Trust India’s honourable Members of Parliament to save their skin when confronted with uncomfortable questions on the proposed amendments to the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
This was the experience of scores of NRIs settled in the US who last week initiated a unique Call—A—Thon to Indian MPs, requesting them to save the RTI Act, which is sought to be diluted by the new amendments to keep political parties out of the ambit of its questioning and urge them to ensure that, in public interest, political parties be covered by the RTI Act.
The activist NRIs, perturbed by the amendments to the RTI Act, decided to take some direct action and attempt to stall the tinkering of the law that has brought so much transparency into government functioning and empowered the common man, said its main initiator Suresh Ediga, a software engineer from New Jersey.
“Last week, a few of us decided to directly call up the MPs and personally request them to vote against the proposed amendments which could make the RTI Act virtually toothless,” Mr. Ediga told IANS on the phone.
He said that ever since the amendments were announced, RTI activists across India have been making frantic attempts to get the amendments democratically stalled through parliament.
“Our initiative had two prime concerns — to complement the activities of the ground activists in India, and register our concerns as ordinary citizens with the MPs and urge them not to accord parliamentary sanction for the RTI amendments,” Mr. Ediga said.
After running a brief pre-event on social networking site Facebook, Mr. Ediga managed to garner the support of around five-dozen NRIs who expressed similar concerns and joined the case.
Renowned RTI activist and former chief information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi was impressed by the NRIs’ zeal. “It’s a very innovative initiative,” he said in a Facebook post.
Mr. Ediga went a step ahead and posted on his blog some basic instructions and phone numbers of many MPs he could lay his hands on to enable the NRIs launch the Call—A—Thon.
The response was truly enthusiastic and the participants vigorously started dialing the MPs in India, working late hours after returning home from work (in the US).
On the other side of the globe, activists and friends in India kept up the tempo by making their own phone calls to the MPs, notching negligible success.
According to Mr. Ediga, last week, around 300 MPs got calls from NRIs in the US and a majority of the responses were eye-openers for the long-distance callers.
“I don’t have any opinion. The party will decide,” was the terse response of a few Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party MPs.
A vast majority were furious at receiving direct calls from concerned citizens, even though they were NRIs, Mr. Ediga said.
A handful of Shiv Sena, CPI—M, MDMK and Trinamol Congress MPs expressed plans to vote against the RTI amendments, but did not appear fully committed.
By and large, the NRI callers were stonewalled by the MPs’ aides, who asked them many suspicious questions, demanding to know what their interest was in asking such questions when they were not living in India.
A few dismissed the calls by asking them to send emails to the MPs concerned — which the callers did, but again with negligible success.
A sample conversation with an MP’s secretary:
Secretary (suspicious): Who are you?
Caller: “I am a concerned citizen and want to request the MP not to vote for these RTI amendments.”
Secretary : I’ve never received or heard of a concerned citizen calling an MP. I cannot tell my opinion but will relay your message to the MP. (Bangs down the phone).
“Around four dozen MPs from across the country spoke to one of us calling them, but their responses were guarded and most preferred to excuse their stand citing the party directives on the issue,” Mr. Ediga said.
Besides the NRIs, volunteers from AID INDIA, People for Loksatta and other smaller groups, NGOs and RTI activists also took part in the Call—A—Thon.
Among those who spoke were Rajya Sabha MPs, Shantaram Naik, Trinamool Congress MP S.S. Roy, JD—U’s Sharad Yadav, TDP’s K.N. Rao and N.M. Rao. Senior BJP leader L.K. Advani was not available, cabinet ministers were impossible to approach due to the bureaucratic ring around them and many others ignored repeated calls and emails.
“For all of us, it has been a great learning experience since we believed that we could never speak with any MP directly. To that extent, we appreciate all the MPs who actually took out calls, but that is not enough. They are expected to work for the people and the main question still remains: Why don’t the political parties want to come under the RTI Act’s ambit though the public demands it,” Mr. Ediga said.