hen you call Avnish Singh on his mobile phone for the first time, you are likely to be surprised. For his hello tune, he has recorded instructions in minute details about how to file a Right to Information (RTI) application.
This is perfectly in character for Avnish Singh, who founded RTI Anonymous with his friend Ritesh Singh, an IIT Kharagpur alumnus, and Anand Sharma, a US-based Non-Resident Indian. RTI Anonymous allows people to file RTI applications anonymously, in order to help them protect their identities.
It was because of an RTI filed by them that the Ministry of Home Affairs was forced to explain why Robert Vadra was being exempted from security checks at airports. In response to their application in March this year, the MHA said that it had recommended exempting Vadra from pre-embarkation security checks at all civilian airports because of his marriage to Priyanka Vadra, who is a special protection group "protectee" (sic). The ministry said that this was done in consultation with the Central security agencies and clarified that the exemption was valid only when he travelled with his wife.
It was because of an RTI filed by RTI Anonymous that the Ministry of Home Affairs was forced to explain why Robert Vadra was being exempted from security checks at airports.
Several whistleblowers have been killed since the RTI Act came into being in 2005. In fact, this has been cited as a major deficiency in the Act, the inability to protect RTI activists. RTI Anonymous has been successfully overcoming this through its innovative model of filing applications. Anyone can send an RTI application to the group. The application is then vetted and sent to a volunteer based in a city other than where the original applicant resides. The volunteer files the RTI through speed post. When the volunteer receives a response, it is uploaded on the group's website.
The group has received at least 250 applications from all over the country till now. "They mostly deal with day-to-day issues like salaries, PF (provident fund), civic issues," said Avnish Singh, who holds a day job like the others in the group. RTI Anonymous has over 20 members from India and abroad.
Recently, the group helped the Central Information Commission in dealing with RTIs. "The CIC did not have enough working hands. So we proposed to start an internship scheme. Seven to eight people are working there now as interns. They are mostly students from IIT Kharagpur and Delhi," said Singh. The group was successful in seeking out crucial bits of information by using RTIs, apart from exposing corruption at the local level.
However, Avnish Singh said that RTIs that helped common people deal with day-to-day issues gave him the maximum satisfaction. He cited the instance of a flyover near IIT Kharagpur that was under construction for many years. The group filed an RTI, seeking details of the project, specifically the names of the officials in charge and the reasons for the delay. While the RTI application did not receive a satisfactory response, work on the flyover started within the next couple of months on a "war-footing".