A small businessman of Chowgachha Asharaf Hossain was intrigued to hear that the local government was not giving free medicine. Armed with the recent knowledge of his right to information, Asharaf decided to take on the authorities. He had been in a workshop on Right to Information (RTI) where he had learned to file RTI applications. Asharaf decided to do exactly that. He filed an application asking for a list of medicine allocation for the previous one year at that sub-district health complex.
But Asharaf did not get a proper reply. What he was given did not have a cover letter. Nor was the information accurate or full. It was obvious that the authorities were not giving this matter the attention they were supposed to. Refusing to relent, Asharaf filed another application, this time to a higher office, to the civil surgeon’s office in Jashore, which is responsible for the whole district. That was in October 2016. As back up, Asharaf sent another application via post in November. This time he received a hand-written reply. But still, Asharaf was not satisfied.
He remembered well what he had learned just a year ago at the camp on people’s right to information and how to make use of it. MRDI had conducted that workshop as part of a project with Manusher Jonno Foundation in December 2015 at the Singhajhuli sub-district office in Jashore. The seven-day workshop had taught him how to file an RTI application seeking information from public offices, as well as, private institutions. It was an eye opener for Asharaf, as he recalled later.
The scribbled note in place of a proper printed document was far from what Asharaf was expecting. And it was obvious that the local administration was not taking it seriously. So, he appealed to the Information Commission explaining the circumstances. This led to a hearing where Asharaf was present to make his case. Satisfied with his arguments, the commission ordered the authorities to provide all the information Asharaf had requested within seven working days.
This had a drastic effect on the state of affairs at Asharaf’s sub-district health complex, which began to give free medicine. Not just that, people began to enjoy better service at the government hospital too. This changed Asharaf’s role in society as well. Inspired by the effectiveness of one application, the small merchant became an RTI activist in his area.
Asharaf began to tell people how demanding information and acquiring it made a difference. He worked persistently at the grassroots and even organised an RTI campaign at his own expense in 11 unions of his sub-district. He spread a simple message. “No one pays extra. Everyone should pay the fixed government fee at the land office.” He explained to people that citizens had the right to services in any government office and no one should have to bribe government officers for these services. “The government has enacted the Right to Information Act to stop bribery and corruption. This is the law of the people.”
Asharaf Hossain became popular in his community and across the sub-district. And his relentless efforts began to pay off when several others filed RTI applications too. Ordinary citizens like a bicycle mechanic, a fertiliser trader and milkman applied to various government departments under the Right to Information Act. The ‘information activist’ says that workshop with MRDI had opened his eyes. “I realised what civic duty is all about and what a citizen should do.”