Only 10 per cent of India’s 1.1 billion population is said to be aware of the Right to Information (RTI) Act which grants citizens the right to access government documents.
Nevertheless, its power and potential is unmatched. For a nominal fee, any Indian, male or female, rich or poor, can step up to “the scariest government agency” and take his or her shot.
For journalists, RTI is a “game-changer“.
Students of the 2008-09 investigative class of the Indian Institute of Journalism & New Media (IIJNM) in Bangalore—under the guidance of Prof Ralph Frammolino, a reporter at the Los Angeles Times for 24 years and a Pulitzer Prize finalist—have used the RTI to show how killer BMTC drivers are back at the wheel; how the State government never fires chronically absentee teachers; and how the chances of corrupt officers trapped by the Lok Ayukta getting punished are low.
They have also used RTI to show how chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa uses public money for his temple visits. It wasn’t easy. They had to make 12 trips to the CM’s office and file an appeal to obtain the documents.
PAVAN KUMAR H. and P. KRISHNAMURTHY write: During his first five months in office, Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa spent more than Rs 11 lakh in government funds to make eight trips to Hindu temples—including one to Tirupathi to take part in the Bramhotsava.
Records obtained by IIJNM Investigations under the Right To Information (RTI) Act show that Yediyurappa charged the eight trips to taxpayers as “official” business.
In five out of eight instances, he used government funds to rent a helicopter or an airplane to carry himself and several top ministers to Hindu shrines, where he offered pujas and, in one case, inaugurated a food serving hall.
Interviews and records also show that during the same period, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader made no official visits to other houses of worship even after being invited by Christian and Muslim leaders.
And in one case, Yediyurappa was visiting a Mangalore temple at government expense the day after pro-Hindutva vandals ransacked two nearby Christian sanctuaries.
Despite heavy media coverage of the church incidents, Yediyurappa didn’t show up at the churches, although he denounced the attacks on prayer halls and met Christian leaders. Still, his failure to visit the sanctuaries prompted accusations that he and his pro-Hindu BJP tacitly condoned the attacks—a charge he vigorously denies.
A BJP spokesman defended the chief minister’s temple visits, saying the reason he didn’t go to mosques and churches in the first few months of his tenure was because “he was not invited.” Yeddyurappa has since gone to at least one dargah and one church, according to press reports.
“Yediyurappa is not against any religion,” said A.L. Shivkumar, media manager of the State BJP. “He treats all religions equally.”
Kumar said Yediyurappa has gone to more temples because Hindu priests continually ask him to.
“He visits many places and people invite him to the temples nearby, so he goes there,” he said. “He is a ‘pakka‘ (devout) Hindu and he goes to a temple as every traditional Hindu does. It would be wrong if he does not go there.”
But Christian and Muslim leaders have another account.
Adolf Washington, public relations officer for the Catholic Archbishop’s office in Bangalore, said church officials had called Yediyurappa “many times but he did not come. He is a Chief Minister so we cannot force him to come.”
Salim Babu, secretary of the Karnataka Wakf Board, which manages mosques for the government, said both Yediyurappa and his Wakf Board Minister, Mumtaz Ali Khan, have spurned requests from the Muslim community to attend events and meetings.
“He is not interested in attending mosques,” Salim said about Yeddyurappa, adding that the chief minister showed favoritism to the religious majority. “He should not discriminate between a tall son and a dwarf son.”
Records show that Yediyurappa’s State-paid temple visits began shortly after he was sworn in on 30 May 2008.
His first was on June 17, a trip that cost taxpayers Rs 2,440, to the Ghati Subramanya Temple in Doddabalapur. That was followed 12 days later by a Rs 854 car ride to the Sri Keshtra Siddhara Betta temple in Tumkur. There, the chief minister participated in a Guru Vadana, or tribute ceremony, in honor of Shiva Kumar Swamiji of Siddaganga Mutt.
The most expensive trips were to Tirupathi, India’s most famous Hindu shrine. His trips on July 17 and October 1 each cost taxpayers Rs 3.6 lakh for a “special aircraft” and Rs 9,500 for the taxi.
The official purpose given for the trips was “local visit,” although the latter was during the Bramhotsava. The nine-day festival is the busiest time for the temple.
Twice he flew in state-paid helicopters to temples. A September 8 trip to the Banavasi temple in Hassan cost Rs 1.4 lakh for the helicopter ride. The other, on October 10, cost taxpayers nearly Rs 1.9 lakh for transportation to the Sri Krishna Mutt in Udupi, where he inaugurated the food hall.
According to the CM’s office, a temple visit is “official” and paid by the government if Yediyurappa is invited by a local official, such as a district commissioner (DC), to attend a public ceremony, function or make an inspection.