as he was acting tough against the corrupt and the wrong-doers.
Led by the Express Citizens Front, they moved the Bombay High Court, which stayed Bhatia’s transfer. “It was a major victory for activism in Pune,” said Inamdar.
In the neighbouring Pimpri-Chinchwad, activist Maruti Bhapkar had to knock on the doors of the High Court after the PCMC refused to get its accounts audited, despite allegations of a Rs 250-crore scam. An irked high court then ordered the audit of all past accounts of the civic body and sought to know from the state government why the PCMC should not be dissolved. Since then, the PCMC has consistently had its accounts audited.
In another instance, activist Dominic Lobo had filed clippings of stories by The Indian Express on the poor state of roads in Pimpri-Chinchwad in court. After perusal of the clippings, the judge himself took a tour of Pimpri-Chinchwad and fined the then PCMC commissioner, asking him to repair the roads quickly. The civic chief appealed in a higher court, which not only upheld the fine but increased it.
“The case set a precedent. It was a case of activists with meagre resources fighting against the system … it was activism that won the day,” said Lobo.
RTI changed the game
THE Right to Information Act, 2005, has been a game-changer, said activists. “Before the Act came into force, journalists had to virtually extract all possible information from officials, who often managed to hide explosive information. But the RTI Act has changed all that. They can no longer hide vital information… RTI has made… activism more meaningful and powerful, facilitating better planning and strategising,” said both Inamdar and Lobo.
The tools of activism have also changed from holding protests to the use of Lokshahi Din, as well as filing PILs and RTI applications to expose wrong-doings. “Anybody can participate in activism now… an individual can make the system change…,” said activist Vivek Velankar.
And armed with tools like RTI, Puneites have realised that they no longer need to reach out to political parties or corporators to get their work done or force the authorities to act. “In the past, activism was sort of a full-time job… now, the availability of information tools has made things easier,” said Velenkar.
Civic activist Satish Khot said, “Several activists are now using this tool to seek information related to various civic issues and expose the functioning of the civic departments”.
Another activist, Vijay Kumbhar, adds, “Before RTI came into effect, activists had to file public interest litigations, which was time-consuming. But RTI become a powerful weapon to dig out key information from officialdom.”
Other helpful tools
Civic activists point out that various websites also provide information about a host of issues, as well as names and contact details of ministers, officers etc. “This makes it easy to take up issues via e-mails, marking copies to all concerned… Print and visual media have also become very active in encouraging activists, both individuals and groups, to take up matters… WhatsApp and email groups have facilitated sharing of information and activities among people working in the same field. Networking and synergy have improved vastly,” said Inamdar.
Individual activism
Satish Khot, the former president of National Society for Clean Cities, says, “Twenty years ago, local residents expected someone else to come forward to solve their problems. Although they were willing to sit and talk about issues, people didn’t want to be seen asking questions. Today, they have become more aware and are getting involved in civic issues.”
Meanwhile, Velankar said the city will never shed its identity of being a hub of activism. “Activism has changed from collective activism to individual activism, but the impact continues to be the same,” he said.
Activists with a cause, or many causes
Vijay Kumbhar caused tremors in civic corridors after he raised the issue of favours given to Girish Vyas, son-in-law of then chief minister Manohar Joshi, for allowing him to build on a land reserved for a primary school in the development plan of the city. The controversy had forced Joshi to step down from his post. “This was one of those cases which attracted nationwide attention… but there have been cases taken up by activists, including me, which forced the authorities to frame new policies,” he added.
There are many other activists working in specific fields.
Recently, activist Sarang Yadwadkar, along with a few others, made the PMC stop the construction of a road alongside Mutha river. The case was taken to the National Green Tribunal; the civic body had to put an end to encroachments on Mutha river, and demolish the half-done work of road construction and remove the debris.
Aneeta Gokhale Benninger has been fighting to protect the green cover of the city through the Green Pune Movement. Sujit Patwardhan, through Parisar, has taken up various civic issues pertaining to the city and is focussed on road safety and sustainable urban transport. He and Ranjit Gadgil also work on promotion of non-motorised transport.
The Nagrik Chetana Manch, under its chief Major General S C N Jatar (retired), continues to take up by the extensive use of RTI and challenging the decisions of the civic body in various courts.
Qaneez Sukhrani, who is associated with several organisations, has also taken up several civic and transport issues, including the pathetic state of BRTS routes. Prashant Inamdar, who heads Pedestrians First, has taken up the condition of roads, footpaths, flyovers, subways, speed-breakers and dividers in the city.
Jugal Rathi, who heads PMP Pravasi Manch, has been fighting to ensure better PMPML services for 12 lakh commuters. Harsha Shah, of the Railway Pravasi Group, takes up the woes of railway commuters.