No right This
Information officers are using a ploy to deter RTI applicants from seeking details that may embarrass the government. To discourage, they demand exorbitant amount of money ostensibly as an expense for ferreting out the information. And, it's all official
Sadiq Naqvi Delhi
It is a travesty of citizen's rights. For a piece of information that they have every right to access, citizens are asked to shell out a lakh of rupees. It has been four years since the Right to Information (RTI) was made into a law. But bureaucratic unease at sharing information is making a nonsense of it. Public information officers have flourished by keeping information under wraps. This is proving to be a major obstacle in the speedy implementation of this law that gives greater meaning to our democracy.
The ugly truth after four years of RTI's existence: there is just 27 per cent chance of getting information even after approaching government-appointed commissions following an appeal or complaint under RTI. This was revealed in a report released by RTI Awards Secretariat recently. A study by PricewaterhouseCoopers reveals that more than 75 per cent of the applicants were dissatisfied with the quality of information received.
The situation is getting worse as there are reports of government mulling over amendment of the RTI Act that could actually make it weaker. Sources reveal that the department of personnel and training (DoPT) is opposed to greater transparency, which it considers subversive. Noted activist, Aruna Roy, said, "How can DoPT, which deals with career interests of bureaucrats, be the parent department for disclosing information? The government wants to exempt file notings from being disclosed. This will destroy the very essence of RTI."
Activists feel that instead of amending the act, the government should first implement the present act fully. The government's plan to reject frivolous petitions, activists alleged, is a ruse to reject any application that they consider inconvenient. A Central Information Commission (CIC) official denied that there is any such plan. "The government has time and again made it clear that the act will be made stronger. There is nothing to worry," he told Hardnews.
The Supreme Court has made it clear that the fundamental right to freedom of speech guaranteed under Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution was based on the foundation of the right to know about the activities of the State. The effect was seen in the 2002 ruling of the SC, which made it mandatory for aspiring MPs and MLAs to declare their assets and criminal record before contesting. Thus, the Right to Information was seen as a weapon to weed out corruption and bring in more accountability in the functioning of the State.
RTI activist Arvind Kejriwal said, "The culture of secrecy which we inherited from our colonial rulers is proving to be an incentive for government officers." RTI is perceived as an encroachment on their power and style of functioning where no questions were asked and no action taken.
A recent report released by the RTI Assessment and Analysis Group (RaaG) and the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI) reveals that in about 55 to 60 per cent cases, information was provided under the RTI Act from various government departments. Rest of the time, petitioners were even threatened, chased out and ignored.
Assam is at the bottom of the table with 23 per cent and Meghalaya tops the list with information being provided in 83 per cent of the cases. According to the report, information was given on time only in 40 out of 100 cases. Even the different bodies constituted by the government, like the information commissions, do not fare any better.
"I filed an RTI application in the Bihar state information commission (SIC) to know how many appeals and complaints they had received in December 2008. I had to make a second appeal and, finally, the information was given after a good eight months," said Afroz Alam, a student of Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi.
Jaankari, a call centre set up in Bihar to assist in filing RTI applications, refused to provide information about how many requests it has processed. And, in this case too, second appeal had to be made.
The report released by RaaG and NCPRI shows that 40 per cent of rural and 15 per cent of urban respondents cited harassment and threats by officials as reasons for not filing RTI applications. Another 30 per cent of rural respondents said that they were discouraged by the public information officer (PIO) responsible for providing the information. "I received threats on phone after I had filed an RTI asking how much money the local MP had spent for his constituency," a student from Bihar told Hardnews on condition of anonymity.
Since RTI applicants must reveal their identity, they are threatened and at times forced to withdraw applications. There have also been cases where people were victimised for using the RTI as a tool to fight corruption. In Bihar, a petitioner was jailed for "daring" to ask information from a district collector. The collector slapped a charge of extortion and blackmail on the hapless RTI applicant. According to a senior CIC official, having a Protection of Whistleblowers Act could solve this problem.
Meanwhile, information officers are using another ploy to deter RTI applicants from seeking details that may embarrass the government. To discourage, they demand exorbitant amount of money ostensibly as an expense for ferreting out the information. And, it's all official.
Recently, when the Delhi Police was asked details about the number of children who have disappeared or stolen, the applicant was asked to shell out a huge sum. In another instance, when an employee approached the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation for internal audit reports, the chief public relations officer told him, "The information is not readily available and will require deployment of one non-supervisor, one supervisor and one assistant manager on overtime basis..." The applicant was asked to deposit Rs 17,608 for the information. The applicant withdrew his application.
Hardnews was told by the CIC official that demanding money is patently illegal. "Nobody is allowed to charge excess money. Had the applicant approached the commission, he would have got the information for a nominal charge." Kejriwal said he was asked to pay Rs 10 per order by the SIC in UP when he had asked them for orders passed by them for his study.
In the absence of training, most PIOs are clueless about what is expected of them under the RTI. According to a RaaG-NCPRI report, nearly 70 per cent of the rural PIOs spend less than one hour per week on RTI-related work. Another 30 per cent of them are not aware of the provisions of the RTI Act. Around 60 per cent of urban and rural PIOs have not been trained. Interestingly, 50 per cent of the rural PIOs do not have a copy of the RTI Act with them. Many of the PIOs cited lack of financial incentives as the reason for their disinterest.
Often, information is withheld on the pretext that it is confidential. "An RTI petition with several queries on recent controversial recommendations by the Supreme Court collegiums on appointments of its judges was not entertained by the apex court for being confidential without citing any exemption clause from the RTI Act," said Subhash Aggarwal, an RTI activist. However, another RTI petition filed at the President's secretariat with exactly the same set of questions received a good response with detailed documents, he added.
According to the RaaG-NCPRI report, 80 per cent of first appeals received no response from the first appellate authorities. Another 11 per cent were rejected and in only nine per cent cases they were partially or wholly heard.
The RTI Act is also bearing the brunt of State apathy. The government does not advertise about this so that more people get to know about it. In 2008-09, the DoPT spent Rs 7.29 crore for advertising about RTI. It had been allocated Rs 10 crore in the budget. For the year 2009-10, Rs 14.16 crore has been allocated. Till October 2009, Rs 3.55 crore has been spent.
The RaaG-NCPRI organised focal group discussions (FGD) across the country. In 20 per cent of the rural FGDs, there was only one person who knew about the RTI Act.
According to the RaaG-NCPRI report, most people got to know about RTI through newspapers, televisions or NGOs. Unfortunately, the government did not play a major role in raising awareness about RTI. Social activist, Medha Patkar, said, "There is a need to take the campaign in villages. The local officers should devise ways to inform citizens living in rural areas."
Sources in the CIC said, "Money is being spent on areas where people are already aware. Officials at the block and district levels should be engaged to raise awareness about RTI." Nearly 20 lakh RTI applications were filed in the first two-and-a-half years of RTI.
Out of 20 lakh RTI applications, nearly 16 lakh were filed by urban applicants and only four lakh applicants were from rural areas, said the RaaG-NCPRI report. Of the urban participants surveyed, only 15 per cent belonged to the economically weaker section.
If government agencies declare information as per Section 4 of the RTI Act, the burden of filing an application will be reduced. "The government has to disclose information suo moto. RTI is not succeeding because government is not implementing Section 4. It is for the government to practise what it preaches. We have time and again approached DoPT with draft rules for suo moto disclosure of information. Can you imagine what would happen if the government disclosed all information?" Aruna Roy told Hardnews.
Kejriwal said, "The government has failed to disclose information about its day-to-day dealings. The people are also at fault as they have not been able to mount pressure on the government." Also, information officers who delay in passing on information are mostly not penalised. Only 2 per cent of the PIOs have been penalised till now. "Systems are built on encouragement and not punishment. We have to be practical," said ML Sharma, information commissioner, CIC.
Whatever information disclosed by the government on its own remains restricted to websites of respective departments. According to the RaaG-NCPRI report, only 5 per cent of urban public authorities had disclosed information pertaining to their functions on notice boards. Even websites don't provide up-to-date information.
Hardnews found that the website of SIC of Madhya Pradesh has not been updated since October 7, 2008. The Gujarat SIC's website had data till March 2008. Patkar said, "RTI is a way forward in inculcating the culture of transparency and accountability which implies changing the mindset of government officials. Under Section 4 of the RTI Act, information should be given by the gram sabha and notice boards should be put in place. There should be sections in public libraries where officials of different departments can sit so that people can have easy access."