Santosh Koli, an RTI activist turned Aam Aadmi party candidate from Seemapuri in Delhi, breathed her last yesterday. She died after battling injury wounds when a car ran into her while on a motorbike. A typical “hit and run” case where the attackers conveniently managed to escape. It’s widely believed that this was a deliberate attack on her. In fact, this was not new to her. She had been attacked several times in the past. Once the attackers even slit her throat, but she survived and continued her battle as a committed RTI activist.
I had the pleasure of first meeting Santosh several years back when I visited the Parivartan office started by Arvind Kejriwal, national convenor of the Aam Aadmi party. It was a small office in a basement where several people, especially the poor, came in to seek the help of the organization in order to file RTI applications. A diminutive young woman, Santosh was a bundle of energy and enthusiasm. Always bearing a smile, she portrayed an optimism that belied the visible hopelessness that was palpable in the area. She was clearly the go-to-person for the uneducated poor in the area. Through her RTI filings, she helped so many that she was soon well-known in the community. As expected, she had also earned several detractors.
I remember visiting a nearby slum and a government school with her. She also showed me a defunct fountain that was supposedly constructed by the government for several lakhs of rupees. She lamented the fact that the government went ahead with the plan to construct it, even though the people in the area hardly cared about a fountain. Her simplistic, yet sensible view was that the government should at least consult the people before going ahead with such an expense. The concept of empowering people to have a say in decisions that affect their lives (Kejriwal’s concept of Swaraj) seemed to be engrained in her mental make-up.
The nearby government school that she took me to was quite an eye-opener. The kids were doing whatever they pleased. Some classrooms had no teachers. In one classroom, a teacher was busy attending to her makeup while the kids ran around. There were papers and other garbage strewn around the classrooms and the corridors. The building was poorly maintained. We went to the headmaster’s office. He was an elderly gentleman who was sitting at a desk with one of his feet on the chair, trying to fix his own watch. He looked up at us, and quietly returned to fixing his watch. We later engaged him in a conversation thanks to prodding from Santosh. As we left the school, she expressed her deep disappointment about the state of our government schools. Despite her young age by the experiences gained through her work at Parivartan, she seemed to have a deep understanding of the challenges facing the people of the area and a genuine desire to serve. Not surprisingly, she was selected to represent the Aam Aadmi party from the area. As she gained visibility, her detractors perhaps grew more nervous. They decided it was time to attack her all over again.