At Pune’s headquarters of the food supply department, the tehsildar is ignorant, even arrogant about proactive disclosure under Section 4 of the RTI Act
Since the last one week, I have been following up with the Food Supply office of the Pune district collectorate to gather information under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. I am seeking information on the number of shopkeepers, in two particular zones, where women have complained that they have not been getting their rightful food grains, sugar and kerosene under the Public Distribution System (PDS) scheme, since several months and years.
While the newly launched Food Security Bill (FSB) has already run into controversy with a leading TV news channel portraying how wheat under this scheme is already being diverted into the open market in Delhi. The PDS scam has been going on brazenly for last several decades. Since no political leader or officer at any level bothers to address this issue, the PDS scam is a perennial news story for a journalist and perennial campaign for an activist.
Last week, the public information officer (PIO) of one of the zones of the food supply office in Pune was totally ignorant about Section 4 of the RTI Act itself. As mentioned in my last week’s column, she relented to give information after I educated her on Section 4. I had asked for information between 1 January 2012 and 30 September 2013, month wise, of the supply of wheat, rice, sugar and kerosene to the shopkeepers that fall under her zone.
However, the next day, when I went to collect the information, she proudly said that she had promptly bought a book of the RTI Act, which I appreciated. However, her next statement was that, “You have wrongly said you can get information instantly under Section 4. It is only under Section 7 that you can get information in 48 hours.’’ So, another round of explanation had to be done.”
I told her that the information I require comes under 11, 12, 13 sub-sections of the Section 4 of RTI Act. These states:
(xi) the budget allocated to each of its agency, indicating the particulars of all pans, proposed expenditures and reports o disbursements made;
(xii) the manner of execution of subsidy,
(xiii) particulars of recipients of concessions, permits or authorisations granted by it. She nodded in agreement.
The issue of my inspecting files under Sec 4 of the RTI Act, triggered off last fortnight after some women in a chawl in Bhavani Peth expressed their agony. However, on a visit to another chawl in Yerawada, I found that the women there too had a similar complaint. Hence, I decided to gather information of supply to all the eight zones from the food supply headquarters.
The PIO there asked me to meet the Tehsildar who heads the department. When I told her what I wanted, she got aggressive and said this information is not available here and that I would have to visit each of the eight zones to get it. I argued that being the headquarters, information on supplies to shopkeepers in all eight zones, must be made available here itself. In fact, it should have been posted on the website www.pune.gov.in . In any case, even if it is on the website, it is mandatory for the public authority to provide the information if a citizen visits it and demands it in the form of hard copies. She argued, “Yes, of course, it is all there on the website’’ and summoned the PIO to her cabin. The PIO muttered that it is in some other website and gave me the link – Egrains.nic.in/sinc. I checked the website but it does not seem a relevant one.
She then continued that it is not possible to keep such vast information in her office. I said it is her duty to upload it in the public domain. I gave her an example that if I require information about accidents from 10 different police stations under RTI, then I should get it at the headquarters of the traffic department and I, as a citizen, do not have to run from one police station to another. When she tried to be adamant despite my explanation, I told her that I would file a complaint with the State Information Commissioner in Pune as this amounts to denying information. She said OK to prove her point but then relented and asked the PIO to give the entire information. I would be collecting the documents on Thursday. Here too, the PIO insisted on Rs10 court fee stamp with a request letter for the information. I again had to explain to him that you need the court fee stamp only if you ask information under Section 6. He smiled.
My point is, even after eight years of the RTI Act, should a citizen be fighting it out to get his or her rightful information under Section 4 of the RTI Act? If this is the treatment given to a seasoned journalist/activist, then one can imagine what a common person is going through. The reason for this personal narration is to inspire citizens to visit offices to get the information they need and not be cowed down by excuses or arrogance of officers. Please read Section 4 carefully; if required take a printout of it when you visit the office. Share your experiences with Moneylife. I would be happy to answer your difficulties.
(Vinita Deshmukh is the 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”)
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has failed to set up a body that would make recommendations on how to deal with rising seas
The US Congress did something unusual last year. It passed a bill that acknowledged that sea levels are rising — i.e., that climate change is happening.
The measure in question, buried near the end of a 584-page transportation funding bill, also required some modest action: That the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) use “the best available climate science” to figure out how the flood insurance program it administers should handle rising seas.
FEMA’s first step was supposed to be to set up an advisory body, the Technical Mapping Advisory Council, that would make recommendations on how the agency could take the effects of climate change into account in its flood insurance maps.
But more than a year later, FEMA hasn’t named a single member to the council. Without any members, it has been unable to meet or make any recommendations. In July, the council missed a deadline set out in the law for submitting written recommendations for how the flood insurance program might deal with future risks related to climate change.
FEMA had developed a charter for the council by the end of August and was in the process of finalizing letters to solicit council members, according to the agency. Dan Watson, the FEMA press secretary, said he was unable to provide more up-to-date information because much of the agency’s staff has been furloughed under the government shutdown.
Few areas of the federal government are more directly affected by climate change than the flood insurance program and its maps, which determine the premiums that 5.6 million American households pay for flood insurance. The program fell deeply into the red after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Sandy last year. It’s currently $25 billion in debt.
Many of the maps are decades out of date and therefore don’t reflect the rise in sea levels since the time they were drawn.
FEMA released a report in June estimating that sea levels will rise an average of four feet by 2100, increasing the portion of the country at high risk of flooding by up to 45 percent. The number of Americans who live in those areas could double by the century’s end, according to the report.
The law requires the council to outline steps for improving the “accuracy, general quality, ease of use, and distribution and dissemination” of the maps. Josh Saks, legislative director for the National Wildlife Federation, which pushed for the legislation, said that might include figuring out how to better take into account the way new development along a river, say, worsens flooding for those who live downstream.
Jimi Grande, the senior vice president for federal and political affairs for the National Association of Mutual Insurance Companies, a lobbying group, said the council would “absolutely” help make the flood maps more accurate.
“We need to know what the risks are to have an intelligent conversation as a country” about development in areas that are vulnerable to flooding, he said.
The measure was part of a broader package of reforms to the National Flood Insurance Program that phased out many of the government subsidies that had kept flood insurance premiums artificially cheap for many homeowners. The full-risk rates phased in for many policyholders on Oct. 1, despite vocal protests against them.
An operational mapping advisory council wouldn’t fix everything that’s wrong with the flood insurance program. As ProPublica has reported, some of the maps FEMA has issued in recent years have been based on outdated, inaccurate data, giving homeowners a misleading impression of flood risk and, in some cases, forcing them to buy insurance when they were not at great risk of flooding.
Taking climate change into account when setting flood insurance rates is also a complex task.
“That’s why we put the council in charge,” said Saks, from the National Wildlife Federation. “I can read the science and say storms are happening more often, and I can read the numbers and see that sea-level rise is happening. But I’m not an actuary, and I don’t know how you then translate that to” setting insurance rates.
The risk-modeling companies that private insurers rely on have struggled to take climate change into account in their models, but they are making progress.
“I wouldn’t be too surprised if within the next five years we could credibly start to incorporate climate change into aspects of the modeling,” said David F. Smith, the vice president of the model development group at Eqecat, a risk-modeling firm.
Michael B. Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, said he wasn’t surprised FEMA had been slow in setting up the council.
“It’s the rule, rather than the exception, that federal agencies miss the rule-making deadlines” set out in laws, he said. “Often they have to be sued to get back on schedule.”
The Maharashtra State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission has ordered a builder to either hand over possession of a ready flat in Kalyan to a couple who had booked it five years ago, or pay them Rs60 lakh, the flat’s current market value. It also directed the builder, Padma Constructions, to pay Rs3 lakh to Anant Ieetkar and his wife Manjusha as compensation for the ‘mental agony’ and Rs30,000 for the litigation expenses they had incurred. The Commission, which passed the order in September 2013, has given the builder three months to hand over the flat, failing which he will have to pay Rs60 lakh.
In another similar instance, the National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission has directed a Mumbai builder to pay around Rs23 lakh compensation, the current market value of an undelivered flat to a middle-aged couple, who had booked a flat in Dahisar in 2006 but never got it. The original cost of the flat was Rs6 lakh. The Commission upheld the order of State Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission order dated 13 July 2012. It ordered the builder Falsa Constructions to pay the compensation amount to Vithal and Banjali Dhoke within 60 days or add interest at 21%; the other option was to hand over the agreed flat to them within 12 months.
The couple had booked the flat with Rs1 lakh as down payment in 2005. The builder was planning to build six buildings in the complex. He constructed the other buildings but he did not construct the ‘A’ wing, in which the Dhokes had booked their flat. The builder argued that its obligation under the agreement was hit by the doctrine of impossibility and that fulfilment of the contract was frustrated on account of circumstances beyond the control of the revision petitioner.