Thiruvananthapuram: On October 11, 2014, a group of people who said they were from the Corporation had demolished Sarojam's scrap shop, which she had been running for 22 years, near Attukal Devi temple here. Four years later, on August 10, the City Corporation has been asked to construct a new shop for Sarojam at the very place where the original had stood.
In between lies the story of how a poor scheduled caste woman used democracy's most potent weapon, the Right to Information Act, to secure justice. Her questions - probing, uncompromising, relentless - eventually cracked open official apathy. Along the way, as her questions acquired greater urgency and explored new areas, Sarojam also exposed how a public sector unit had been taking advantage of the ignorance of poor scheduled caste families.
It was early morning on a second Saturday that the men came with an earthmover to knock down her scrap shop, a small shop the size of a street-side bunk shop. It was near a pond, at the far end of an SC colony, known as MSK Nagar. The dinosaur-like earthmover had dredged silt from the pond and deposited it over the destroyed shop. The contents - scrap materials and weights and measures instruments - were dumped in an abandoned faraway yard. “The men told us that they were from the Corporation and were cleaning the pond. They also told us that the shop was on 'poramboke' land,” Sarojam said.
Same old police story
Her husband Nagarajan went to the Fort Police Station and registered a complaint. Nothing happened. A month later, Sarojam went to the station, and once again lodged a complaint. This time she insisted on a receipt. Still, no one was questioned. She kept visiting the police station frequently, and it was nearly 10 months later that she came to know of the RTI legislation. “The SEWA (Self-Employed Women's Association) had organised a class on the RTI, and I asked the people who were taking the class about my case,” she said.
Sarojam was advised to file an RTI application in the Fort Police Station. It was Abey George of National Campaign for People's Right to Information who helped her draft the questions. The posers and requirements were very specific. What is the status of the complaint lodged by Sarojam? Was an order given to investigate the issue? If so, a copy of the order. If an investigation was carried out, who was the officer in charge? The copy of the order handing over the charge of the investigation. If the officer had carried out the investigation, furnish a copy of the diary report the officer had filed after conducting the investigation report?
The police, which till then had taken the stand that no such scrap shop existed and had refused to entertain her complaint, rushed to Sarojam's house to collect details.
In pursuit of the demolition men?
Then, as advised by Abey of NCPRI, she shot RTI queries to the Corporation, Revenue Department, and the Scheduled Caste Development Department. “We wanted to know who ordered the demolition,” Sarojam said. The Corporation and the district revenue authorities said they had nothing to do with the issue.
It is not as if they came up with the necessary information promptly. Sarojam had to approach the chief information commissioner to get these government wings to respond.
As it turned out, the cleaning of the pond was ordered by the Scheduled Caste Development Department. The district scheduled caste development officer said the cleaning was carried out as part of the Swayam Paryaptha Gramam (Self-Sufficient Village) Project. But for three other questions, the answer was a definite 'NO'. One: Has the SC Development Department ordered the removal of the shop? Two: Have the workers been told to clean the area around the pond. Three: Have any directions been given during any other time to remove the scrap shop near the pond.
The surprise villain
The SC Department also revealed that Small Industries Development Corporation (SIDCO) was the implementing agency of the Swayam Paryaptha Gramam project. The questions were then directed at SIDCO. The PSU was asked to give the 'action taken report' of the works carried out at MSK Nagar. “Their first response, which came after 30 days, was that the information could not be given without payment as the documents ran into nearly 400 pages,” said Sarojam. Abey told her that the SC community need not pay a whit. She repeated her query, this time reminding them that she was exempted from paying the money.
In the meantime, there was a flurry of SIDCO activity in MSK Nagar. “They put up new pipe lines, and unloaded a number of machines in the area. They have even installed a rain water harvesting unit in one of the houses,” said Suresh, the secretary of the MSK Nagar Residents' Association. Soon after, Sarojam received by post a thick volume of SIDCO documents. The papers, with figures right down to decimal points, demonstrate that SIDCO had completed drainage, biogas, waste treatment, and rain water harvesting works at MSK Nagar. The documents further show that SIDCO had also set up a book binding unit, and paper bag and candle manufacturing units in the village.
Livelihood denial project
No one in the area knows of any such units. “Some machines that they have unloaded are now lying abandoned in the corner of this colony,” Suresh said. The only rain-water harvesting unit installed in the colony was dismantled by the house owner as he had no idea how to use it.
The Swayam Paryaptha Gramam project is essentially a livelihood enhancement project. “What the SIDCO had done was to strip a poor women of her livelihood in the name of a livelihood project,” Abey of NCPRI said.
After nearly four years, and 30-odd RTI applications, Sarojam was in possession of enough material to approach the State Commission for Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes. It was the Commission - after conducting a series of hearings, many of which Corporation or police officials did not bother to attend - that finally directed the Corporation and the SC Development Department to construct Sarojam a new shop on the very place where the original stood.