It is indeed noteworthy that civil organisations and members of the general public are slowly catching up to the application of the Right to Information Act (RTI) while seeking information from either government or non-government establishments.
Two recent examples had been the revelation of misuse of a total of Rs 1,55,57,563 which has been issued in 2017 for village development in Toubul, Bishnupur district by the local Gram Panchayat and that of fund diversion of development funds meant for ChamphuKhangpok in Loktak Lake by authorities. Both of these information became open through information received by local organisations by use of RTI.
In the first incident, misappropriation of development funds by the local Pradhan in connivance with block officials seems evident as many of the 28 works were not implemented at all, as alleged by the Toubul RTI group. They also said that the block officials could not provide the list of jobs taken up under MNREGA.
The Loktak fiasco is even more interesting. Champu Khangpok village is the only floating village in the middle of the Loktak Lake which has been declared a census village by the state government in 1991.
An RTI reply received from the MOBC Department revealed five domains where funds would be invested for the Action Plan and Financial Estimation of Infrastructures Works at the floating village under PMAGY for the year 2019-20.
The action plan includes construction of a committee toilet, providing emergency ambulance, internet connectivity to the whole village and surprisingly it also includes pucca blacktopping of all-weather roads and installation of street lights in the middle of the lake amounting to a total of Rs 20 lakh.
While some members involved in the so-called Village PMAGY Convergence Committee were not actually villagers, the listed beneficiaries of the project were also fake. There was some kind of lame clarification that the funds had been utilised elsewhere. Well, many more cases of misappropriation of development funds and fund diversion will roll out of the cupboard, as RTI empowered members of the public increases.
From 2005 when the RTI Act was first implemented in the state with the institution of Manipur State Information Commission, the RTI movement had rather been slow in Manipur as compared to other states.
A journalist working in a local vernacular daily was the first to use RTI in the state while seeking information on the list of State Public Information Officers (SPIOs) and APIOs for concerned departments along with a prayer for publication of obligatory information by every public office as mandated by the Act.
Then, an empowered group of women activists schooled in the use of RTI came into the scene which somehow led to upsetting the patriarchal applecart where women are generally kept out of the decision-making process at every level. So, many were indeed surprised when women started standing up and questioning.
Then, came the threats and incidents of intimidation. That was the first phase of the movement. Next came the phase of some professional RTI activists who were out to make money by posing questions and threatening to put the information in the public domain. But, threats can come from any direction.
Remember the case of threats and intimidation to some hill based RTI activists not so long ago.
Some RTI activists seeking details of utilization of funds under the various Autonomous District Councils (ADCs) were threatened by an underground group.
The Movement for Peoples’ Rights Forum, Manipur had written to the Union Home Minister for taking prompt action to save the lives of the four RTI applicants of Senapati district who had been repeatedly threatened and intimidated.