Journalist Vishwas Waghmode Demonstrates the ‘How-to Use Section 4’ of RTI Successfully
It is not merely the provision of inspecting files under Section 4 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act that spurs young journalist, Vishwas Waghmode, to use it prolifically to get his news stories. It is also the added strategy of staying in the good books of the public information officers (PIOs), respecting their position as government officers and being patient with them, that marks his success of consistently procuring quality information.
Waghmode, the principal correspondent of The Indian Express, Mumbai, who covers the Mantralaya beat, won the coveted RTI award 2018, last week from the Pune based NGO `Sajag Nagarik Manch’. In his two-year stint with The Indian Express, he has used the RTI a whopping 100 times, most of them being the inspection of files under Section 4 of the RTI Act; a handful of them, RTI applications under Section 6 of the RTI Act.
Waghmode, who was inclined to use RTI at the DNA newspaper, which was his first job, stated that his enthusiasm to use RTI met with lukewarm response from his seniors. However, The Indian Express gave him the right kind of environment to pursue it.
At the outset, he invoked Section 6 of the RTI Act to procure information on the number of tree transplantations in Mumbai. It took one year and five months to get the information. States Waghmode, ``Finally when I was called to the office to get the required information, it is the PIO of the BMC’s garden department who said that I would have got the information much earlier if I had inspected files under Section 4 of the RTI Act. She explained that she was already burdened with too much work and culling this information together from different zones was an onerous task for her, but a visitor going through the files and requesting for specific photostat copies makes her job easier.’’
That spurred Waghmode to study Section 4 in-depth to understand the kind of information he can get and quickly – the mainstay for a journalist who always has a challenging deadline. He says he also studied Section 8 very carefully so that he does not waste his time inspecting files only to be told that the information falls outside the ambit of the RTI Act.
Regarding using diplomacy to get information, Waghmode says, ``I realised that most of the PIOs feel it an additional burden to reply to the Section 6 RTI applications, so I ease their burden when I scrutinise the documents and ask for only the specific pages I require.
I begin by telling that I don’t want information right away – I shall go through the documents, and if relevant, I may ask for some photostat copies. That makes them feel relaxed.’’
Another strategy that Waghmode adopts is that he gives 10-15 days’ buffer for doing inspection of files. Says he, ``Some of the PIOs feel they lose the power of being a boss and have to stoop down to citizens for RTI requisitions. So, some of them give an excuse of being too busy if I request them for inspection of files. I maintain my calm and ask them when next. They will say, after two days and then again after two days. However, being in the Mantralaya every day it is not a big deal for me to pursue the matter. This convinces them that I’m going to keep coming back and they agree to show the documents. So, not breathing down their neck helps.’’
Early this week, Waghmode scripted a success story, when the Maharashtra government issued a (general resolution (GR) on 7 March 2019, directing every public authority to form internal committees (IC) based on the Vishakha guidelines for sexual harassment cases in the workplace. The Sexual Harassment of Women at the Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, mandates that all places of employment with 10 or more employees should have a functioning IC.
Waghmode triggered this GR when his RTI query in February 2019 revealed that the chief minister’s office does not have an IC, nor does any other minister’s office. To his query under RTI, the date of establishment of the IC in CMO’s office, the PIO of the CM’s secretariat stated in his reply that the general administration department (GAD) is responsible for issuing the directives. Waghmode then invoked RTI in the GAD too whose PIO replied that there are hardly any women working in the ministry offices and those that do, are on contract.
This was a serious issue, and Wagmode ably spun a news story based on the callous attitude of the state government concerning women’s safety by not appointing ICs for the last five years.
On 7th March, the GR was released, and the CMO has promptly formed its IC comprising an undersecretary, and five members include two desk officers from GAD, two desk officers from CMO and a non-governmental member. All offices of ministries of the state government have been asked to follow suit.
Waghmode’s RTI inspection of files regarding the near Rs.3,000 crore Chhatrapati Shivaji Memorial in the sea revealed that to cut the costs the height of the statue has been lowered, and the length of the sword increased to ensure that its height remains the same! This young reporter has also followed up his denial of information request of State government’s MoU agreement copies with various private companies.
He was compelled to file the second appeal with the State chief information commission, as the concerned PIO insisted that it would compromise commercial interests and that these MoUs are in a fiduciary relationship. In some cases, the PIO has blindly given him the file to inspect, only to be embarrassed at Waghmode’s news story that revealed inconvenient news.
Another of Waghmode’s tips to journalists and citizens who invoke RTI is to seek expert help when you are frustrated with denial of information.
According to Waghmode, inspection of files under Section 4 of the RTI Act is a useful tool to procure information quickly, but a friendly, instead of a hostile approach to the PIOs is the key. Hope this young journalist is a trendsetter for others in his fraternity.
The Sajag Nagarik Manch, founded by RTI activists Vivek Velankar and Jugal Rathi, works towards transparency for good governance. Besides holding daily RTI clinics and weekly public lectures, the NGO has instituted the annual RTI award for those who are pursuing it effectively and with dogged determination. The award to Waghmode was given away by Dilip Dharurkar, state information commissioner, Aurangabad and Nagpur division. He too is a former journalist.
(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”.)