The new RTI rules framed and implemented by the Chhattisgarh government is a clear attempt and snatching a citizen’s fundamental right of access to information and strangulating the RTI Act. Citizens are requested to sent protest letters in large numbers
The Right to Information Act (RTI) is being clipped by several state governments in an attempt to discourage/refuse rightful information to the citizens. Instead of furthering transparency, which is the primary objective of the sunshine law, politicians are finding brazen means and ways to keep away information from the public and perhaps rewind back to the outdated era of official secrecy, where they were well-protected from the eye of the public.
Recently, the Karnataka government brought in an amendment, by which a citizen can ask only one query in a RTI application and restrict it to 150 words. Worse still, Chhattisgarh has recently implemented the absurd rule of charging Rs500 as RTI fee per application; Rs15 for photocopy of per page and worse; asking the applicant to give reasons for the information he is seeking. Allegations are flying high that this attempt of the Chhattisgarh government is to conceal irregularities in the paddy procurement scam for which the state government has come under fire since the last few months and for which RTI queries were being filed.
Every state government has the right to make laws regarding the cost of fees for RTI application but the fees have to be “reasonable” says the RTI Act. Is Rs500 per application affordable to the common man? Is it affordable to pay Rs15 per Photostat copy? So, isn’t this move an attempt to discourage people from seeking information and snatch away their fundamental right? Prateek Pandey, leading RTI activist and member of the Chhattisgarh Citizen Initiative, is spearheading a campaign to undo the amendment of the Chhattisgarh government. He states, “A massive citizen pressure group is required to stall this injustice towards the common man for whom the RTI Act has come as a means to participate in governance. We are meeting the state chief information commissioner and the speaker of the assembly and submitting a written petition to withdraw the amendment. If that does not work, we will challenge it legally.”
Right to Information is a fundamental right of citizens and Section 7(5) of the Act states that, “Where access to information is to be provided in the printed or in any electronic format, the applicant shall, subject to the provisions sub-section (6), pay such fee as may be prescribed:
“Provided that the fee prescribed under sub-section (1) of section 6 and sub-section (1) and (5) of section 7 shall be reasonable and no such fee shall be charged from the persons who are of below poverty line as may be determined by the appropriate government.”
Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi has already dashed off a letter to Chhattisgarh chief minister Raman Singh. He states in the letter, “All over the country all public authorities have kept a fee of Rs10 as application fee and Rs2 per page for providing information…”
Mr Gandhi further writes that, “It has clearly been mentioned in the law that the application fee as well as the additional fee for providing information would be reasonable. Almost all public authorities in the country have in the right spirit of the Act and recognizing that information should be available to citizens since they are the owners of the information, kept Rs10 as application fee and Rs2 per page as additional fee for providing the information. In this background the Chhattisgarh Legislative Assembly’s decision to start charging Rs500 as application and Rs15 per page as additional fee goes against the spirit and purpose of the RTI Act and would be unwarranted discrimination against citizens who seek information from the legislative assembly. This would give rise to suspicion and speculation that the legislative assembly wishes to discourage citizens from exercising their fundamental right. I am sure the Chhattisgarh assembly will set a good example to promote citizen’s fundamental rights and reduce the application fee and the additional fee to Rs10 and Rs2 respectively at the earliest.”
Another argument against this outrageous fee hike is that, the RTI Act has a powerful Section 4 wherein it is binding on every government department to pro-actively disclose information on most of its functioning. What is pro-active disclosure? It means suo moto disclosure or dissemination of information, documents and files in possession of “public authority”.
Section 4 (1)(a) states: “Every public authority shall maintain all its records duly catalogued and indexed in a manner and the form which facilitates the right to information under this Act and ensure that all records that are appropriate to be computerized are, within a reasonable time and subject to availability of resources, computerized and connected through a network all over the country on different systems so that access to such records is facilitated.” The government department is required to update the information from time to time. Hence, the citizen has the right to Free access to information, a large part of it, at the just the click of the mouse. Doesn’t the steep fee of Rs.500 for the RTI application nullify this right? States Vijay Kumbhar, a leading RTI activist from Pune, “A reasonable fee has been kept so that citizens take their RTI application seriously and there’s some discipline that comes in with the mandatory reasonable fee. However, Rs.500 as fee is a clear signal that the government wants to strangulate the RTI Act and retain its power over hiding it wrong doings with public money.”
RTI activists see such attempts as threats to the very existence of the RTI Act. They believe that if citizens in large numbers do not raise their voices against such amendments, the RTI Act will loose all its teeth in a couple of years.
Mr Pandey has appealed to all citizens to send a letter of protest to the chief minister, opposition leader and speaker of Chhattisgarh’s legislative assembly in order to compel it to withdraw it.
Readers are requested to use the following draft sample to send the letter to:
1. Dr Raman Singh
Will we soon pay a toll for driving out of our own gates?
Two rupees out of all the money we...
Will our interests be better-protected with a new law?
The Consumer Protection Act, 1986...