Pune-based RTI activist Qaneez Sukhrani has been selected for the Sajag Nagarik Sangh 2014 RTI Award. Sukhrani has been using RTI since 2003 and often uses the information to file PILs, like on illegality of making Aadhaar mandatory, illegal hoarding put out by politicians and misuse of funds by municipal authorities. Excerpts from an interview with Qaneez Sukhrani
Moneylife: When did you first come to know about the Right to Information (RTI) Act?
Qaneez Sukhrani (QS) : It was way back in 1997 when we were part of a committee headed by Prakash Kardaley to formulate the Maharashtra RTI Regulation. When the Regulations first came into force in 2003, my first RTI application was to the Maharashtra State Electricity Board (MSEB-as it was called then) and the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) seeking copies of audited reports. They ignored my request so I went in for appeal as there was provision for the same but still they refused to part with the information. Since there was no provision of an information commissioner to whom you could file second appeal, I straight away filed a public interest litigation (PIL) in the Bombay High Court. On first day itself the judge gave orders that both PMC and MSEB should provide the information within six weeks. Even then, they have not provided the information within six weeks. I threatened to file contempt of court. That’s when MSEB immediately gave me the copy of the audit report but PMC gave it in fits and starts. For the first time, I realized that the RTI Act wrests a lot of power in the hands of citizens. The bureaucracy had conveniently inherited the Official Secrets Act of British rule and had been using it not to give information even after five decades of India’s Independence. Thereafter the Maharashtra’s RTI Regulation came into force in 2003 and Central government’s RTI Act was implemented in 2005. I continue to use the RTI Act and if need be file PILs on the basis of the documents that I procure. Apart from late Prakash Kardaley and the late Gita Vir who were my initial gurus, it is Maj Gen SCN Jatar, who has guided me since the past two years; teaching me the strict discipline that should be kept in mind while filing RTIs.
ML: How did you use the RTI Act after 2005?
QS: After the national RTI Act came into force in 2005, I went consciously out of active activism because of personal reasons and decided to concentrate on my job. I also believe that RTI applications should not be filed frivolously. Because I was not active, I did not file any RTIs for almost seven years. However, I wanted to get back to my passion, which is activism so in 2012 I resigned from my job, eight years before my retirement. Then once again I began to use the RTI Act vigorously for several issues where the central or state government or the civic body was spending huge public funds, and / or not being transparent.
ML: Could you give some examples?
QS: The one issue that was bothering me was the Aadhaar number. The RTI provided me a good platform to use it here. I sent RTI application to 35 ministries and public authorities of the central and state and local self-government bodies, seeking copies of documents/ correspondence which directs that Aadhaar number is mandatory for getting passports, gas cylinders and so on, without the bill being passed in Parliament and despite the Standing Committee on Finance tabling an adverse report. I received almost 10,000 pages of documents (with payment of course for all the copies) that partly culminated in filing PIL in Supreme Court in 2014 by my organization Nagrik Chetna Manch. All the PILs related to Aadhaar from all over the country have been clubbed together and are being heard by one bench at SC.
Public authorities of the central government responded within 30 days to my RTI queries but the state government was very excruciatingly slow. Election Branch in Pune was not far behind. Both were pathetic in their responses and most of their Public Information Officers (PIOs) did not seem to be equipped with adequate knowledge.
It is interesting to note that documents, which I have procured from RTI, prove that Aadhaar is being made compulsory despite the Bill not being passed by both houses of Parliament. Thereafter, it has not been discussed by either of the Houses. Over Rs11,000 crore of public money has been spent by the government and still counting.
Our prayer is that all data collected so far should be de-linked and be destroyed as all of it is being handled by third parties and companies overseas. Several countries have destroyed it at higher cost as they found it extremely risky to protect the data. We do not even have a law to protect personal data. The Information Technology (IT) Act that we have is very weak.
ML: You have also campaigned vociferously for illegal hoardings across the city.
QS: Yes, I get so irritated seeing illegal flexes and hoardings put up by chamchas of political leaders of all hues. And add to this is the joke that even if they are asked to remove them, the PMC fines them a mere Rs100 as per the law. It is advantage to the politicians, who gains a lot of credit by portraying their faces on such hoardings, even if it is for a day and ends up paying a pittance for the crime.
I filed an RTI at the PMC asking for the number of notices sent; any survey the PMC may have conducted and the number of first information reports (FIRs) filed against violators of this law. I got a reply stating that 25,779 illegal flexes and hoardings had been pulled down but not a single FIR had been filed until February 2014.
In November 2014, I filed a PIL in the High Court and wanted to substantiate my information with the latest figures that 110,831 illegal flexes and hoardings were pulled down but FIR lodged against only 38 violators. When I went to file my PIL, I found that several PILs are pending in this regard since 2011.
I reckoned that PMC should be applying the Maharashtra Prevention of Defacement of Property Act, 1995 which is a stronger Act as putting up such hoardings is a cognizable offence, inviting a penalty of Rs2,000 or imprisonment up to three months or both. And this Act says it has to be used above all. The offence takes places even if the hoarding is on a private property but can be seen from a public property. Here my prayer mainly is why is PMC so wary of taking action against such violators and that the cost of pulling down the hoarding should not be from the public funds but from the violator himself and that police should be also the authority to give permission where it can be legally put up.
ML: Please tell us your RTI use for BRT in Pune which is in a mess.
QS: I have procured 7,500 documents under RTI for the bus rapid transit (BRT) subject in both PMC and Pimpri Chinchwad Municipal Corporation (PCMC) (so that I could compare what both corporations had done / not done). I had sought information from the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) as well as from the state government and the Pune civic body. Documents show that no feasibility, pre-feasibility report, detailed project report has been submitted to MoUD as per norms. Various irregularities also came to fore where it was found that there was no financial planning, no vision used while using up funds. Collating many important points on irregularities, I wrote to the Chairman of the Standing Committee of Urban Development, New Delhi to constitute an Enquiry Commission. Their team paid a visit to Pune, wrote an adverse report, which was tabled in both Houses of Parliament in November 2014. Now all the authorities have to file a say to each of my points. Because there was no financial plan put in place by PMC, suddenly funds dried up for one of the seven most important features for BRTS to be successful i.e. Integrated Traffic Management System (IMTS).
After PMC’s Standing Committee repeatedly ignored approving this amount, I wrote to the Chief Minister of Maharashtra to dissolve the civic panel under Section 243U of 74th Amendment of the Constitution. Thereafter I filed an RTI to find out if any order had been issued by the CM. I came to know through the reply that the CM has instructed the PMC to develop an integrated traffic system for which Rs11 crore have been sanctioned.
I have also filed RTI regarding bus shelters, which were erected at the cost of about Rs33 lakhs each but PMC had not provided any security. So these were misused by miscreants, set on fire by vandals, became a den for gamblers and drunkards, and home for the homeless. I recommended repeatedly that security guards should be put in place. After getting fed-up, I filed an RTI. A week later I got to know that 99 security guards have been given approval and they are going through the police verification process. Of course there are many more irregularities that were unearthed.
ML: What is your advice to citizens regarding use of RTI?
QS: I would say that it should be judiciously used and one should not go overboard as it will otherwise become a mockery. Any citizen should file RTI only if the information can be used to reach rightful end. Also, civic officers sometimes fear giving information under RTI, so we should allay their fears. If both sides stop getting confrontationist, RTI Act will bring in more transparency.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)