A people’s RTI database takes shape

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It started with a query that three friends filed years ago for official information under the RTI Act. It has since evolved into a project that is set to make the Right to Information law a more effective tool.

Nearly five years ago, the three MBA students in their early 20s faced threats, red tape and government apathy over an RTI query on illegal construction near a friend’s house.

Amarpreet Singh (28), Mukesh Sharma (26) and Ravish Sharma (26) had to split up, after graduating in 2014 from the Apeejay Institute of Management, Jalandhar, taking up jobs in different places.

But they kept coming back to their shared experience with the RTI Act. The law theoretically empowers citizens, but in reality, they found, it could work like the boulder that Sisphyus was doomed to pushing up a hill repeatedly.

Their answer was RTI Likho. The venture opened in April 2017 to help people navigate the paperwork needed to file an RTI query, and to protect the identities of whistleblowers. Over the past three months, the trio has been filing about 20 RTI applications on behalf of citizens every day.

These range from students of public universities who want their mark sheet copies, to people wanting to know the status of their FIRs, and even lawyers who need vital information for cases. RTI Likho has a 16-member team – three full-time members and 13 volunteers.

Mukesh Sharma, who works with SBI Life in Himachal Pradesh and helps RTI Likho part-time, recalls their harrowing effort as students, “We filed an RTI query and did not get any response. Our friend had to backtrack as he got threat calls. Experiencing this ordeal was the turning point.” Mr. Sharma, who grew up in Himachal Pradesh, adds, “We launched RTI Likho after getting enough experience.”

The next step is more ambitious: to build an RTI bank, a repository of responses open to the public.

Mumbai-based Amarpreet Singh says RTI responses will be crowdsourced from citizens, activists, journalists, researchers and whistleblowers. “Apart from putting up information on a public platform, the purpose is to avoid duplication. There is no public RTI bank with collated responses. Most official websites are archaic and all RTI responses are not published,” says Mr. Singh, who quit Exoton Foundation, a civil rights and social justice non-profit that he co-founded, to set up RTI Likho.

Currently, the database has over 4,000 RTI applications and plans to go live within three months. “We are reaching out on social networking sites and asking people to send us RTI responses,” Mr. Singh adds.

Check database first

The third co-founder, Ravish Sharma (26), who heads the HR department of a Jalandhar-based company, spends his spare time building the database and filing queries.

To start off, the founders pooled their savings. Now they are trying to meet the costs by charging a fee for help with filing RTI queries.

Mr. Singh said, “We will make it best practice to first search this repository to see whether someone else has already got the information, before filing an RTI query. This will reduce the difficulty of citizens and government’s workload.”

Mohan Krishnan, president, National Anti-Corruption and Crime Preventive Council (NACCPC), an NGO, has scanned and submitted to RTI Likho more than 500 responses that his organisation obtained.