RTI Activist Subhash Agrawal from Nilima Pathak in New Delhi Image Credit: Nilima Pathak/Gulf News

New Delhi: Subhash Chandra Agrawal is a businessman who deals in textiles. But he has shown his talent in a different art of weaving. His well-written Right To Information (RTI) petitions has shaken the government, the bureaucracy and the judiciary alike.

With the RTI Act 2005 tool in hand, he has humbled many and forced the authorities to plug loopholes and corruption in the system. To this lone man goes the credit for putting the judiciary in the dock for the first time in the history of India.

Hearing his application in a landmark judgment, the Central Information Commissioner (CIC) had held that office of the Chief Justice of India came under the purview of the RTI Act and the information regarding asset declaration of apex court judges should be made public.

The sharp RTI shooter, Agarwal has been fighting relentlessly against bungling and corruption in the administrative system and has held the flag of freedom flying high. In mission possible, the CIC has ruled in favour of his several other petitions as well. These include — the Department of Post and Telegraph accepting file-notings under RTI, disclosure of ministers' wealth, check on expenses on judges' foreign trips and the decision to regulate fees structure by private universities.

Agrawal is featured in Guinness World Records for writing maximum number of ‘letters to the editor' in national dailies. And as an extension to it, he has now been grilling the public authorities through his RTI petitions, which he terms as his ‘Sunday hobby'.

He speaks to Gulf News in an exclusive interview.

GULF NEWS: When did your tryst with RTI petitions begin?

SUBHASH CHANDRA AGRAWAL: My crusade began in October 2005 immediately after the transparency act came into force. It was against the evils in the judicial system and I filed my first RTI petition seeking information on a complaint against a high court judge. And yes, things did move. And that is when I realised the importance of this Act for the benefit of the society at large.

 Your petition regarding a scheduled Alliance Air flight having been changed into a chartered flight is in the news. Does the move not to reveal name of the person at whose behest it was done, indicate that the authorities are hiding something?

Yes, that's true. Alliance Air's contention was that the disclosure was exempted as it was held in commercial confidence. But the fact is that it was done on the orders of Poorna, daughter of then civil aviation minister Praful Patel.

I had filed the petition after I came to know that a scheduled Delhi-Coimbatore flight was aborted less than 12 hours before its departure. The aircraft was allowed to be deployed as a chartered flight for flying Indian Premier League's hospitality manager Poorna and some IPL players from Chandigarh to Chennai in April 2010. The authorities replied to all the other queries that I had asked for, but withheld the name of the person who directed the flight to Jaipur to pick up IPL's Mumbai Indians. Now, the CIC has said that in the interest of transparency and accountability, the information must be provided by Alliance Air.

Is there any particular reason why you are pursuing this case?

I have absolutely no personal agenda and no enmity with Patel or anyone else. My mission is to bring malpractices to the fore for clean and good governance. And unless we expose mismanagement, there won't be an end to it. Because of several cases that I have taken up, the administration has become smooth and the people are scared of misusing their powers. In fact, in certain cases, even before getting a response to the petitions that I have filed, I have observed that the organisations have put their system in order.

How do you manage to get the courts moving on all your petitions?

It's an art of drafting, which has come through practice. One has to put points in such a manner that even the corporations that do not come under the gambit of RTI, are also forced to reveal the information. All this then leads to action. In at least eight cases the public authorities have gone against me to either the High Court or the Supreme Court. But ultimately, they have or will have to give in.

Till now, how many RTI petitions have you filed?

The number must be above 1,000. And out of these 250 have reached the second state appeal before the CIC and one-third are related to the judicial system.

How can the RTI Act be helpful to the public?

India's RTI Act is the finest in the world and has become a role model for many nations. The results are tremendous. It has exposed all. Earlier, though others were, the judiciary was not held accountable. But now my RTI petitions have compelled the government to make the judiciary also answerable. Through this Act, the ordinary citizens have been empowered with powers that even the parliamentarians do not possess. At times, even the members of parliament (MP) use it to obtain answers to queries, which they otherwise do not get. An MP gets only one chance to get a written reply to a starred question, whereas the common man today gets three opportunities to put the authorities on the mat. We can first approach the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO), then the CPIO department head and finally the CIC.

Have the MPs ever approached you to file an RTI petition on their behalf?

Yes, it has happened two-three times. But I won't reveal their names.

 Since you have been attending workshops and making even the public authorities aware of the RTI Act, what is the awareness level among the public?

It is negligible. That's because the government has intentionally done nothing to create awareness among the people. There's this example of a chief general manager of a prominent branch of a bank against whom I filed a petition because of his misbehaviour regarding some information. The moment he came to know, he approached me and was highly apologetic. I relented. But I was shocked when before leaving he asked me what this RTI Act was all about! If this is the state of awareness in the country's capital, what more can one expect?

Have you ever been threatened by politicians, their henchmen or government officials?

No, this has never happened despite my having filed petitions against the Prime Minister's Office and the Supreme Court. But yes, I did get abusive calls and threats from people in the Municipal Corporation of Delhi when I had pointed out irregularities in Nigambodh Ghat cremation ground.

Do you not fear for your life considering that at least 10 RTI applicants have been killed till now?

I am not scared, but family and friends advise that I should seek police protection.

The government is working towards making certain amendments in the Act. Will they prove more beneficial?

The government is seeing its own benefit. Instead of making it more advantageous, simple and people-friendly, the government is trying to bring in amendments and dilute it in a manner that the Act may become toothless. But the National Advisory Council, under the chairmanship of Sonia Gandhi and a member and social activist Aruna Roy, has been resisting the move. I have all documentary proof of the correspondence between Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi on the issue. Procuring these documents was also possible only because of the Act. I believe that Sections 27 and 28 should be repealed. As per these, the state governments can draft their own rules regarding the application charges to provide information under the Act. The states are misusing it to tweak the Act in their favour.

Does your activism help you financially in any way?

I rather end up spending money from my pocket. But I know, I am not alone in this fight and get support from most prominent lawyers in Delhi, especially Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan, who has been fighting all cases for free and till date has not charged me anything even for stationery.

Right path: Guinness entry for most letters

- Subhash Chandra Agrawal was born on January 10, 1950 to Om Prakash Agrawal and wife Padmawati in Delhi.

-  Early education from Anglo Sanskrit Victoria Jubilee Higher Secondary School, Daryaganj, New Delhi.

- Graduated in mechanical engineering from Delhi College of Engineering, Delhi University — 1971.

- Post-Graduate diploma in marketing and sales management from Faculty of Management Studies, Delhi University.

- Joined family's textiles business due to adverse circumstances at home.

- Figures in Guinness World Records for having written maximum number of ‘Letters to Editors' in national dailies. His wife, Madhu, also holds the same record for the calendar year 2009.

- He has been honoured with the first-ever National RTI Award.

- He is regularly invited by public authorities at especially conducted workshops to train their officers dealing with RTI petitions.