In the nation's interest
Guinness World Record holder and RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal tells Ambica Gulati that he wishes for a more formal role in educating and training people on RTI and its potential
Fragrant smoke of the morning puja drifts out of the open front door of RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal's home. Right behind Gurudwara Sisganj Sahib in walled old Delhi, the simple abode houses a simple man whose passion is to debate issues of national interest. Is the government really spending 3.5 million on public toilets? Why is the President of India taking along her family on official visits abroad—all on the public exchequer's expense? He poses several such questions holding the government accountable to the public.
The journey of 'missile letters' began in 1967 with a letter to the editor; it ended with a world record. On the way, there have been petitions and hearings, a campaign for the RTI Act and, more recently, seminars and conferences. At one time, Agrawal had the distinction of a hat trick in Guinness World Records—maximum letters till date published in newspapers; maximum letters published in a particular newspaper in a particular calendar year in 2003; and maximum letters till date published in a particular newspaper. In 2009, Agrawal was presented with the first ever RTI Award at a function graced by the Vice-President of India.
A sharp observer, Agrawal started highlighting the woes of the common man while he was a student of mechanical engineering at Delhi College of Engineering. Facing an unpleasant experience of 20 paise ticket-money being pocketed by the conductor of a DTC bus plying from Mall Road to Red Fort, Agrawal fired his first 'missile' to the Hindi daily Hindustan. "It was my first letter, so I put my college address. It was published. The next day I saw a DTC van at the campus; I disappeared," he smiles, adding, "Later, I came to know that the DTC authorities had come with the conductor to offer their apologies. I realised the impact of media. Writing letters to the editors has since been a religious public service for me."
So began a love affair of sorts, with many more letters to editors of several newspapers. "I also sent practical suggestions and solutions to government offices about various issues," he says. His suggestions were implemented by various public authorities; for instance, change in design of railway coaches; change in size and metal of coins; publication of Readers' Digest in Hindi; improvement by Johnson & Johnson in their product Band-Aid; entry of women in Rotary International. No road is easy. An incurable hardening of his right thumb put a stop to personal writing, but not his passion. Agrawal bought a portable typewriter and without any formal training started typing using one finger. Now everything is done on the computer and email takes the message across instantly.
The Right to Information Act, 2005, was another tool used for optimum public good. "The Preamble of the RTI Act suggests that it's a tool to effectively check corruption in our democratic system, which comprises three wings: judiciary, legislature and bureaucracy. If legislature and bureaucracy are subjected to RTI provisions, why create unnecessary controversy on including non-judicial aspects of judicial administration under RTI Act?" asks Agrawal. Of the 3,000 RTI applications he has filed thus far, 350 have reached the Central Information Commission (CIC).
Personal traumas have shaped the 62 year-old activist's life. Victimisation by his uncle in the family business and a 16 year-old litigation over their home turned many of his dreams to dust. "I wanted to be an IAS officer and enrol for an MBA in the Faculty of Management Studies but my uncle didn't let me study. Gradually, I leaned towards the Parsi philosophy of life— work for society and not for yourself. When I married Madhu in 1975, we decided not to have children," recalls Agrawal. Until six months back, he assisted his younger brother in the family's old wholesale business of textiles and furnishing. But now he is looking for a change in role and hopes the government or an educational institution will formally invite him to spread awareness about RTI and alleviate the common man's fears related to RTI and transparency.