Mudit Shukla, a volunteer with Lucknow-based organisation Asha Parivar, gave a presentation on the functioning of Public Information Centres or Jan Suchna Kendra, which Asha Parivar has helped set up in various locations, mostly in rural Uttar Pradesh, to help ordinary people use the Right to Information Act to demand greater administrative accountability.
These centers are equipped with computers and internet connections and run by experienced social activists. The volunteers running the centers help local people formulate RTI applications regarding any grievance they may have with government authorities especially in accessing public services, such as those provided under various public welfare schemes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the Public Distribution System. If needed they also take up the people’s grievances with local authorities their people’s behalf. In addition, they act as a platform to impart useful information about various government schemes and programmes. Presently, there are centres in Amethi, Sandila, Barabanki, Unnao, Kanpur, Varanasi, Patna and Lucknow.
Apart from providing help with the RTI and access to government services, JSKs are also a meeting and discussion place for local activists. The activists also come to access email and online information through the internet for free. The computer skills of activist running the center are enhanced from time to time by conducting training sessions locally and in Lucknow. These centers present an excellent opportunity for University students to experience grassroots issues and related activism first-hand. In the past one year, 24 foreign and Indian students have come to various centers, where they have worked with the center coordinator and the local community. These centers also provide services such as photocopy, typing, print out, document scanning and email. The charges for these services are kept at minimum.
Mudit spoke about how the concept of Public Information Centres came about through the experiences of Asha Parivar in its anti-corruption campaigns, in which the RTI Act was an important tool. The centres were set up with the vision of making individuals from every walk of life more informed about their rights and thus able to bring a positive social and political change, and to make bureaucracy and politicians accountable to the people, which could lead us to a society free of hunger, poverty and illiteracy.
Mudit gave examples of how the JSK at Unnao helped local farmers claim their entitlement to an unemployment compensation under the NREGA; how in Sandila people are also able to access low-cost services such a photocopying and printing, which has also helped the centre become self-sustaining; and how regular RTI awareness camps are held at the centre in Kanpur.
Overall, the Janta Suchna Kendra model has proved successful on many counts. Asha Parivar continues to work to strengthen existing centres and set up new ones.