Would you like answers with your chai?
Sarvesh Kumar, a shopkeeper from Tatiyaganj, a village in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, found himself anxious after receiving his daughter’s high school results in early 2019. She had been marked absent despite having attended the exams. Kumar knew that getting an explanation would mean navigating the notoriously corrupt bureaucracy of the state, and that it wouldn’t be easy. Hoping for a solution, Kumar headed to Tatiyaganj’s ‘RTI Tea Stall’, where chai is served with awareness of peoples’ right to answers from the public authorities.
Like Freedom of Information laws elsewhere, the RTI – or the Right To Information Act – entitles any citizen to seek information from a government body by making a written application, either online or offline. Public Information Officers in those bodies are obligated to respond within 30 days and digitize certain records to make them accessible.
‘The RTI Act is revolutionary for the common man,’ states Krishna Murari Yadav, proprietor of the RTI Tea Stall. Known as KM Bhai, the 32-year-old learned about the RTI Act at a legal awareness event in his home town, Kanpur. He was quick to realize the dearth of knowledge around the act in rural areas where systemic inequities hinder access to information. ‘I went to villages around Kanpur to conduct awareness camps about the RTI Act but villagers laughed and tore the pamphlets in disbelief,’ he says.
The vision for RTI Tea Stall was conceived one evening while a dejected KM Bhai sat at a tea stall with his torn-up leaflets. That piqued the curiosity of the villagers around him and led to engaging conversation about people’s rights. ‘I realized that tea stall is this informal space with no visible power structures. Discussions over chai hit differently,’ he adds. Capitalizing on India’s tea stall culture, KM Bhai established the RTI Tea Stall in October 2013.
The roadside stall’s brick walls are adorned with informational posters and the counter is stacked with RTI pamphlets. Villagers in and around Tatiyagnaj come to drink piping hot tea and file RTIs – about 15,000 in the last 7 years, seeking information on issues from welfare schemes to dysfunctional street lights.
‘KM Bhai is our community’s information soldier,’ says Kumar who was able to get his daughter’s exam results rectified with information sought under the RTI Act.
But, KM Bhai’s work is getting tougher thanks to systemic efforts to undermine the act’s transparency since the rightwing BJP party, with Narendra Modi as Prime Minister, came to power in 2014. In 2019 new amendments were introduced to the RTI Act wherein the tenure and salaries of Chief Information Officers would be determined by the Central government. This obstructs the independence with which officers can act.
Moreover, several RTI activists have been harassed for seeking information that might expose the inefficiencies of public officers. Local goons attempted to attack KM Bhai’s tea stall in 2015. Hurling threats to shut down shop, they dismantled the thatch-roof and broke chairs. KM Bhai suspects that the attack had to do with the large number of RTIs being filed on land conflict issues at the time.
Nevertheless, the RTI Tea Stall continues to thrive and KM Bhai plans to replicate the model across other regions: ‘In a democracy, constitutional rights are bigger than any ruling party.’