Commodore Lokesh Batra (Rtd) likes to describe himself as a campaigner for transparency, someone who uses Right to Information (RTI) Act as a tool.
“ I do not think that I am an RTI Activist. As a common citizen, I believe in actively engaging with the government which is ours, in order to be able to bring reforms. I would rather be called a Transparency Campaigner, who uses RTI as a tool to seek information with the clear aim of bringing reforms in our governance system through dialogue and for doing so, one needs to be empowered with clear and full information,” he explains.
Contrary to the popular perception that it is difficult to obtain information from the Government, Commodore Batra says he has had very little trouble getting information.
“The bureaucrats, by and large, are public-spirited except the Department of Revenue which still remains the biggest hurdle — tossing around my RTI of August 03, 2018 for the last 16 months. With respect to EC, Law Ministry and DEA, I faced no problem in getting access to whole files on the matter including the file cover.
“And I had clearly mentioned that I wanted the documents, both on the noting and the correspondence sides,” he declares, going on to add, “ In certain cases, I received documents and files within a week. There were no undue delays except for the Department of Revenue (DOR).”
Has he faced threats or have people in powerful positions ever tried to restrain him ? He dodges the question deftly and in the face of persistent questioning, asserts reluctantly that he had indeed been at the receiving end of such messages.
“Since the documents accessed by me have found their way into the media and into public domain, it definitely offends some extremely powerful people. I have received threatening messages, warning me of dire consequences, etc.
“What’s most worrisome is fake messages surfacing from time to time quoting me as the author. These risks are real. But one cannot get intimidated by these things if one wants the truth to come out. This is par for the course in today’s India,” he adds nonchalantly.
It is clear that the RTI Act is no friend of governments in power, quips the Commodore while admitting that there are serious attempts afoot to dilute the Act.
“I think the reason behind the attempts to dilute the Act is apparent. Also, the present government has not appointed a single Information Commissioner since 2014, without being nudged by the court. Repeated PILs have been filed by me along with other activists. The last one was filed last month by activist Anjali Bhardwaj, Amrita Johari and myself,” he informs.
By now in full flow, he says, “I can go on and on for hours on this but I will tell you one of the most effective ways I have used RTI: When the RTI Act was passed, the Hindi version had as many as 35 mistakes. Using the English version of the RTI Act to correct the Hindi version of the RTI Act was a unique experience although the process took 7 years and multiple RTIs to correct RTI Act’s Hindi Version. How about that!”
“As an officer in the Indian Navy, I was commissioned in 1967 and retired in 2002. I have been nurtured by tax-payers’ money. Even now, my pension comes out of people’s money. I feel I owe them. I want to spend my time in a meaningful way that will promote people’s participation in governance and running of the system.”
“Even my tenure with the Navy was unique. When the Odisha Supercyclone struck in 1999, I was sent by the Navy to oversee rehabilitation work and later to visit the Kargil war zone. That was the turning point when as an Indian Navy officer, I was to play the role of the community development adviser to the Indian Navy.”