During 2011, the Right to Information exposed mega scams, at the same time there were fatal attacks on RTI activists and attempted dilution on RTI Act by politicians. While the movement received several jolts, there were few moments of glory too thanks to individual efforts to doggedly seek information against odds
RTI GRIEF OF THE YEAR – activists brutally killed
16th August -Shehla Masood: Bhopal based firebrand RTI activist Shehla Masood was shot dead in front of her house on 16th August while on her way to support Anna Hazare’s fast in her city. Shehla had asked uncomfortable questions under RTI regarding illegal diamond mining by UK-based multi-national company, Rio Tinto in the sensitive Panna Tiger Reserve. Initially, the police tried to put forth the theory of suicide to defend the crooks but later with media heat, the case was transferred to CBI. No headway as yet!
5th November - Nadeem Sayyed: Ahmedabad-based RTI activist Nadeem Sayyed was brutally killed on 5th November in broad daylight. A crucial witness to the Naroda Patiya case wherein 95 persons were killed during the Godhra riots, Nadeem had filed several RTI applications pertaining to Godhra cases and developmental works in Gujarat. A fortnight later, seven people were arrested, one of who is a history-sheeter. The police are still investigating the case.
9th December – Ram Vilas Singh: Bihar-based activist Ram Vilas Singh, a resident of Bhabhangama village in Lakhisarai district, was shot dead. He relentlessly pursued seeking information on matters related to hoarding, black marketeering and government schemes in his village. Initially, the police tried to make it into a case of political rivalry but thanks to uproar by RTI activists across the country and the media, it is now investigating into the ulterior motive of silencing the whistle blower.
RTI EXPLOSION OF THE YEAR: Unearthing of mega scams
The Adarsh Housing scam of Mumbai, the 2G Scam and the Common Wealth Games (CWG) Scam exploded into colossal scandals that took the nation by storm, thanks to revelations under the RTI. Out of turn allotments of flats to politicians, bureaucrats and armed forces personnel in the Adarsh Housing Society in Mumbai, otherwise reserved for widows of the Kargil War and gross building law violations finally led to the resignation of the then Chief Minister Ashok Chavan. In the CWG scam case where Rs70,000 crore odd have been siphoned off, much of the details were procured through RTI. This led to the CWG boss in India and Congress MP Suresh Kalmadi being put behind bars. The prolific use of RTI in the case of the Rs1.70 lakh crore 2G scam brought out the chain-link of corruption in the UPA government between top ministers and bureaucrats, not sparing even home minister P Chidambaram. Former telecom minister A Raja was sent to Tihar Jail and until recently DMK MP Kanimozi too served a jail sentence.
RTI VILLIANS OF THE YEAR: Politicians try to belittle RTI Act, get snubbed
When P Chidambaram, the Union Home Minster, came under the scanner in the 2G Scam thanks to documents procured under RTI, politicians especially from Congress party were quick to blame the RTI Act for the mess and expressed the desire to dilute it, if not in direct words.
Corporate affairs Minister Veerappa Moily said that the RTI Act “transgressed into the independent functioning of the government.’’ Law Minister Salman Khurshid said that misuse of RTI had hit “institutional efficacy and efficiency.’’
Then, there were attempts to dilute the Act as reflected in Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s speech at the annual CIC convention in New Delhi in October. While he politely mentioned that the government wanted to make the Act even more effective instrument for ensuring transparency and accountability in administration, in the same breath he said, “Another concern that has been raised is that the Right to Information could end up discouraging honest, well-meaning public servants from giving full expression to their views... The Right to Information should not adversely affect the deliberative processes in the government.” RTI activists across the country, the media and the opposition parties were vociferous in their views against Dr Singh’s indirect attempt at diluting the RTI Act.
The largest piece of cake in running down RTI was taken by Maharashtra’s Chief Minister Pritiviraj Chavan who confessed that his go-slow in taking decisions is because of the RTI Act. He stated to newspersons that, “Now with the RTI in force, all files could be accessed by anyone and that's why one has to be very cautious…there are many decisions which involved error of judgment and no one imagined that the RTI would bring these decisions to public view. Some of our colleagues were punished severely as a result of such information coming out in the open.’’
Thankfully though, they were restricted just to making loud remarks and not conspiring to make amendments to the RTI Act. For now, at least.
RTI JOKE OF THE YEAR: Same Governor comes under RTI in Maharashtra but not in Goa
In January 2011, Goa-based RTI activist, Aries Rodrigues, demanded information under the Act regarding President Pratibha Patil’s controversial four-day visit to the state, which was declared as a ‘private visit’ through a press release issued by the Governor’s office in Goa. K Sankarnarayanan, the Governor of Maharashtra also holds additional charge as Governor of Goa. Mr Rodrigues was denied information stating that the Goa Governor’s office does not come under the purview of the RTI Act. Mr Rodrigues then demanded the same information from the Governor of Maharashtra where Mr Sankaranarayanan was, and still is, the Governor. He got the information, which confirmed that the President was indeed on an official visit to Goa and not on a private one as claimed by the Goa Governor’s office, for which the Goa government spent Rs14.81 lakh from taxpayers’ money.
Thankfully, a petition in the Bombay High Court filed by the Goa Governor’s office was scuttled when the Court said that the Governor is public authority under the RTI Act and must provide relevant information. The Governor’s office then moved to the Supreme Court. Early this month the Supreme Court upheld the High Court’s order and directed the Governor’s office to make public the information under the RTI.
RTI RESOLUTION OF THE YEAR: Pune becomes the leading example
The prestigious Central Information Commission (CIC) annual convention in New Delhi in October witnessed Pune becoming a role model for some of its resolutions. Pune is the first city in the country to make a library for RTI. This is located in the Pune Municipal Corporation building and was the brainchild of leading RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar. Open Days in government offices is also a unique feature of Pune. Again thanks to Mr Kumbhar and other activists, the Pune Municipal Corporation keeps all its departments open for inspection of files under Section 4 of the RTI Act every Monday, between 3pm and 5 pm. The Pune Collector’s office is also open for such inspection every Friday. Also, State Information Commissioner Vijay Kuvalekar’s special initiative wherein he brings together the applicant, PIO as well as the first appellate authority for quicker disposal of appeals was well appreciated. The CIC Convention decided to adopt all these three unique practices in other parts of the country.
RTI HEROES OF THE YEAR: Bhadresh Wamja, Sharad Phadke
Bhadresh Wamja: Ignoring intimidation and family pressure, 17 year old Bhadresh Wamja of Saldi village, about 120 kms from Gandhinagar, used the RTI to restore food-grain and fuel rations that were being denied to villagers under the Public Distribution Scheme (PDS) and spurred a policy decision by the state government. His story was rated as the best success story under RTI, in a convention held at YASHADA in Pune which trains government functionaries from all over the country on RTI.
Sharad Phadke: He suffered a loss of Rs1,000 when he put in his ATM card to withdraw money. He did not get the cash, but the amount was debited from his account. He used the RTI to demand information regarding action taken against the bank officer who did not credit Rs1,000 to his bank account within the mandatory 12 days period as per the Reserve Bank of India rules. Mr Phadke also asked for information about the penalty which the bank had to pay him at the rate of Rs100 per day, for delay in not resolving the issue within 12 days. Bank of India, where Mr Phadke had account, subsequently was compelled to pay the penalty of Rs6,500 for a delay of 65 days. Mr Phadke did not stop at that. Stating that thousands of customers would be going through such harassment of banks, he has been filing RTI against several banks seeking information on the amount of penalty paid by them in such cases. The RBI has now reduced the number of days to 6 for crediting the wrongly debited amount beyond which the concerned bank has to pay the penalty of Rs100 per day to the customer. A couple of banks have installed software wherein the customer’s money gets automatically credited instantly in case of such faulty debit transaction from the customer’s bank account. All this was possible thanks to Mr Phadke’s tenacious campaign.
RTI SHAME OF THE YEAR: Ramanand Tiwari, State Chief Information Commissioner ousted
State Chief Information Commissioner of Maharashtra was ousted by the Cabinet for his involvement in the Adarsh Housing scam. He gave extra FSI permission to Adarsh builders when he was the principal secretary in Urban Development Department. For this favour, his son was allotted a flat in Adarsh. This stern action was taken under Section 17 of the RTI Act which states: “The Governor may by order/remove from office the state information commissioner if a state information commissioner has acquired such financial or other interests as is likely to affect prejudicially his function as the state commissioner.”
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