RTI Warriors I

RTI Warriors I – 'Truth Is Inconvenient'

Jagjit Singh Walia was always pained by the rampant corruption, red-tape and profligacy that ate into government machinery. In 2006, he discovered the power of Right to Information. Since, he has made a minister of state for agriculture surrender eight of his vehicles that he had solicited from different departments, forced several central government offices being run from five-star hotels to shift to humble buildings.

And the list is growing:  The first time I used RTI was in 2006, to know the status of my wife’s passport. Her passport application was long pending with the department concerned. And we were running pillar to post trying to find a reason for the delay. I filed my first RTI, and it worked wonders for me. We soon got my wife’s passport. Empowered, I decided to use this weapon to clear out the rot in my own workplace – the CPWD.

The organisation is involved in large-scale construction and maintenance of government projects and thus, is a hotbed of corruption. I filed an RTI to know why CPWD was not asking for a discount from electricity product suppliers, as huge discounts are given as a routine. No discounts meant pay-out of large-scale commissions, at the cost of the government exchequer.

Once the RTI was filed, it led to a veritable commotion among the ranks of CPWD and it ultimately led to a vigilance inquiry as well. Finally, CPWD had to start asking for discounts. Since 2006, I have filed hundreds of RTIs to get information about policies, projects, and systems in the government. In 2011, in another RTI application, it was revealed that many offices of the central government ministries were running out of five-star hotels in Delhi.

And we, the taxpayers, were paying for it! As a result of this RTI, the Central government had to shift these offices to other buildings. Another RTI filed by me, once, forced the then Minister for State for Agriculture to surrender eight vehicles that had been solicited from different government departments. As a rule, a minister is entitled to only one vehicle. On several occasions, I have been confronted and stopped by my colleagues on behest of corrupt babus and contractors.

Senior officers from my department lured me with favourable posting, and when that didn’t work they resorted to threats. But nothing has refrained me from in unearthing the truth. Truth isn’t always what meets the eye. As a government servant for decades, I understood that in a typical bureaucratic system. Truths are inconvenient.

Interestingly, our ‘babudom’ has achieved excellence in keeping these inconvenient truths hidden from the public eye — under layers of dusty files. Since independence, the draconian Official Secrets Act – a relic of our colonial past — had played a pivotal role in hushing up inconvenient truths. But in 2005, the introduction of Right to Information, ushered in a new era of accountability and transparency.

For 1.3 billion Indians, RTI became a powerful tool to explore the truth. All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered, the point is to discover them, said Galileo hundreds of years ago. We, the citizens of India have finally got a potent weapon to unearth the truth.

Gaurav Sharma

From A Wheelchair To World Podium

Gaurav Sharma Bio-

Medical expenses left his family in dire straits but he didn’t lose hope. From hospital bed to winning gold for India in 125kg category of 2016 World Powerlifting Championship, Sharma narrates his story:   Not every athlete faces the kind of trauma that I did. No, it’s not that I belonged to a poor family. It is about my fate that left me crippled not once but twice. Since childhood, I wanted to be a weightlifter and used to go for training near my house.

I even got selected in the sub-junior Delhi team and was all set to chase my dream when, on May 8, 2001, when I was 13, I fell from the fourth floor of my house in Chandni Chowk while trying to catch a fallen kite. I was rushed to hospital and survived after two days of surgery but my legs were paralysed. I considered myself half-dead. The doctor advised an “automatic” wheelchair.

While my parents couldn’t hold back their tears, I couldn’t believe what tragedy had befallen me. After 15 days in hospital, I was taken home and before that to Chandni Chowk’s Narsingh Temple, which was built by my great-grandparents and where my father was a mahant. I said my silent prayers. In the next six months, I remained strapped to the wheelchair.

From training in the gym I ended up handling the cash counter there. All this while I watched other people prepare for competitions. I could only curse my destiny. But God had other plans for me. One day, an uncle of mine suggested that I try yoga and I agreed. I became a regular at the yoga classes and results were miraculous. After three years of rigorous training, I was back on my feet. And when I got to know that there was a weightlifting competition in Delhi, I decided to participate.

Not all my relatives and friends had faith in my newfound abilities, but my parents stood by me. I started training and went on to win two gold medals and one silver in that event. I became a star overnight and my photo graced newspapers. I was sure that great things were now in store for me and the worst was behind. I couldn’t have been more wrong. On April 6, 2006, I met with another accident, this time the bike I was riding was hit by a car near Gurugram.

Four operations later, with a rod in my left foot, the doctor again advised me to quit chasing my dream to be a professional athlete. The cash crunch caused by the expensive surgeries further drained me. My friends from my weightlifting days expressed their helplessness and when I approached the media to run my story, there was no response.

Seeing me back on the wheelchair, my relatives told my family to keep me home or let me handle the temple for puja paath. But, again, God had other plans. I met Dronacharya awardee Bhupender Dhawan Sir. He told my father, “Your son is so courageous. I will make him a world champion powerlifter.” Everybody doubted his statement. Everybody, except my mother. Soon enough, I started training under Bhupender Sir.

I used to wake up at 4 am and go to the gym – rain or hail I never missed these sessions. Sir told me about an upcoming weightlifting competition in New Zealand. I was a little nervous but prayed to god and said yes. I won gold at the 2007-2008 Commonwealth Championship there and then again at the Asian Championship in Hong Kong in 2008.

The biggest breakthrough came in London in 2016, when I fulfilled my dream of striking Gold in the 125 kg category of the World Powerlifting Championship. This year, I have won two gold medals at the European Championship. My next target is to win Mr Olympia 2018 title. Wish me luck.