Slum-free Mumbai Essential For Development: RTI Activist Shailesh Gandhi

During his interaction in Mumbai Charcha, which is a talk show series with prominent Mumbaikars, Gandhi shared about the origin of RTI, his vision for Mumbai among various other things.

Slum-free Mumbai Essential For Development: RTI Activist Shailesh Gandhi

An IIT Bombay graduate and a distinguished Alumnus awardee, Shailesh Gandhi is a first generation entrepreneur. He was a former Central Information Commissioner and also sold his company to become a RTI activist.

Shailesh was part of the National RTI movement which was involved in drafting the National Act. He was convener of the National Campaign for People’s Right To Information (RTI). He has used RTI and also trained many citizens and government officials in over 1000 workshops to use it.

He has published a book: RTI Act- authentic interpretation of the Statute and a paper critiquing Supreme Court judgments on RTI.

The only RTI activist to have been chosen as a Central Information Commissioner, he disposed a record of over 20,000 cases in 3 years and 9 months, and ensured that most cases were decided in less than 90 days. Moreover, he also gave many landmark decisions on RTI, apart from organizing the first digital paper-less office in the Commission.

Amongst many awards he has been awarded the Nani Palkhiwala Civil Liberties award, and the MR Pai award.

Shailesh has been situated in Mumbai for 65 years now.

During his interaction in Mumbai Charcha, which is a talk show series with prominent Mumbaikars, Gandhi shared about the origin of RTI, his vision for Mumbai among various other things.

What is your connection with Mumbai?

Even though we may cruse or crib about various flaws and issues of the city, there is something about Mumbai that we love. This is the magic of Mumbai. It is a city of dreams to many where sky is the limit. As Mumbai offers lot of empathy and opportunities that any other city does not do.

What are your views on how responsive and transparent is out system?

Everyone likes other persons’ transparency. However, they themselves should be first transparent enough, Similarly, government must be transparent in providing information to its citizens. This is also a sign of democracy. The government belong to all of us as they call it “LokShahi”. Though the feeling of equality is essential but lacking.

However, a question that arises here: “Is it a democracy or a sham democracy?” The respect for an individual is essential to democracy which is missing.

There comes the need of Right To Information (RTI) is fundamental requirement for democracy and the way u implement it gives indication of respect to its citizens and draws closer to a democracy.

The government takes nearly two years to decide on responding to an RTI. Many a times, there’s no response or acknowledgement to your complain.

To an exception, Mumbai’s new commissioner of police Sanjay Pandey made his number accessible, which is unconventional. This kind of norms are lacking.

What is the origin of RTI move?

In December 2, 1776, first ever RTI law was brought in Sweden. No other country adopted such law for another 150 years. At present, 120 countries have similar law though with different acts.

Talking about India, Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey and Shankar Singh started a campaign to bring in Rajasthan’s Dubli village. It was first incepted in Tamil Nadu in 1997, but, it was never used and was implemented for just for the sake.

After UPA government in its manifesto included the RTI, PAC said it must be implemented. And now, the draft of RTI is one of best across the world, however, we do not implement it properly.

Can you elaborate on the idea of bringing RTI popped up with you?

Long back, when I was about 20-year-old, I used to be critical about society like any other youngster these days. To my shock, even at the age of 50, when I was asked the same question and answer didn’t change about the society. That was the time it had hit me that, I was the society and I am responsible for this. Hence, at that point of time, I realised there is a need to bring the change.

Since then, I always keep on saying that try to bring change instead of ranting or cribbing. Always file an RTI and make a goal to changes in the society that you dislike without thinking about consequences. Believe you are the ruler. “I own the government,” this keeps me motivated to work harder.

According to you, what is the barrier in implementation? 

In my opinion, lack or resources is partly the reason for inappropriate implantation of RTI. As till date, systems are being manually updated, which comes with error and laziness.

RTI is in stagnation stage. As mentioned earlier, the response is delayed and the government is trying to treat Right To Information as Right To History. As per a special law in Maharashtra, action should be taken in 45 days. Though every ruling government in the state has flouted this law. Citizens must agitate to make it work.

What is your Vision/Dream for Mumbai?

Mumbai is known for the fact that everyone manages to fight enough to earn its bread and butter. Mumbai mein roti, naukri, kapda milega but makan nahi milta. Therefore, we have huge slums, which constitute 10% or more of the city in terms of area. I dream of a slum free Mumbai. According to me, nothing will work until then.

I have suggested the government and civic officials to give people place in chawls at rent instead for poor. In an estimated calculation, nearly INR 100,000 crores can accommodate more than 1 crore people for a slum-free Mumbai.

In addition, it has come to light that BMC schools’ education quality is also degrading despite dignified and qualified teachers. Moreover, roads should be better and opened spaces must be taken care of appropriately. RTI must be used here to get information about last repairs, cost of repairs etc., It allows citizens to be monitors.

For an essential dignified human life, government must provide shelter, food, education and healthcare.

Besides, ahead of the upcoming election, ward sabha meeting should be held every month to discuss and resolve issues and promises. We are democracy for elections only.

“I would also like to bring it to notice that the BMC and Maharashtra government did a really good job with handling COVID. This shows that capability exists, but we don’t enforce it. The culture of being concerned should exist,” concluded Shailesh Gandhi.

(Tune in the conversation with Abha Narain Lambah - Conservation architect who has worked on restoring Mumbai’s architectural past and reinvigorating the conversation around the city’s heritage tomorrow at 7 pm)

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