Thursday, June 26, 2008

RTI: An enormous power with the people

RTI: An enormous power with the people

In conversation with Vinita Deshmukh, Magsaysay award winner Arvind Kejriwal talks about India's RTI movement, and worries that a formidable tool of empowerment might slip out of the hands of citizens if amendments proposed by the UPA government are enacted.

07 August 2006 - An IIT graduate and a former bureaucrat with the Indian Revenue Service, Arvind Kejriwal has created a silent social revolution in the Right To Information (RTI) movement in the country through his organization, 'Parivartan'. Propelling common people to invoke the Act, he streamlined the Public Distribution System (PDS) in Delhi where information obtained under the RTI revealed that the shopkeepers and food grain officers siphoned off 87 percent of wheat and 94 percent of rice meant for the poor.

He used Gandhiji's favourite weapon of Satyagraha in cases where the government departments hesitated to appoint Public Information Officers (PIOs) or where they refused to adopt transparency, as required by the RTI Act. He has been guiding hundreds of faceless citizens to use the RTI for their right to have proper public utility services, since they are the taxpayers to whom the local and state governments are duty-bound to provide the information.

His passion and dedication to this movement in India have been aptly recognized with this year's Ramon Magsaysay award for Emergent Leadership, recently bestowed upon him. In an exclusive interview to India Together, Kejriwal gives an insight into the RTI movement in India, and worries that this formidable tool of empowerment might slip out of the hands of citizens if amendments proposed by Manmohan Singh's government are enacted. Vinita Deshmukh spoke with him.

How does it feel to receive the prestigious Ramon Magsasay Award, and what are its implications for the Right To Information movement in India?

Firstly, I would like to clarify that the award does not belong to me – it belongs to the entire RTI movement and every RTI activist in the country. I am happy that the world has responded so positively to the RTI movement in India. Though sadly, the Indian government is all set to kill it through amendments, which it proposes to pass shortly in the Parliament, with disastrous effects on transparency, which had just made its presence felt in the country. I have procured the copy of these amendments and if it is passed by the Parliament, then it will practically kill the RTI movement in our country.

One of the crucial amendments is the deletion of 'file notings' by civil servants in administrative matters, which has created an uproar among RTI activists across the country. What are the implications of making file notings inaccessible to the common man? Also can you elaborate on other proposed amendments?

As for the file notings, the proposed amendment says that they will be provided only in case of 'substantial' social and development issues. The word 'substantial' has not been defined and it therefore has no meaning. What it implies though is that each time a citizen requests for file notings he or she will have to hire an advocate to argue his case of whether the particular social or development issue is 'substantial' enough to demand transparency. Secondly, for any information given, the name of the officer or reference to any individual will be obliterated, which means an end to transparency, as government officers and politicians, even if corrupt, will be shielded.

Also, no information on any development project will be given unless and until the project is completed. Which hypothetically means, if a river project is going to take 20 years to complete, the citizen will not be able to access any information about its contents or question its progress, never mind if it may happen to be environmentally disastrous. No one can question the progress of the Enron project until it is completed. In Delhi, we had successfully stopped water privatization after we invoked the RTI and found that it was flawed.

Such privatisation would have made water more expensive for the citizens. At the ordinary level, people will not be able to find out the status of their passports until the passport has been issued to them. Sometimes, this may take two years, but the citizen will have no choice but to be at the mercy of the authorities. People will not able to demand as to why their ration cards are taking so much time to be issued. Otherwise, we have been invoking the RTI for these purposes and successfully speeding up the issuance of these vital documents of the common man.


Fourthly, now the Cabinet papers are never going to the disclosed until a Cabinet decision has been made. Until now, Cabinet papers were open to public scrutiny during the process of decision making, so that any decision that could adversely affect the good of the public could be questioned. These sometimes comprised notings of 10-15 files. Now, you can see them only after it's too late – when the Cabinet decision has been finalised.

Now that you have won the prestigious award, people across the country would be looking up to you to spearhead a protest campaign against these proposed amendments, which aim at official secrecy instead of transparency. What is your action plan?

Of course, opposing the amendment is going to be my top priority and biggest challenge now. However, I want to tell everyone that nation-wide protests should not be confined to RTI activists only. Since these amendments are going to affect everyone's life with disastrous consequences, the media as well as the people should wage a war.

From this week onwards, up to August 25, a number of events are being organised in Delhi and large parts of the country to protest against the attempt of the government to strangulate the common man's 'right to know' right. What's distressing and scandalising is that, the government is extremely secretive about the proposed amendments and is not willing to even make the draft proposal public. Somehow, I have managed to procure a copy. It is also secretive about when it is going to pass these amendments. So, at a time when the country was successfully moving towards transparency, the government is hell bent on taking a retrograde step.


How successful do you think the RTI movement in India has been? Do you think there are some pockets where it has been particularly effective?

I would say that the movement has been more successful in those states where the Act existed even before the Central Act was implemented in October 2001. In union territories like Delhi and states like Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Goa, Tamilnadu, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh, people are well-versed with the Act and the government officers know what it means. Thus, the culture of RTI has set in firmly in these places. RTI has been invoked in innumerable cases across the length and breadth of the country with effective results. Thus proving that citizens can move the government if they are given a proper legislative and administrative set-up. However, this great power of transparency is slipping out of our hands.

Being a graduate from the elite IIT corridors of learning and having a cushy government job at the bureaucratic level, what drew you towards this people's movement?

It did not happen overnight, but took six to seven years to evolve. I was very happy with my government job but there was a lurking feeling of so much corruption, which existed at the level of the common man. He was asked to pay at every step for a work, which a government officer is duty bound to do by law. Thus, the common man was being forced into corruption, since he was asked to pay bribes at every stage. As a deputy commissioner of the Income Tax department, I helped people to get their jobs done without any middle men and without having to pay bribes to government personnel and also formed Parivartan as a platform to address people's grievances.


However, when the RTI Act was implemented in Delhi in 2001, we realized its power accidentally. When a citizen, Ashok Gupta came with a grievance that he was not getting his electricity connection for two years because he refused to bribe the concerned Delhi Vidyut board officials, instead of taking up his complaint with the department, we asked him to file an application under the new found RTI.

He wanted to know the names of the officials who have not taken action on his application, since, as per law, a consumer is supposed to receive his electricity connection within 30 days of applying for it. Immediately, he was provided with the connection. It was almost miraculous. How did this magic happen? In ordinary circumstances, such an application would have been consigned to the dustbin. This gave me the idea of the immense power of citizen empowerment. Thereafter, I went on a long leave and pursued the RTI campaign amongst common people, in full swing. In February this year, I finally resigned from the government.


Your success in streamlining the Public Distribution System (PDS) in Delhi is well known. What is its status today?

Streamlining the PDS in Delhi has been a long process. It also entailed attacks on women who were fighting for the cause. The Delhi government decided to systematise the areas and people have begun getting rations without hiccups. A Public Interest Litigation (PIL) had been filed and we intervened. About two months back, the Supreme Court appointed the Wadhwa Commission to look into the distribution set-up in the PDS and make recommendations. The corrupt PDS officials, though, have yet to be booked.

You had formed the Delhi RTI Manch. Does it still exist now?

Yes, the Manch meets every second Sunday of the month. It is a platform for RTI activists to come and discuss any issue related to the right to know movement. In case of any urgent issue, we approach the relevant authorities. About 40-50 people generally congregate at every meeting.

What has been your moment of triumph in your RTI campaign?

My biggest moment of triumph was when a faceless woman, Triveni, filed an RTI application and followed it up. A resident of a slum colony, in East Delhi, she holds an Antyodaya card issued by the government for the poorest of the poor, by which she is entitled to food grains like wheat and rice at subsidised rates of two rupees and five rupees per kilogram respectively. However, Triveni used to buy wheat for Rs.5 per kg and rice for Rs.10 per kg.

When she came to know of the actual rates from Parivartan in February 2003 she was shocked and with our guidance, she filed an RTI application. What she asked for was details of rations issued to her as per records and also copies of cash memos purported to have been issued to her. Cash memos are receipts, which a shopkeeper is supposed to issue for every transaction and take signature of the customer.


The reply stated that Triveni had been issued 25 kgs of wheat at Rs.2 per kg and 10kgs of Rice at Rs.3 per kg every month, in the last three months, when in actuality she had not received even a grain during that period. The cash memos showed thumb impressions in her name although she is literate and always signs.

Shocked, she decided to confront the shopkeeper but having heard of the procurement of this information, the shopkeeper came to her house and pleaded to mend ways. Since then she has been getting the right amount of ration at the right price, thus proving that the tool of RTI places enormous power in the hands of the common people. Otherwise, no one would have listened to a poor woman like Triveni. This is a fine example of how the right to know redefines relationships between the people and the government in real terms.


And what has been your moment of agony?

Undoubtedly, the ongoing attempt by the government to dilute the Act.

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RTI Act: a potent tool for the helpless people

RTI Act a potent tool in the hands of helpless individuals

Sruthi Krishnan

CHENNAI: Nannu, a daily-wage labourer from East Delhi, lost his ration card and applied for a duplicate. Despite repeated visits to the Food and Civil Supplies office for four months, the duplicate card was not issued.

Here is where the familiar story of the uncaring system and the helpless individual takes a turn.

Nannu filed a Right To Information (RTI) application. Within four days, the Food Inspector came to his house and told him that his card was ready.

The Food and Supplies Officer invited Nannu to his office and offered him a cup of tea and handed over his duplicate.

He also had a request to make to Nannu — withdraw the RTI application.

This is the power the RTI Act vests in the hands of the individual, said Arvind Kejriwal, from Parivartan, a Delhi-based citizens’ movement that works towards empowering people, speaking at a talk organised by Ellements, a women’s collective, here on Monday.

The reason the RTI Act is a potent tool is simple — if the information requested is not provided by the officials, they need to pay Rs.250 for every day of delay from their salary. There is no other act that directly links performance of government officials to their salary, said Mr. Kejriwal.

Talking about future steps, he said that the process of filing applications should be made simpler and that the information commissions need to be strengthened.

A call centre has been started in Bihar where people can call in. The caller’s voice is recorded and that becomes their petition. He said that this service would soon be available all over the country.

The RTI Act has been effectively used to find status of ration card and passport applications. But, it can also be used to inspect any government work and ask for samples of any material used in government work, he said.

For example, if there is a road being laid near your house, you can ask for all files related to the construction. You can also ask to inspect the road, wherein the government will send engineers who will explain the work.

It is the possibility of inspection that does the trick many a time, said Mr. Kejriwal. When officials realise that someone could inspect their files, they clean up their act.

Even if you are confused about which government official to send your RTI petition to, don’t worry. Send it to any official and include this sentence – ‘If you are not the concerned authority, please forward it to the official concerned under Section 6 (3) of the RTI act.’

This section makes it mandatory for the official to forward it to the right authority.

Private enterprises also can come under the RTI act’s scrutiny if they have ‘substantial funding’ from the government. As the term ‘substantial funding’ is not defined, it is open to interpretation.

A private school where teachers were paid by the government was asked to disclose records under the RTI act because the salary was considered to be ‘substantial funding’.

It is up to the people to define the boundaries of the act. The more they push it, more can be accomplished, he said.

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NGOs liable to answer RTI queries

NGOs liable to answer RTI queries

K.P.M. Basheer

Even partial State aid makes them accountable to the public

SIC says when an NGO is given aid for specific projects, RTI applies to only that project

NGOs should designate information officers to answer public queries


KOCHI: Non-Government organisations (NGO) receiving government grants or aid for specific projects come under the Right to Information (RTI) Act and are required to provide information to the public under the Act. They also need to designate information officers to answer the public’s queries, the State Information Commission (SIC) has ruled.

In a recent precedent-setting order, the SIC held that any NGO receiving government aid — even if the aid is for a specific project— was liable to provide information sought by the members of the public.

The order, issued by the State Chief Information Commissioner and all the three State Information Commissioners, was on a petition against two NGOs who had refused to provide information on their spending of the government aid sought by S. Krishna Kumar of Vellanad.

The NGOs, Mithranikethan and The Dale View, argued that since they had received government aid only for specific projects they were not liable to provide information to the public.

The commission shot down the argument and ordered them to provide the information sought by the person and also to designate assistant public information officer, public information officer and appellate authority to deal with the public request for information.

Inalienable right

“The Commission found that access to information regarding public money cannot be denied to the members of the public under any circumstances,” the commissioners stated in the order.

“The public have an inalienable right to know how the government money is spent and whether it is spent for the purposes for which it is provided and, if it is spent, also, the manner in which it is meant to be spent. Since these institutions have been receiving public funds and since they both have been working as implementing agencies of the government’s schemes and programmes, although for specific projects, they have to be deemed to be Public Authorities under section 2 (h) (ii) RTI Act to that extent.”

‘Public authority’

According to section 2 (h) (ii), ‘Public Authority’ means any authority or body or institution of self-government including “non-government organisation substantially financed directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate government.”

However, State Chief Information Commissioner Palat Mohandas clarified that when an NGO is given aid for specific projects, the RTI applies to only that project. Many NGOs get funding from variety of sources, including from overseas.

The NGO could be deemed a public authority to the extent of government funding or to the specific project for which funding is provided.

Aided colleges

Aided colleges, run by the Christian Church and other community organisations, also come under the definition of ‘public authority’ and are hence required to provide information to the public.

Aided colleges receive hundreds of crores of State government money every year. However, an earlier order issued by the commission on the application of RTI to aided private colleges has been challenged in the High Court.

A single judge’s verdict that upheld the commission’s stand has now been challenged before a larger Bench.

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Sanskriti School a "public authority"

Sanskriti School a "public authority"

Prashant Pandey

CIC directs Principal to reply to application under RTI

NEW DELHI: The Capital's much sought after Sanskriti School at Chankyapuri, which was started by wives of senior civil servants of the Union Government, has been declared a "public authority", as defined under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, by the Central Information Commission (CIC). The CIC has directed the School Principal to reply to an application filed with the school as per the norms of the RTI Act.

Manju S. Kumar, a resident of Sheikh Sarai in South Delhi, had addressed the application to the Principal of Sanskriti School on July 11, 2006, seeking details of the contributions received from Government departments, ministries or non-government organisation by the school since its inception; details of admission given to Class IX students from March 15, 2006, to July 4, 2006; details of the children who had taken transfer certificates from the school on completion of Class VII for the same period; details of children who were given admission to Class IX without any written test during the same period and details of the services to which the parents of all the children belonged.

The Principal of Sanskriti School, through a letter on July 26, 2006, informed Ms. Kumar that it was a private school run by the wives of serving Civil Service officers and not a public authority under the RTI Act, 2005.

Not satisfied with the reply, Ms. Kumar filed a complaint with the CIC on August 2, 2006. She argued that the school had received a huge Government contribution for developing infrastructure like purchase of land and construction of building and, therefore, should come under the purview of the RTI Act.

The Commission called for comments of the Principal on October 12, 2006. In her reply on October 10, 2006, the Principal said that they were not a public authority as the school was started by a society registered under the Societies Registration Act.

Subsequently the CIC fixed this past Tuesday as the date of final hearing. Principal Gowri Ishwaran was present during the hearing, while the complainant Ms. Kumar neither sent her representative nor was present in person.

During the hearing, Ms. Ishwaran told the Commission that although the Government did not give any grant for day-to-day running of the school or for any other activity, it had given a substantial grant for setting up the infrastructure of the school in its initial phase.

Secondly, Ms. Ishwaran stated that the wife of the Cabinet Secretary is the ex-officio Chairperson of the Board of Management of the school and wives of other Civil Service officers are on the Board of Management.

While giving his decision, Information Commissioner O. P. Kejariwal said that on the basis of these two submissions the Commission concluded that Sanskriti School did come under the purview of the RTI Act 2005 as a "public authority".

"Hence it was incumbent upon them to set up the infrastructure for supply of information as required under the RTI Act and also to respond to the RTI applications," ruled Mr. Kejariwal.

Accordingly, the CIC has directed Ms. Ishwaran to reply by February 15 to the application filed by Ms. Kumar.

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Judicial proceedings not comes under RTI Act

Information Act will not apply to judicial proceedings: Commission

Legal Correspondent

Intrusion into judicial work unnecessary, it says

New Delhi: The Right to Information Act will not apply to furnishing of information on judicial proceedings in courts or tribunals, the Central Information Commission has held.

“Apparently all judicial proceedings are conducted in the open and transparency is the hallmark of all such proceedings. There is no element of secrecy whatsoever. But at the same time, it has to be borne in mind that the judiciary is independent and all judicial authorities including all courts and tribunals must work independently and without any interference insofar as their judicial work is concerned,” said the Full Commission, comprising Chief Information Officer Wajahat Habibullah and Information Officers A.N. Tiwari and Padma Balasubramanian.

“The independence of a judicial authority is all pervasive and any amount of interference is neither desirable nor should ever be encouraged in any manner.”

The Commission rejected the plea by appellant Rakesh Kumar Gupta of Delhi, who wanted certain information including the notes or minutes of the proceedings maintained by members of the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal before the pronouncement of the order, inspection of case records and a copy of the decision in a particular case.

“The jottings and notes made by the judges while hearing a case can never, and by no stretch of imagination, be treated as final views expressed by them on the case. Such noting cannot therefore be held part of a record ‘held’ by the public authority.”

Any intrusion into the judicial work under the RTI Act was unnecessary, the Commission said.

“The independence of the judicial authority flows from the discretion given to that authority to take all decisions in matters properly brought within the purview of that authority.

“In other words, it would not be appropriate for the Commission or any entity functioning as part of the RTI regime to pronounce on the disclosure of a given set of information, if it is found that under another law (such as the Income Tax Act), this disclosure function is exercisable as part of the judicial function by a judiciary authority, such as the ITAT.”

The Commission said, “Given that a judicial authority must function with total independence and freedom, should it be found that an action initiated under the RTI Act impinges upon the authority of that judicial body, the Commission will not authorise the use of the RTI Act for any such disclosure requirement.”

An information seeker should, therefore, approach the court or the tribunal concerned “if he intends to have some information concerning a judicial proceeding and it is for the court or tribunal concerned to take a decision whether the information can be given or not.”

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Right to Information — path to Swaraj

Right to Information — path to Swaraj

Shailesh Gandhi

The Right to Information Act comes into force all over the country on October 12. Citizens should make use of it to ensure transparency and good governance triumph.

A SIMPLE yet very powerful example of the use of the Right to Information (RTI) is of a slum dweller who applied for a new ration card. He was told he would have to give a bribe of Rs.2000 to obtain it. Our friend — an RTI-empowered citizen — smiled, and just went ahead and applied for the ration card without offering any bribes. His neighbours warned him he would never get his ration card. They also told him how he would now have to keep visiting the rationing office. Some well meaning friends praised him for being courageous. They suggested he should approach some non-governmental organisation to take up his case, so that ultimately he would get his ration card.

Our citizen had decided to become an enforcer of good governance. He found out in how many weeks everyone who paid bribes got their ration cards. He waited for an extra four weeks after applying for his card, and then applied for information under the RTI. Using the simple format with an application fee of Rs.10, he delivered it to the Public Information Officer of the Food and Supply office. He had asked up to which date applications for ration cards had been cleared and the daily progress report of his application. This shook up the officials, since they would have to acknowledge in writing that they had given ration cards to others who had applied after him, which would be conclusive evidence that they had no justification for delaying his card. Happy ending: the ration card was given to him immediately.

No bribes, no endless visits. Our citizen was able to use the might of the Right to Information. This story has been repeated a thousand times to get a road repaired, an electricity connection, admissions to educational institutions.

The Right to Information is derived from our fundamental right of expression under Article 19. If we do not have information on how our Government and public institutions function, we cannot express any informed opinion on it. This has been accepted by various Supreme Court judgments, since 1977. All of us accept that the freedom of the press is an essential element for a democracy to function. It is worthwhile to understand the underlying assumption in this well entrenched belief.

Why is the freedom of the media considered one of the essential features of a democracy? Democracy revolves round the basic idea of citizens being at the centre of governance — rule of the people. We need to define the importance of the concept of freedom of the press from this fundamental premise. It is obvious that the main reason for a free press is to ensure that citizens are informed. If this is one of the main reasons for the primacy given to the freedom of the press, it clearly flows from this that the citizens' right to know is paramount. Also, since the government is run on behalf of the people, they are the owners who have a right to be informed directly.

Justice Mathew ruled in the Raj Narain case, "In a government of responsibility like ours, where all the agents of the public must be responsible for their conduct, there can be but few secrets. The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way by their public functionaries. They are entitled to know the particulars of every public transaction in all its bearing. Their right to know, which is derived from the concept of freedom of speech, though not absolute, is a factor which should make one wary when secrecy is claimed for transactions which can at any rate have no repercussion on public security."

Nine States in India have an operational Right To Information Act. Parliament passed this as Act no.22 of 2005 in May this year. It will become operational across the country on October 12. It promises to be a single piece of legislation that can result in the victory of participatory democracy. There are some signs of the various power-wielders of government seeking to regress on the provisions of the Act, but citizens will not permit this. It is a right that has belonged to us for the last 55 years, and now we shall not allow it to be diluted.

The Right To Information Act is a codification of this important right of citizens. The right has existed since the time India became a republic, but was difficult to enforce without going to court. The Act and its rules define a format for requisitioning information, a time period within which information must be provided (30 days), method of giving the information, some charges for applying, and some exemptions. The principle is that charges should be minimum — more as a token. They are not at all representative of the costs that may be incurred. Citizens can ask for information by getting Xerox copies of documents, permissions, policies, and decisions. Inspection of files can also be done and samples can be asked for. All administrative offices of public authorities have to appoint `Public Information Officers (PIO).' Citizens can apply for information to the PIO of the office concerned. If it is not provided or is refused, the citizen can go to an Appellate Authority who would be an official in the same department, senior to the PIO. If this too does not produce a satisfactory result, one can appeal to the State or Central Information Commissioner, an independent Constitutional Authority being established under the Act.

Penalty provision

One of the major reasons for the success of the Maharashtra and Delhi Acts is that there is a provision for penalising the PIO in case he does not give the information within the mandated period. The National Act, which has drawn a lot of inspiration from the Maharashtra Act, also provides for a penalty for delay on the PIO at a rate of Rs.250 a day. There is also provision for disciplinary action against recalcitrant PIOs in some cases. Thus the Right to Information provides for a time bound and defined process for citizens to access information about all actions taken by public authorities. The penal provisions are the real teeth of the Act, which ensure that the PIO does not treat citizens' demands for information in a cavalier manner.

I have myself used the Right to Information in a variety of ways. It has been possible to get a Commission report to be made public using the RTI. In another case, a police inspector had raped a minor and was reinstated in service within five months! Using RTI as a pressure device resulted in the inspector being dismissed from service. In another instance, proof has been obtained about political interference in police transfers. The major fraud of looting money meant for providing livelihood under the employment guarantee scheme (EGS) has been going on for years. Presently, a campaign has been initiated in Maharashtra to get citizens across the State to ask for EGS muster rolls using RTI and then auditing them with people's participation. The primary power of RTI is the fact it empowers individual citizens to requisition information. Hence without necessarily forming pressure groups or associations, it puts power directly into the hands of the foundation of democracy — the citizens. There will certainly be an attempt to subvert this revolutionary right by the ruling coterie, since it strikes at the basics of their power. This can easily be countered if enough citizens use the Act. Citizens can use the right from their own houses — and usually it does not take more than about two hours to make an RTI application.

A few million applications across the country by concerned citizens on issues that interest them will bring a major change in India and be a determined move towards the Swaraj we desire. There is a great need to spread the usage of this countrywide, so that transparency and good governance triumph. We now have the power; we only need to use it. It is simple to use, and the benefits are immense.

(The writer works closely with the National Campaign for People's Right To Information.)

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Application fee under RTI Act reduced

Application fee under RTI Act reduced

Special Correspondent

It is now on par with the fee for seeking information from central government departments

# Ignorance main reason for denial of information
# Training programmes underway for officials

VELLORE: The application fee for seeking information from departments and quasi-governmental organisations of the Tamil Nadu Government under the Right To Information (RTI) Act 2005 has been reduced from Rs.50 to Rs.10 with effect from September 20.

This is on par with the fee for seeking information from central government departments, according to S. Ramakrishnan, State Chief Information Commissioner (SCIC), Tamil Nadu.

Review meeting

Talking to newspersons after holding a meeting with the Collectors of Vellore, Tiruvannamalai and Krishnagiri, Dharmendra Pratap Yadav, Satyabrata Sahoo and Santhosh Babu respectively and other officials of the three districts to review the implementation of the RTI Act along with State Information Commissioners G. Ramakrishnan and R. Rathinasamy here on Tuesday, the SCIC said that lack of public awareness and ignorance of the Act among officials appeared to be the main problems in the implementation of the Act.

While officials aware of the Act provided the information sought by the public, ignorance has been the reason for denial of information wherever officials did not provide information. "The purpose of conducting the review meetings was to explain the Act to the officials, and we have completed such meetings in respect to all districts", he said.

Mr. Ramakrishnan said most applicants sought information about the status of the petitions submitted by them to various departments.

Petition topics

Most petitions related to the revenue, education and rural development departments.

Replying to a question, he said show cause notices had been issued against 100 officials charged with denying or delaying information under the Act, and the Information Commission was examining the explanations given by the officials.

Punishment

In some cases, punishment has been given to officials found guilty of denying information. Officials found guilty would be levied a fine of Rs.250 per day for denying or delaying information and refusal to accept the application subject to a maximum of Rs.25,000, he said.

Wherever there was lack of awareness, the Information Commission had asked departments concerned to conduct training programmes for their officials.

Inadequate training

The Commission had asked the Department of Municipal Administration to train its officials since the training already given was not adequate, he said.

Mr. Ramakrishnan said, under the RTI Act, information can be denied if it tended to put too much workload on officials and divert the resources of the department exclusively for the purpose of providing the information.

"Seek necessary information"

So, the public had been advised to seek information necessary for them, he said.

He said the Anna Institute of Management was providing training at the state-level to the government officials.

While it had been completed at the level of department secretaries and Heads of Departments, training was now being given at the district level.

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Official fined under RTI Act

Official fined under RTI Act

Staff Reporter

NAMAKKAL: The State Information Commission has slapped a fine of Rs. 25,000 on the Assistant Public Information Officer of Salem Cooperative Sugar Mills in Mohanur for not providing information requested under the Right to Information Act, a press release from Namakkal District Consumer Protection Council general secretary V.S. Karuppannan has said.

Council chairperson Dhanalakshmi, a labourer of the mill and a farmer, submitted petitions seeking information under the Act. As the official failed to provide the information, the petitioners approached the State Information Commission. It slapped a fine on the official and directed him to provide the requested information without collecting any fee.

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RTI Act, the right road to empowerment

RTI Act, the right road to empowerment

City Bureau

The State Information Commission office has received 43,500 petitions since April 2006

Chennai: If knowledge is power, then the Right to Information Act (RTI) of 2005 has certainly empowered a lot of people.

The landmark Act has helped citizens snip through government red tape in their quest for information. Take the case of Ramesh D.Jain, a resident of Park Town, who spent two years trying to find out the status of his ration card application. He approached Vinod O.Jain, a member of non-governmental organisation Fifth Pillar, for assistance in filing a petition under RTI. The petition was made to the Public Information Officer of the Tamil Nadu Civil Supplies and Consumer Protection Department on February 7 seeking the status on the card. About a week ago, Mr. Ramesh received his card.

“Seeking information related to civic grievances has speared organisations into action. Some organisations manage to sort out the grievance before sending a response to the petition,” says State Chief Information Commissioner S. Ramakrishnan.

In 2006, the State Information Commission received 8,550 petitions and in 2007 it received 31,951 petitions. In January and February this year, about 3,000 petitions have been received.

How it works

Applications are first made to the Public Information Officer in the department concerned. If a reply is not received in 30 days or if the information is insufficient, the petitioner can make another application to the appellate authority, usually the head of the department. If a reply is not received in 30 days or if more information is required, the petitioner can send an application to the State Information Commission. (For list of public information officers, log on to www.tn.gov.in/rti/pio_appellate.htm)

Government departments have been receiving a steady flow of RTI petitions. Every month, the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board office in Chennai receives about 25 to 30 petitions and district offices another 10 to 15 petitions. “We don’t reject any applications and give replies to all of them,” said Mohan Naidu, Public Information Officer and Joint Chief Environment Engineer.

The Chennai Metrowater Board gets about 50 petitions a month for details pertaining to tax and charges and coverage of areas in schemes. In-house petitions from the organisation about promotions and salary were also received regularly. Such petitions formed about one-third of the RTI applications.

Regional Provident Fund Commissioner I. K. Srinivasan said some petitions sought personal details such as nominations, list of employees of companies and so on. “But the office does not entertain such petitions since we consider the privacy of individuals sacred. We do furnish details of settlements, claims and balances to respective individuals,” he said.

The School Education department is an organisation that gets a large number of RTI petitions. A senior official said that the questions are often long-winded and asked for a large amount of information. He said officials end up having to answer RTI petitions at the cost of other work. He suggested that a separate RTI cell be formed in the department to tackle the queries.

In 2007, the Chennai police received 380 applications under the RTI Act. Petitioners usually ask if their stolen property has been recovered or if there was any progress in cases where they had registered complaints. Commissioner of Police G.Nanchil Kumaran said that all Deputy Commissioners of Police heading police districts in the city act as the Information Officers for their jurisdiction, while the Deputy Commissioner of Police (Headquarters) is the Information Officer at the Commissioner of Police Office, Chennai.

Scope for improvement

Implementation of the RTI Act has a plenty of scope for improvement. Noted criminal lawyer K.S. Dinakaran said that some departments refused to disclose information, saying that it was classified. “The RTI Act is an enactment that is like a paper tiger most of the times. Things like State secrets or the movement of the Army must be kept secret. But even everyday administrative things are being classified as confidential,” he said.

R.L.Saravanan, an advocate who has filed 264 RTI petitions, says crisp questions get better responses from the government agencies. Among the government departments, the Revenue Department takes a long time to reply and people have to wait for months before getting a document, he said.

Non-governmental organisations seeking information based on large public issues are in for a long wait, at times. Citizen, Consumer and Civic Action Group’s project officer Rajesh Rangarajan says there are procedural delays. There have been instances when he has not received any response.

“In terms of information we get, it is often vague and one-line answers,” says Mr. Rangarajan. The Information Commission sometimes fails to award the penalty even when there has been a three- or four-month delay. In the long run, the time limit should be reduced to 15 days and the Information Commission should also have a fixed deadline for the second appeal, he says.

Some NGOs such as Ffth Pillar and Transparency International have become nodal organisations to help people with RTI application procedures. They suggest that a letter to the public information officer ideally should not have lengthy preambles. One can start the letter saying “Under the RTI Act, kindly supply the following information” and number the questions. Another important tip to remember is that court fee stamps are accepted as payment in State government departments but not in Central government departments.

Although not mandatory, sending an RTI petition by registered post is useful because the acknowledgement is proof that the application has been received.

(With inputs from Kannal Achuthan, R. Sujatha, Deepa H. Ramakrishnan, K. Lakshmi, Meera Srinivasan, L. Srikrishna and K. Manikandan)

© Copyright 2000 - 2008 The Hindu

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http://www.thehindu.com

Repeal of Freedom of Information Act recommended

Repeal of Freedom of Information Act recommended

By J. Venkatesan

NEW DELHI, MARCH 22: The Department-related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances and Law and Justice has recommended repealing of the Freedom of Information Act, 2002 enacted by the Vajpayee Government and suggested a series of amendments to the Right to Information Bill, 2004.

The committee headed by the Congress' E.M. Sudarsana Nachiappan, in its report submitted to Parliament on Monday, said that the repeal of the 2002 Act had become necessary since the National Advisory Council, headed by the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi, had given several suggestions to make the law more effective.

The committee held detailed discussions on this issue and heard the views and suggestions of prominent NGOs, social groups, experts and individuals. According to the committee, the new law will affirm the government's commitment to citizens to have access to information for effective and better participation in governance and strengthen the institution of democracy. By passing this legislation, India would join the world community having legislation guaranteeing access to information.

Information panel

The new law envisages creation of an independent non-judicial appellate machinery in the form of Central Information Commission to monitor the implementation of the Act and prepare an annual report to be laid on the table of both Houses of Parliament. It has been suggested that the Information Commissioners and Deputy Information Commissioners be conferred the status of Chief Election Commissioner and Election Commissioner respectively.

It suggests that the Act after it is enacted should come into force in 120 days. The law is to be expanded to the State governments also with a provision for setting up of State Information Commission. At present it is applicable to offices of the Central government and the bodies under its control.

The new law envisages designation of Public Information Officers to provide necessary information to the public. Information seekers have been given liberty to request information being furnished in the official language of the area to make access procedure simple. The fee payable by the applicant should be reasonable and should in no case exceed the actual cost of copying the information and those below the poverty line to be given information free of cost.

To ensure accountability of the officials, the Information Commissioner has been empowered to impose a penalty of Rs. 250 for each day's delay in furnishing information to the applicant. The offence would include refusal to receive application for information; malafide denial of request; knowingly giving incorrect, incomplete or wrong information or destroying information.

The report makes it clear that there should not be any blanket exemption for intelligence and security agencies to deny information. Further information should be released where it pertains to allegations of human rights violations besides the allegations of corruption.

© Copyright 2000 - 2008 The Hindu

Courtesy_
http://www.thehindu.com

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The RTI Act was passed by the Lok Sabha (Lower House) on 11 May 2005, by the Raj Sabha (Upper House) on 12 May 2005 and received Presidential assent on 15 June 2005. Parts of the Act came into force upon Presidential assent, but the Act came fully into force on 12 October 2005, 120 days after Presidential assent.

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