Panni Bai doesn't know how to read or write and can barely speak in public. But armed with the RTI Act, this mother of two from Bharthaul village in Chitrakoot district has blown the lid off a Rs 2-crore scandal involving her district's education department.
Panni Bai took on the high and mighty when her son, a student at the village government school, didn't get his new school uniform and books before Independence Day, as he was supposed to, says a report in Delhi newspaper Mail Today.
“I first asked the school about it, but they told me to speak to the district education officers,” says Panni. “When I went to them, they claimed that they hadn't received money from the administration.
Hence they couldn't provide the uniform or the books.” That would have been the end of the affair — as it normally is in such cases. But fortuitously, a group of RTI activists held a camp at Panni's village just around that time.
Manish Sisodia, a noted activist who was also at the camp, says that's when Panni realised she could actually do something about the uniform and books.
“She interrupted one of our awareness camps and asked us if ‘our' RTI Act could help her son get his school uniform and books. As soon as she raked up the issue, another 26 women attending the camp also stood up with the same complaint,” says Sisodia.
The activists told the women of the options available to them. Panni and another woman, Sampat, decided to take the lead.
They together wrote down an RTI application with the help of the activists, questioning the district administration about the funds for the school uniforms and books. The application was signed by all other complainants.
The impact was immediate. Almost overnight, the entire district education department arrived at her house, urging her to take the uniforms and withdraw her application. But Panni and her team didn't relent.
A week later, they received letters from government authorities. “We were initially scared as some men, without reading the letters, pronounced them to be arrest warrants for all the women who had filed the application. They all started to blame me for no reason at all,” says Panni.
But once the letters were opened up and read, they all realised that the administration had called the women to distribute the school uniforms. “ They wanted us to come and pick up the right sizes for our children, fearing we might file another RTI application if they didn't give us the right size,” smiles Panni, thrilled at her success.
It wasn't just the students of Bharthaul village who benefited from Panni's pro- activism. Books and uniforms were distributed in schools across the district.“ We followed up the matter after Bharthaul's success,” says Sisodia.
“ Just recently, the authorities sent us a letter saying they had distributed the books and uniforms to all students in the district at a cost of Rs 2 crore — the very money they earlier said they had never received.” But he is quick to give credit where it is due. “ Who would have detected this scam had these women not filed a simple RTI application,” he says.
Panni was invited to the National Convention on the Right to Information, held at the India Islamic Cultural Centre in New Delhi on Sunday.
Like Panni, participants from across rural India came to share their successes and failures with RTI activists. Mandira Moddie of the United Nations Millennium Campaign, chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah, Orissa's information commissioner Jagadananda and Jharkhand's information commissioner Gangotri Kujur also attended the convention.