One man's quest to make the right to information the right to action

Subhash Chandra Agrawal doesn't drink tea, eat onions, watch movies, listen to music, or want to raise children in this corrupt and polluted world.

A cloth merchant from Chandni Chowk, Mr. Agrawal (62) follows the news and files Right to Information (RTI) requests: on the selection criteria for national awards, the assets of judges, the prevalence of bigamy among Members of Parliament and, most recently, on toilet renovation in the Planning Commission.

The Commission's reply — Rs. 35 lakh for two toilets, with Rs. 5 lakh spent on the restricted access door — reveals as much about the corridors of power as about the RTI applicant.

Mr. Agrawal, and his oft repeated phrase, sab approach se hi hota hai [Nothing happens without approaching the right people], embody the indignation of a middle class frustrated with the inefficiencies of governance, and outraged by its exclusion from decision-making.

“The right to information should become the right to action,” he says, explaining how he goads the government to act. “I first file a complaint on the public grievances website. I then file an RTI [application] to follow up on my grievance.” Grievances and Mr. Agrawal, he says, are on intimate terms.

In 1971, he eavesdropped outside the office of the Dean of Admissions at the Faculty of Management Studies as his paternal uncle torpedoed his chances of an MBA. “Sab approach se hota hai, so I asked my uncle — who knew the Dean — to get me admission,” he said. “Jealous of my success, my uncle told the Dean not to select me. So begins the story of my bitter life.”

Mr. Agrawal says his uncle, who couldn't be reached for comment, destroyed his life. “He was a dictator. He forced me to join the family business, crushed my dreams of becoming an IAS officer. I resolved never to have children.” Defeated but unbowed, he entered public service by writing letters to the editor.

His first letter, published in Dainik Hindustan in 1967, was about a bus conductor who pocketed his money without issuing a ticket. Officials of the Delhi Transport Corporation apologised. Emboldened, Mr. Agrawal wrote another letter, then another, then another till 3,699 of his letters were published, a feat that won him a place in the Guinness World Records in 2006.

“I sat in my shop and composed letters during lean hours,” he says. “I bought the Indian Newspaper Society's address book and printed stickers with the newspaper names and addresses.” Each week, he typed out letters, stuck the addresses on envelopes and mailed them. When a letter was published, he made clippings and dispatched them to the authorities concerned.

Mr. Agrawal wrote to the Rail Ministry about the timings of the Taj Express. “I bought the ‘Trains At a Glance' manual and studied it carefully.” The Reserve Bank of India received a letter about the irregular progression of coin diameters. “I measured each coin and found a huge disparity between 25p and 50p, but not between 50p and Re 1.” He argued with Hindustan Lever Ltd. over the legality of the 75-gram soap pack; with Ranbaxy over the price of Calmpose; and with Doordarshan over the frequency of Rajni, a popular serial.

“I study everything, I follow everything,” he says. “Airmail tariffs are irrational — it is cheaper to send separate packages instead of one combined package.” Mr. Agrawal bombarded the Postal Department with letters until it said the tariffs were set by the Universal Postal Union in Bern, Switzerland. “I wrote to the Union. They said the Postal Department was lying…” He wrote back to the Postal Department.

When the RTI Act came into being in 2005, he turned his talent for tenacious correspondence into a foghorn for public accountability. His first RTI plea was part of a property dispute with his “dictatorial” uncle who, he claims, was usurping their ancestral home.

“My uncle was influential and his son-in-law was a Supreme Court judge. The judge hearing our case in another court had hosted a wedding party for my uncle's grandchild.” Mr. Agrawal filed a request for information and submitted the wedding card as supporting evidence. The request was never granted; but his uncle, for the first time, was ready to compromise. “I owe my house to the RTI Act,” he says, looking up at the pink-walled courtyard of his abode.

Mr. Agrawal has since become a full-time RTI activist. “I read six newspapers a day, the television is always showing the news. I also… get insiders who tip me off about corruption in their own departments, journalists make suggestions,” he explains. “I have no other interests — I don't watch cricket, but I want to bring the BCCI under the RTI Act's purview.”

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