We (The People) vs Them (The Public Servants)
by P M Ravindran on 01 Jun 2020 12 Comments

A few days back I received two messages through WhatsApp from an activist friend of mine.  One of them was about the ordinary folks’ penchant for cheap stuff, even in the matter of food stuffs which may be injurious to their health. He specifically mentioned coconut oil. He has a coconut farm and says that it costs Rs 250/- to market a kilogram of pure coconut oil, and laments that people would prefer to buy adulterated coconut oil at Rs 225/- per kg and ruin their health rather than go for the pure variety which was good for health.


I recollected my own intervention in the matter of 6 lakh kgs of pepper that had been ordered to be burnt by the Food Safety Commissioner (FSC) of Kerala because it had been coloured with mineral oil and polished with paraffin wax, both known to be carcinogenic. Almost four years later it was reported that the pepper was to be cleaned under the supervision of the Food Safety Commissioner.


On pursuing the matter under the Right to Information Act, the following facts were revealed. One, the order for cleaning the adulterated pepper had been given by a single judge bench of the Kerala High Court. Two, the FSC had identified a caffeine processing plant in Palakkad as the only facility for this cleaning. Three, the cleaning was done by washing with detergent followed by rinsing with clean water.


The information that was not provided included: copies of test results that made the FSC order the burning of 6 lakh kgs of pepper, and the test results after the cleaning.


The last that was heard about the cleaned pepper was that it was found unsuitable for export and hence would be sold in the local market itself.


This episode can be closed with two questions: one, does pepper that is unfit for consumption by foreigners become fit for consumption by locals? Two, can the spices be removed from pickled vegetables by washing with detergent and rinsing with clean water?


Coming to the second question, which should rightly be answered by the judge of the Kerala High Court who ordered the cleaning of the pepper, there is another case that comes to mind.


In the matter of the Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages Ltd (Coca Cola Company, for short) which was accused of overdrawing underground water at Plachimada, a single judge bench of Kerala High Court ruled that the company could not overdraw ground water as it would lead to water scarcity in the neighborhood. A division bench of the same high court later ruled in favour of the company stating that the right of a company to draw water from its property even for commercial uses is the same as the right of an individual to draw water from his property for personal consumption.


To return to my activist friend and his second message: He has openly warned other activists from interfering with illegal mining mafia saying that they should be prepared for being framed in false cases by the police working in nexus with such mafia as well as being assaulted by the goons of such mafia while the police looked the other way.


Here also I have my own experience to narrate of over a decade ago. Somebody from the outskirts of my town informed of an illegal quarry working in his neighborhood causing damage to the houses there, as well as pollution. He had complained to the local Kasaba Police and Revenue Divisional Officer (RDO). After visiting the site with him, I pursued a few applications under the RTI Act.


The RDO informed me that the matter had been reported to the Mining and Geology Office in the district. This office informed me that their officials had visited the site and, finding the quarrying illegal, had directed the police to take necessary action. The police informed me that they had never received any complaints.


As facts stood, it was the responsibility of the Mining and Geology Department to prosecute the offenders. Even the RDO could have punished them within his powers. However, even though no one was learnt to have been punished, the quarrying was stopped eventually. I too had then received a veiled threat from the mafia which I could only dismiss with the contempt it deserved.


Activists are among the best citizens in any democracy. Knowledgeable persons have said that alert citizens are essential for the success of any democracy, and that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. So, it comes as no surprise that activists are persona non grata for our so-called public servants who continue to live in the inherited dream world of our colonial past. But the misfortune is that it is not only activists who are kababi ki haddi for our public servants.


Here is the story of Krisna, a farm labourer on social security pension, who was bitten by a stray dog and his fight for compensation. Krisna was sitting in front of his hut when a stray dog came and bit him. He was rushed to the District Hospital where they did not have the anti-rabies serum. He went to the medical college where they made him buy the serum from a private pharmacy for about Rs 14,000/-.


On the advice of a friendly neighbourhood activist, he sent a demand for reimbursement of the cost of the medicine to the office of the State’s Health Minister. Soon he got an intimation that the claim had been forwarded to the District Medical Officer (DMO) for necessary action. But there was no response from the DMO’s office.


Guided by the activist, he applied under the Right to Information (RTI) Act to the DMO’s office to find out what action had been taken on the letter from the Health Minister’s office. To his horror he was informed that they had not received any such letter.


He submitted an appeal to the DMO’s office. They wrote back asking him to provide a copy of his application and the reply by their Public Information Officer. Since these documents were available in their office, Krisna submitted the next appeal to the State’s Information Commission. This was simply dismissed.


Krisna then applied under the RTI Act to the Minister’s office, seeking to know the details of the posting of the letter to the DMO’s office and also of any reply received from the latter. No response was received. A complaint to the Information Commission was also arbitrarily dismissed. Persevering, with the support of the activist, Krisna complained to the District Collector. It was routed to the DMO, District Hospital and finally to the Medical College, with nothing useful coming out of the effort.


Around that time, the then Chief Minister Ommen Chandy decided to hold one of his Public Contact Programs in the district. The modus operandi was the citizens could submit their complaints or applications to the District Collector, who would route them to the concerned public servants. On the day of the Contact Program, all public authorities would set up their stalls and through these stalls the replies to the complaints would be distributed. Those who were not satisfied with the reply could meet the Chief Minister.


Krisna’s complaint was routed to the Tehsildar and he was told to contact their office the next working day. Not knowing what to do, he decided to meet the Chief Minister. He did not get the opportunity. The next day’s media reports announced how the Chief Minister left the venue late at night after seeing the last citizen who had wanted to meet him.


Krisna went to the Tehsildar’s office 4-5 times over the next two weeks before he got fed up.


There is saying, ‘fortune favors the brave’. Perhaps it also favors also the persistent. On a PIL against the apathy of the government to control the stray dog menace, the apex court appointed a one-man judicial committee to inquire into the menace and to suggest compensation to the victims.


Krisna approached the Committee through an NGO. Two years later, and seven years after his initial application to the Health Minister, the Municipality paid him about Rs 47,000/- on the direction of the Committee.


Tailpiece: This is one of the rare judicial committees whose reports have been acted upon. This committee, constituted as per order dated April 05, 2016 in IA 4/2015 in WP (C) 599/2015, was known to be functional even as on April 20, 2019. Since there are no media reports on the activities of the Committee, it is not known whether it is continuing even now or not. But there are plenty of stray dog bite cases being reported in the media.


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