Monday, October 15, 2012

RTI to surmount mindsets and expose graft: Shobu Ram, visually challenged activist from HP

Dear colleagues,

Shobu Ram's long journey to  restore the rights of the visually challenged in the state of Himachal Pradesh saw him use RTI effectively to the expose several scams and irregularities that perpetrate injustice on the disabled brethren in the state. Himachal has taken several steps, however, there is a long way to go still.

Visually challenged man wields RTI to surmount mindsets, expose graft

Shobhu Ram, a prominent activist from H.P., uses the Act to empower others of his ilk in his State

Shobhu Ram can be mistaken for just another visually challenged person, who also works as an announcer in the Himachal Pradesh Road Transport Corporation, but beneath the veneer lies a strong fighter for the rights of the disabled in general and for the rights of the visually challenged in particular. Mr. Ram is a prominent activist who is using the Right to Information Act 2005 to empower everybody like him in Himachal Pradesh.

He was part of the delegation of activists who represented Himachal Pradesh at the two-day 7th annual convention of the Central Information Commission (CIC) that culminated on Saturday.

By using the RTI Act, Mr. Ram has exposed several loopholes and cases of corruption in the implementation of government schemes for the visually challenged. For instance, he filed RTI queries and brought out documents which showed that there are a series of cases where people who were not visually challenged got the medical certificate of being “blind” and subsequently got employment in the reserved category of “visually challenged.”

Out of around 700 grade II and III jobs reserved for the visually challenged in Himachal Pradesh, only 447 have been filled, revealed the State government response to another RTI query by Mr. Ram. Interestingly when he accessed the employment documents of the 447, it turned out that at least 300 did not have the educational and medical records to support their visually challenged claim.

“I am going to register a complaint with the State Disability Commission about this fraud going on in the State,” says Mr. Ram, who formed the “Blind Persons Association” in 1998 to fight for the rights of the visually challenged.

Mr. Ram thinks that the Act can be used to ensure that the marginalised get their due rights but says that even after seven years of the Act being in force, it has not been properly utilised. The law also needs to be sensitive to the disabled and visually challenged, he says.

“How are we supposed to read the documents which the public authorities provide me as answers to my RTI query?” he asks, suggesting that the visually challenged should be provided with RTI answers and other documents in Braille script.

Asking the CIC to take cognisance of their special needs, Mr. Ram argues: “The ideal situation is that everybody has a computer and scanner with speaking software but at present that is not the case.”

Asked about the behaviour of the State agencies and public institutions in Himachal Pradesh, Mr. Ram, who is the first journalism graduate of his State, says the general pattern is that of “extreme indifference.” He puts his own example as a case in point.

When he applied for the post of the District Public Relations Officer in 2010, he cleared the written stage. But he was rejected by the panel in the interview round even though he was the only candidate for the post reserved for the visually challenged.

Ajai Srivastava, who is an activist working on disabled rights and whose organisation “Umang Foundation” collaborates with “Blind Persons Association” on a variety of issues, says: “You fight for your rights not with people but with mindsets. The usual view plaguing the State departments is that a 100 per cent blind [person] cannot work. So they somehow or other reject them in a competition for a job.

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