Working tirelessly for a better tomorrow, some 12 Gujjar-Bakherwal social warriors have used RTI as their ‘weapon of change’ in one of the most restive regions of the world. Undeterred and undaunted by the bleakness of today, their story is of the silver lining in Kashmir today.
The meadows of Dodhpathri, nestled in the Pir Panjal range of the Himalayas, have emerged as an ubiquitous tourist destination. But unbeknownst to all, the serenity of this place hides behind it a constant struggle of a few who are fighting against under-development and unaccountability on their own.
Dodhpathri, the land of RTI activists, has some quite inspiring and motivated people from the Gujjar community who after being ‘betrayed’ multiple times by the authorities have taken matters in to their own hands.
Inhabitants of the area have made RTI a weapon against fighting corruption and inefficiency in governance.
As result, the process of filing an RTI application has become an important part of curriculum to even school students. Instead of engaging in violent confrontation, the RTI warriors have demonstrated their courage in stepping-up to the authorities through their constitutional rights.
According to them, the most important aspects for a social revolution are courage and composure. These RTI warriors seem to have mastered both of these traits.
In a region where their community has always been on the margins, these RTI warriors are being the change they want to see in the lives of their peers.
Their journey on holding the state accountable and fighting for transparency started when they were on the path of searching for an alternative livelihood. It had come to a point when the only viable path for livelihood for them was to engage in timber smuggling. A local resident sums up the community’s dilemma, “There was, and still is immense poverty and the wood around was the easiest option we could see.”
At that time, a former government medical officer, Dr. Sheikh Ghulam Rasool, founder of Jammu and Kashmir RTI Movement, who had served in Mujpather, the village where Gujjars and Bakherwals live in during the winter season, saw the degrading condition of the forests around.
From the year 2006, he started taking up the cause of sensitising the people about the importance of a healthy ecosystem and sustainable livelihood.
“We hardly respected our forests and environment, but after having conversations with Dr. Sahab we understood that these trees are the only asset we have,” says Nazir Ahmed, a Taxi Driver, residing in Dodhpathri.
“And when we started calculating the amount that we earned after bribing the police, forest officers etc, we came to a conclusion that timber smuggling was not even providing us with any extraordinary level of income.”
At this point, the community members started opening up shops in the meadows of Dodpathri. But, even that did not last long. Their shops were taken over by the authorities promising them new shops in the coming years.
“It has been almost 10 years since then and we are still waiting for those shops,” a local RTI activist says. “This is when our fight with the unjust state and establishment started.”
The first instance where Dr. Sheikh guided the community to file an RTI application was in the year 2008 against the teachers of the mobile school where the local Gujjar kids studied.
With the status of Scheduled Tribes, the children of Gujjars and Bakherwals receive a fixed amount of scholarship from the government. For two years, a number of children had not received their scholarship as per the policy. After being questioned by Nazir, the teachers responded that for these years money hadn’t come from the education department itself.
However, Nazir filed an RTI application to see if the teacher was telling the truth. “None of the children were my own, but I was and will always work for my community,” he said.
Within two weeks of filing the application, the teacher, who also happened to be his maternal uncle, came to Nazir’s house to ‘reconcile’ but the RTI activist refused to budge.
The RTI response had revealed that the scholarship money of the 5-6 kids was being pocketed by the teacher himself.
The teacher, rather brazenly, justified this blatant theft saying that the kids couldn’t have handled so much money. After he was exposed, he promptly handed the money to the kids in the presence of Nazir.
Having learned about the corruption and inefficiency through his first RTI query, Nazir soon filed a second application seeking the names of beneficiaries of the Public Distribution Scheme (PDS).
To his shock, his deceased grandfather and his brother were in the list!
“I quickly understood how corrupt these food officers were, usurping the food that came on the name of my dead relatives,” Nazir recounted his surprise at the revelation.
“After the information came in,” he continued, “these food officers came to my house offering me bribes in exchange of dropping the case. But did I? No. How could I? I was fighting for the rights of my community, of the people who can’t voice their opinions. I, instead, asked them to take the money back, and give the villagers what is rightfully theirs.”
Another activist, Abdul Rashid Sheikh, filed an RTI asking for the rates of food items in this distribution scheme. The RTI response revealed corruption in the pricing model as well. While the sugar was being sold to people at Rs 40/kg, it was supposed to cost only Rs 25/kg.
“I felt quite satisfied and content that in this small way only I could help my peers,” Sheikh said.
However, the corruption was not limited to only education or food but was rampant everywhere. The houses in the area were receiving dirty water which clearly meant that there was something wrong with the water pipelines.
Rashid filed an RTI to the PHE department asking for the information on repair and replacement of pipelines. The RTI response revealed that funds were regularly released for the reparation and replacement of the water pipelines but no work had been done on that front by the local authorities.
Already the immense satisfaction and sense of community service that this activism has provided to the community in general and these activists in particular goes beyond exposing instances of corruption.
Rashid perfectly sums up this sense of pride, “Since we have started exercising this right, even the BDO treats us with respect, the same person who never permitted us to enter his office and insulted us on our dirty clothes.”
Explaining the importance of this social activism, Nazir says, “RTI, we now understand, is the most important tool to get the work done. We are a bunch of illiterate people, who never saw a school building during our childhood, but RTI has given us the power that even transcends that of administrative officers.”
This group, under the guidance of Dr. Sheikh Ghulam Rasool, is fighting administrative inefficiency and governmental apathy through their constitutional rights. As is evident, this has not only instilled a sense of civic responsibility among the community but has also bolstered their confidence as the leaders of social change.
These RTI warriors have overcome the hurdles of their surroundings and have become agents of change, a model of social activism that is worthy of replication everywhere, especially by the socially and economically backward communities.
Like this story? Producing quality journalism costs. Make a Donation & help keep our work going.