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Right To Information: Tool In The Hand of Public

Written by: Sudhir Kumar and Shashank Manish Gujarat National Law University
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India got Independence in 1947 and proclaimed itself a Republic in 1950, with a great Constitution. However, in practice, brown elite replaced the white masters and Swaraj never came. Mahatma Gandhi had said, Real Swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of capacity to resist authority when abused. A few did acquire the authority and retained it, but the capacity to resist misuse of authority eluded the average Citizen of India. Right to Information (RTI) now empowers him to do that.

The Right to Information is derived from our fundamental right of expression under Article 19 of the Constitution of India. 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 clearly stated by various Supreme Court judgments, since 1977. We 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 as one of the essential features for a democracy? Democracy revolves around the basic idea of Citizens being at the center of governance and 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 be 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 rightful 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.” Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in the rural areas of Rajasthan first brought the RTI on the agenda of the Nation.

Nine States had enacted the Right to Information Acts across India. On 11 and 12 May, 2005, the two houses of Parliament passed the Right to Information Act as Act 22 of 2005. This has now become operational from 12 October, 2005 - significantly Vijayadashmi. Right to Information (RTI) existed since the day the Constitution of India was framed. The present Act only gives procedures.

An Act to provide for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities, in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority, the constitution of a Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.

WHEREAS the Constitution of India has established democratic Republic;

AND WHEREAS democracy requires an informed citizenry and transparency of information which are vital to its functioning and also to contain corruption and to hold Governments and their instrumentalities accountable to the governed;

AND WHEREAS revelation of information in actual practice is likely to conflict with other public interests including efficient operations of the Governments, optimum use of limited fiscal resources and the preservation of confidentiality of sensitive information;

AND WHEREAS it is necessary to harmonise these conflicting interests while preserving the paramountcy of the democratic ideal;

NOW, THEREFORE, it is expedient to provide for furnishing certain information to citizens who desire to have it.

We all pay taxes. Even a beggar on the street pays sales tax when he buys anything from the market. This money belongs to us. But where does this money go? Why are there no medicines in the hospitals? Why are people dying of starvation? Why are the roads in such pathetic conditions? Why are the taps dry?
Now we have a right to question governments. The Parliament of India has passed Right to Information Laws, which empower citizens to question the government, inspect their files, take copies of government documents and also to inspect government works.

The Right to Information Act, in its original form, stands for everything that's best about India as a democracy. Fight for it!

RTI stands for Right to Information. Right to Information is a part of fundamental rights under Article 19(1) of the Constitution. Article 19 (1) says that every citizen has freedom of speech and expression. As early as in 1976, the Supreme Court said in the case of Raj Narain vs State of UP, which people cannot speak or express themselves unless they know. Therefore, right to information is embedded in article 19. In the same case, Supreme Court further said that India is a democracy. People are the masters. Therefore, the masters have a right to know how the governments, meant to serve them, are functioning. Further, every citizen pays taxes. Even a beggar on the street pays tax (in the form of sales tax, excise duty etc) when he buys a piece of soap from the market. The citizens therefore, have a right to know how their money was being spent. These three principles were laid down by the Supreme Court while saying that RTI is a part of our fundamental rights.

It comes into force on the 12th October, 2005 (120th day of its enactment on 15th June, 2005). Some provisions have come into force with immediate effect viz. obligations of public authorities [S.4 (1)], designation of Public Information Officers and Assistant Public Information Officers [S.5 (1) and 5(2)], constitution of Central Information Commission (S.12 and 13), constitution of State Information Commission (S.15 and 16), non-applicability of the Act to Intelligence and Security Organizations (S.24) and power to make rules to carry out the provisions of the Act (S.27 and 28).

The Act extends to the whole of India except the State of Jammu and Kashmir. [S.(12)]

At the price of Rs.10, it provides the facility for Citizens to get information on the Government's actions and decisions. If you wish to send your application by post or courier, the extra cost will be about Rs.10/-. The cost of getting the information of about ten pages would be Rs. 20/.

2. The law mandates that the information has to be given within 30 days.
3. If a few thousand Citizens spend about Rs. 50 per month and about an hour in their own house they can file a new RTI application and get information about matters, which concern them.
4. The power of getting accountability, reducing corruption, impacting policy decisions and ensuring better governance is now with us. We missed our opportunity in 1950, but have another chance now.
5. YOU can make a big contribution to getting the Nation we want.
6. A small effort from our own house can bring Swaraj.

What is information?

Section 2 (f) of the Act defines it thus:
(f) "information" means any material in any form, including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force;

Right to information is defined under Section 2(j) as: "right to information" means the right to information accessible under this.
Act which is held by or under the control of any public authority and includes the right to
(i) inspection of work, documents, records;
(ii) taking notes, extracts, or certified copies of documents or records.
(iii) taking certified samples of material;

(iv) obtaining information in the form of diskettes, floppies. tapes, video cassettes or in any other electronic mode or through printouts where such information is stored in a computer or in any other device; ‘ Information can be demanded from all Public authorities, ie. all Govt. bodies and organizations substantially financed by Government including NGOs.

Who are Public Information Officers (PIOs)?

PIOs are officers designated by the public authorities in all administrative units or offices under it to provide information to the citizens requesting for information under the Act. Any officer, whose assistance has been sought by the PIO for the proper discharge of his or her duties, shall render all assistance and for the purpose of contraventions of the provisions of this Act, such other officer shall be treated as a PIO.

What are the duties of a PIO?

PIO shall deal with requests from persons seeking information and where the request cannot be made in writing, to render reasonable assistance to the person to reduce the same in writing. If the information requested for is held by or its subject matter is closely connected with the function of another public authority, the PIO shall transfer, within 5 days, the request to that other public authority and inform the applicant immediately. PIO may seek the assistance of any other officer for the proper discharge of his/her duties. PIO, on receipt of a request, shall as expeditiously as possible, and in any case within 30 days of the receipt of the request, either provide the information on payment of such fee as may be prescribed or reject the request for any of the reasons specified in S.8 or S.9. Where the information requested for concerns the life or liberty of a person, the same shall be provided within forty-eight hours of the receipt of the request.
We are appalled to learn that the Cabinet has approved an amendment to exempt file notings and cabinet papers from disclosure under the Right to Information Act (RTI) 2005. In the last few years, RTI has emerged as a very effective tool in the hands of the common man to check corruption, fight injustice and make governance transparent. The proposed amendments would make RTI ineffective. This will prevent people from knowing why a particular decision was taken and who said what in that decision-making process. It will prevent people from knowing why no action was taken on their applications and who the guilty officials were. In effect, the Government would end up protecting the corrupt and dishonest officials. It is strange that at almost the same time when the cabinet was approving such retrograde amendments, the Prime Minister was making a speech on how RTI could improve governance. He stated "This Act, by promoting transparency, can be a vital instrument for cutting down corruption and ensuring that goals set for improved public service delivery can be met." One wonders how would transparency be promoted by exempting file notings and Cabinet papers? How would service delivery improve if you protect the identity of guilty officials? Mr O P Kejariwal, Member Central Information Commission, recently said that "Information minus the file notings amount to taking the life out of the RTI Act".

Latest stories where RTI has succeeded and HOW?
Building Inspector immediately sent on deputation because of RTI Act.

RTI is very good tool in wiping out the corruption in government offices. There are so many illegal constructions going on in Jangaon Municipality, dist: Warangal. However the Building Inspector was on long leave and was not reporting to the duty since March 2006.

I submitted a representation to the Regional Director, Town & Country Planning, Warangal and also the Municipal Commissioner Jangaon, requesting them following information.
1. How long the Building Inspector was sanctioned the leave?
2. Who has sanctioned the leave and what arrangements were made in his absence.
3. Who is responsible, if any untoward incident happens to during illegal constructions?
4. Whether they have reported this long leave to other higher authorities.
5. Requested to provide the various correspondences with higher officials etc.

Though the officers submitted me incomplete information but within a weeks time a new Building Inspector was sent on deputation.
When I submitted simple representation, the officers were careless and have not acted upon but when same with subject "Request for information under RTI Act" along with Rs10/- IPO, the results are immediate.

Customs officers transferred

On May 16, Newsline reported how 10 officers in the Directorate General of Vigilance, Customs and Central Excise in Mumbai, were continuing in their posts after completing their tenure, despite an official circular disallowing the same. Now, following a Right To Information (RTI) application filed by a city activist, five of the 10 officers are being transferred for completing their tenure in the department. As per a Central Vigilance Commission circular dated November 2, 2001, the Vigilance Department, classified as sensitive, should not be retaining staff and officers for more than the stipulated three years. The Vigilance Department handles cases of corruption and misdeeds by officers from the Customs and Central Excise. The officers whose transfer orders have arrived are Joint Commissioner G Ravindranath and Assistant Commissioner M A Andrade, who joined the Vigilance Department in February 2003, Deputy Commissioner V H Bhatija, who joined in March 2003, and Superintendents Narayan Singh and S K Hattangadi, who joined in August 1999.

Mrs Bhaduri uses RTI to get a blocked sewer repaired

Former Ambassador of India to Portugal, Mrs. Madhu Bhaduri filed a RTI application with the Delhi Jal Board (DJB). Her mother lives in Hauz Khas, block K and had been complaining about a blocked sewer for a month. Mrs. Bhaduri spoke to the Junior Engineer(JE) to get the matter looked into as the block had started to stink and mosquitoes had become a big problem. The Engineer simply said he'd look into the matter and that the DJB was using very heavy machinery to rectify the problem and did nothing.

MLA Funds

Every MLA in Delhi gets two crores of rupees every year to spend on works for the development of his constituency. This is the people’s money. MLAs should ask the people of their constituencies before taking decisions on how this money should be spent. However, most of the time, this consultation is not done and money is spent on works, which may not be a high priority for the people. The people of Pandav Nagar wanted one street to be made. They approached their MLA with a request to get this work done through the MLA fund. The MLA refused saying that the fund had already been exhausted. People applied under the Right to Information Act to know the list of works sanctioned using their MLA’s funds and also the balance amount, if any. They were shocked to know that hardly any works had been carried out through MLA fund that year and almost the entire amount was lying idle. Equipped with this information, the people again approached their MLA. It was difficult for the MLA to refuse their request this time.

RTI for civil service score

The Jharkhand Public Service Commission (JPSC) cannot deny students information about the cut-off marks fixed for each subject in civil service examinations, observed the State Information Commission (SIC) today.

JPSC, which had earlier decided to provide the cut-off marks to students in view of an order of the Central Information Commission (CIC) to the Union Public Service Commission, stopped on the ground that the Delhi High Court stayed the CIC directive.

CIC had recently asked the Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) to reveal question-wise marks awarded to students of Class X.

SIC has also appealed the Jharkhand High Court to appoint public information officers (PIOs) and formulate rules to furnish information to the public. The Right To Information (RTI) Act came into effect on October 12, 2005. A grace period of 100 days was provided under the Act to designate PIOs since the enactment of the RTI had expired.

“The High Court is perhaps the only institution, which is yet to implement the RTI Act,” said Mishra. RTI covers all the three wings of governance, including central and state administrations, panchayats, local bodies and non-governmental organisations receiving public funds.

Citizens using RTI in Kalol, Gujarat

Story of citizens using the RTI Act to make the administration work according to rule. This story shows how powerful RTI can be in the hands of well meaning citizens who wish to make the system work in favour of the underprivileged.

*For Ration Cards - Everyday is a Saturday*

Kalol taluka in Panchmahals district belongs to one of the less developed parts of vibrant Gujarat. Panchmahals is home to fairly large sized communities of adivasis who have not benefitted from the economic development that has made the Patels and the Shahs well known across American and European business houses. Additionally, several hundred of families belonging to the minority community live below the poverty line (BPL). The public distribution system set up by the government is an indispensable means of securing food grains at subsidised prices for these families. However securing a ration card is a herculean task for them unless they are willing to bribe officials or middlemen or both.

Bihar-online RTI service

Using your right to information could not get easier than this. Soon, Bihar will be the first and only state in the country where, instead of writing and submitting your RTI application on paper, you can ask your queries orally via phone as well as receive the information the same way.

This facility assumes significance given the low literacy levels in the state helping the citizen bypass the need of drafting questions, filling oput the form and submitting it to the department.

Language will not be a barrier in this new system. “The call center will be equipped to take calls in English, Hindi, Bhojpuri, Maithili and all other dialects spoken in Bihar,” Officer on Special Duty (OSD) to the Chief Minister Chanchal Kumar said.

RTI applications can be filed in a few minutes as against a few days it takes today,” said Parivartan founder Arvind Kejriwal. “One of the main problems that people are facing at present is not knowing which department to approach for which kind of issue. That problem will now be taken care of,” said Kejriwal.

Some problems and suggestions related to RTI Act 2005

Many ministries and departments of the Government of India seem to have appointed multiple public information officers (PIOs). This results in citizens having to run from office to office seeking out the correct PIO – sometimes in vain.

There are also problems regarding people’s access to PIOs. In many departments the PIO can only be met after a security pass has been obtained. However, in case the PIO is not in his/her seat, the security desk does not issue a pass. Therefore, people have to sometimes wait for hours till the PIO returns to his/her seat.

Suggestions:
In order to avoid harassment to citizens at the application making stage, there should be a window at each of the geographically distinct offices of any public authority for accepting RTI applications, accepting the application fee and for accepting RTI appeals, for the public authority as a whole.
This should be a single window facility, and
This should be located outside the security pass system, preferably at the reception counter.
The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) should send out a circular to all Central Government public authorities and to all state governments asking them to ensure that the approach suggested above is adopted in order to prevent harassment to the people.
It has also been reported that various ministries and departments of the Government of India are either insisting that they will only accept the specific forms that they have designed (the DDA for example), or are demanding information or documentation that is specifically prohibited by the law (the Ministry of Home Affairs, for example, demands proof of residence with applications).

Suggestions:
a. The DoPT should send out a circular clarifying that applications under the RTI Act do not require any form and that people are free to apply on plain paper, as long as all the required information is included.

b. The DoPT should also caution the various public authorities against insisting on applicants providing information that is specifically barred under section 6(2).
The RTI act requires that every public authority suo moto publish, within one hundred and twenty days from the enactment of the Act, the particulars of its organization, functions and duties, the powers and duties of its officers and employees, the procedure followed in the decision making process, including channels of supervision and accountability along with a great deal more information (section 4. (1) (b)). However, many state and central public authorities have taken little or no action so far.

Suggestions:
a. The DoPT should write to the central public authorities/state governments seeking their urgent compliance with this provision.
b. Perhaps some awards can be instituted, and public authorities that have most effectively complied with this provision can be awarded each year.
In addition, four other points were also raised with the DoPT:
1. There was an urgent need for training civil servants, at all levels, in the provisions and uses of the RTI Act.

2. There was also a need to publicise the RTI Act, especially through the All India Radio and through regional newspapers. Important provisions of the Act and details of concerned officials should also be painted on walls of government buildings, especially in the rural areas.

3. There was a need to set up a consultative process by which the DoPT, through constant interaction, could develop guidelines and address other emerging issues.

4. As a follow up of the point above, the DoPT might also consider setting up a National RTI Council, with representatives from civil society groups, to formalise a periodic interaction and thereby get regular feedback and suggestions.

It was pointed out by officials of the DoPT that they did not have much authority over state governments and, therefore, could only suggest these various measures to them. However, they seemed to be open to the suggestion that they could request the Prime Minister to address a letter to the various Chief Ministers, requesting them to adopt the various suggestions made.

The undersigned is directed to say that the Central Information Commission, on the basis of suggestions and complaints received from members of public, has desired that the following steps should be taken by Ministries/Departments regarding the Right to Information Act, 2005 within individual jurisdiction.
1. The PIOs, APIOs and Appellate Authorities are placed in all public authorities set up from Ministry’s/Department’s budget or under administrative control of Ministry/Department, if they are not already there.

2. Furnishing to the Central Information Commission the details of nodal officer appointed for implementation of the Act and the complete list of PIOs/APIOs and the Appellate Authorities alongwith their contact details, namely addresses, phone numbers, e-mail addresses and fax numbers.

3. Steps to taken to enable people to file their applications by post. To make this easy, awareness should be generated through printed and electronic media regarding the name of the bank account into which the demand draft or bankers cheque should be accepted. The particulars of these bank accounts should be furnished to the Central Information Commission.

4. Some Ministries/Department have appointed several Public Information Officers having different jurisdiction. In such case a clarification may be issued to the effect that application can be received by any PIO whose duty it would be to direct it to the PIO concerned under intimation to the applicant.

5. In case a person writes directly to the Head of Department/Office enclosing the required fee, it should be ensured that application reaches the proper PIO under intimation to the applicant.

6. The Right to Information Act, 2005 does not provide for any formal application form for acquiring access to information. The act also states that request for information can be sought ‘in writing or through electronic means.........’ therefore, application for information on plain paper are also to be received and replied within the prescribed time limit.

7. Section 6(2) of the Right to Information Act, 2005 states that no person seeking information shall be required to give any reason for his request. Therefore, necessary orders may issued to all the officials in the Ministries/Departments/Public Authorities to comply with the directives of the Act and not to ask unnecessary questions from complainant/applicants.

The author can be reached at: shashank.advocate@legalserviceindia.com / Print This Article

Related Articles:
Exemptions from disclosure of information under RTI
Right to Information - An Anti-Corruption Tool
Right To Know And Right To Information
Right To Information - Tool In The Hand of Public
 

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