Five days a week, 45-year-old Ghulam Mohiudin Sheikh is quietly at work as a carpenter. On the weekends, he dons a new hat — and seeks to change people’s lives. Sheikh, a preacher-cum-faith healer over the weekends, has now found a novel way to solve people’s problems. Apart from the amulet that Peer Sahab, as he is generally known, gives the believer, he files a Right to Information (RTI) application wherever needed.
“People come to me with all sorts of issues – health, education, employment and other personal matters and I give them a ‘taveez’ (amulet). But apart from these problems, they have administrative grievances such as not getting rations, acquiring a BPL ration card and so on,” he said. It is for problems such as these that he files an RTI, addressing people’s issues on developmental work, benefits under central or state schemes or allowances under welfare funds. “A ‘taveez’ cannot possibly prove helpful there,” Sheikh told PTI.
Sheikh would wonder what he could do to resolve people’s problems. Then, in 2006, he heard about the role of the RTI at a meeting with Shaikh Ghulam Rasool, the founder of the Jammu and Kashmir RTI Movement, an organisation working for RTI awareness in the state. “He asked me to join the RTI Movement to help my followers and expose corruption in the district because he saw that I could influence many people,” said Sheikh, who earns a daily wage as a carpentry worker on weekdays. He participated in Rasool’s training workshops to become an RTI activist and has since been advising and training others on when and how to file RTI applications.
People throng his single-storey house in the scenic Pannard village in this central Kashmir district, about 25 km from Srinagar, every weekend. Sheikh said he trains around 30 RTI activists every week. “RTI is my new amulet and I prescribed this new treatment to people who come to me with administrative issues,” he said.
Rasool described Sheikh as one of the pioneers of RTI activism in Kashmir and said he had turned it into a grassroots revolution in the Valley. “He has trained almost 12,000 people. He has created an army of sorts of RTI activists. No other district has as much RTI awareness as Budgam and it is because of him. He has created a grassroots revolution,” Rasool told PTI.
It was Sheikh’s work on RTI that led to his election as a sarpanch in 2011 when Panchayat polls were held in the state after decades. Sheikh said he realised the real power of the RTI Act after filing a query in the office of a Block Development Officer (BDO), seeking details on beneficiaries of the IAY (now Pradhan Mantri Gramin Awaas Yojana, earlier known as Indira Awaas Yojana) in Budgam. “Days after I filed the RTI, a man came to me with a cheque of Rs 25,000. It was a bribe for withdrawing the application. I refused, but that is when I realised the real power of the RTI. It gave me voice and I felt a sense of empowerment,” he said. After some days, he got a reply to his application and found that government officials and people close to politicians were on the list of IAY beneficiaries. “The list was then cancelled and only deserving beneficiaries got IAY cheques,” he said.
Rasool said Sheikh had helped many women get their widow welfare fund, school children had been given scholarships and developmental work was in progress in the area. “This area has witnessed more development since people started filing RTI applications,” Rasool said. The claims were visible on the ground, with more pucca roads in the areas than elsewhere in the district.
Sheikh recounted some cases where the RTI helped him and the people. “An RTI query to the Social Welfare Department revealed that unmarried girls were getting monthly welfare fund as widows. This happened when a widow came to me for a ‘taveez’ to help her get grants from a welfare fund,” he said. Instead of giving her a charm, he filed an RTI application on her behalf in the Social Welfare Department. “Some days later, the reply came. We found that many unmarried women were listed as beneficiaries for a fund meant for aged people and widows. We took it up with the authorities and then the deserving, including the widow who came to me, got their benefits,” he said.
A local resident, Nisar Ahmad, said it was because of Sheikh that the area had witnessed widespread development. “It is all because of Peer sahab and the RTI. He has brought in a revolution and changed the way people think. He has changed the way the administration works here,” Ahmad said. Rasool said the government should create more awareness about the RTI in the state and help people such as Sheikh by way of fellowships for their exemplary work and zeal.