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No beating about the bush.
With the Department of Posts all set to launch its electronic postal order for accepting RTI fee online from Indians living abroad by 15th January, the five-year campaign of RTI activists and NRIs will finally bear fruit
The final trigger for the launch of e-IPO (electronic Indian Postal Order) that would facilitate Indian citizens living abroad to pay the Rs10 fee for filing a RTI application came when on 12 December 2012, Sujata Chaudhury, general manager of Business Development & Marketing Directorate of Department of Posts set a deadline of 15 January 2013 and asked the National Informatics Centre (NIC) to treat this “as most urgent” and to complete the work on a “war footing.”
Ms Chaudhury’s letter states: “Now it has been decided at the highest level that the facility of accepting RTI fee by generating e-IPO through the e-post office portal is to be launched by 15 January 2013. Therefore, it is requested to take accelerated steps to complete the task much before the targeted time fixed earlier. This may be treated as most urgent and work be done on a war footing.”
Delhi-based activist Commodore (retd) Lokesh Batra, who steered the campaign for Indians living abroad in several countries, is ecstatic at this citizen victory and congratulates the Department of Posts for completing the project in record time. He had filed more than 150 RTI applications in various relevant departments since 2008 and consistently pressurized the government to provide online payment facilities for RTI fees.
States Commodore Batra: “If all goes well as per the plans of the ‘Department of Posts’ (DOP) for launching of e-IPO for RTI fee, Indian citizens abroad will be able to use their ‘Right to Know’ before this Republic Day.” On 31 December 2012, Commodore Batra went through the complete process of the functioning of e-IPO at the Department of Posts and says that if not 15th January, then by 25th January it is sure to be launched. When the scheme becomes a reality, it will be a huge achievement for Indian citizens abroad who have been pressing the government for the last five years to facilitate them in nation building by exercising their right to know.
The final step of this issue has been languishing since March 2012 when the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) gave its “no objection” to the government to start an online payment facility for RTI fees for NRIs but the Department of Posts was waiting for orders to put a system in order.
Now that it has happened, soon the RTI applicant abroad would be able to use a credit or debit card to pay the Rs10 fee. Axis Bank is the payment gateway provider. The RTI applicant living abroad would be required to log on to the Department of Posts’ website and then register (if it is his or her first time) and click on the “RTI counter”. He/she would have to upload a copy of his/her passport after filling the RTI application. Then he/she would be required to pay the fees through the electronic postal order. Thereafter, the RTI application would be sent to the relevant public information officer of the department that the applicant is seeking information from. The CPIO (Chief Public Information Officer) can verify the IPO number by logging on to the ePO portal.
Commodore Batra had been continuously filing RTI applications since 2008 to relevant government departments which handle this issue like the ministry of finance, the Department of Personnel and Training (which implements the RTI Act), the Department of Posts (which can make e- payment possible), the National Advisory Council (NAC) and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). While initially the DoP had taken initiative to hasten the process, the RBI was sitting over it. Thereafter the DoP was waiting for a green signal from the ministry.
Following are some of the landmark communications accessed under RTI by Batra:
4 February 2011: Department of Posts had written to the RBI stating, “The Department of Posts has developed a portal called ‘e-portal’ office. We have received a reference from the secretary, Department of Personnel and Training, requesting to include a provision for the purchase of Indian postal orders by Indian citizens living abroad to enable them to seek information under the RTI Act, 2005. The challenge faced by the Indian citizens is in remitting the prescribed fee for seeking information as per the specified mode of the Act. The post office can provide a solution to this challenge, since the Indian postal order is one of the most prescribed modes of payment under the RTI Act. To put a system in place to facilitate this, we would require clearance to accept credit card/debit card for online payment from abroad through e-portal.”
15 June 2011: RBI’s reply to Commodore Batra’s RTI query on the status of letters from the Department of Posts stated: “The RBI has not taken a final decision on the request of the Department of Posts. As such this information cannot be given as per Section 8 of the RTI Act.”
3 February 2012: RBI (which had earlier denied Commodore Batra information under Section 8 of the RTI Act) it had sent its “no-objection” to the government. In a letter dated 3 February 2012 to the ministry of communications & IT, Department of Posts, Anita Kumari, manager of the RBI had stated, “the payment gateway provider will be Axis Bank” and “online payments from abroad should be made only through debit and credit cards issued by the bank having affiliations with one of the card payment networks authorised under the PSS Act 2007”.
12 December 2012: Department of Posts sets a deadline of 15 January 2013 (letter reproduced at the beginning of this article).
Some of the milestones in this citizen campaign include:
2008: Commodore Batra steered the campaign for Indians abroad, when he had a personal experience in 2008 when he was in the US. The date for his appeal before the Information Commission in Delhi was fixed while he was abroad, and then chief information commissioner, Dr Wajahat Habibullah, allowed the hearing through audio-conferencing. However, when he began to ask about regular RTI applications filed from the US, he found that Indians there faced many hurdles.
The Indian embassy in Washington put its hands up, saying that it could only accept RTI applications pertaining to queries related to its office, or at the most those related to the ministry of external affairs. Indians tried to impress upon the embassy that under Section 6(3) it is the duty of the PIO to forward applications not relevant to him, to the concerned departments. But the embassy refused to take responsibility. This triggered off his campaign.
2009: Commodore Batra filed a complaint with the Central Information Commission (CIC) in April 2009 against the ministries for not providing him the required information. Information Commissioner Annapurna Dixit gave an order on 16 April 2010 asking the Department of Personnel and Training to ‘formulate’ a system to “facilitate accessibility of the Act by Indians abroad”.
2010: Commodore Batra was joined by activists abroad. The campaign abroad was steered by RTI activist Vishal Kudchadkar, member of Association for India’s Development (AID), living in California. In 2010, a delegation of US-based Indian activists submitted their petition to prime minister Manmohan Singh, carrying 316 signatures from Indians residing in Australia, Burundi, Canada, Dubai, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Holland, Japan, Kuwait, Maldives, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, South Africa, UAE, the UK and the US. However, the PMO was silent on this issue (not surprising).
What the petition to the PM stated:
The petition said: “Our suggestion is that just as the government has facilitated APIOs by the postal department in India for all public authorities, along similar lines, the government should facilitate an APIO in each Indian Mission/Post in local embassies and charge fees equivalent to rupees.
”Alternatively, we suggest that arrangements may be made by the MEA, the administrative ministry for Indians abroad, for missions to accept RTI fees in foreign currency from applicants filing RTI to central public authorities, using the same procedure as they are hitherto doing for RTI applications concerning their own ministry. The mission’s role would be to accept the fee along with a copy of the passport to verify the citizenship and issue a receipt/E-receipt to the applicant for the fee. Thereafter, either the mission or the RTI applicant can forward the application to the concerned central public authority (PA) online… Any additional costs for providing the information can be remitted to the mission in the same way and the receipt/E-receipt given by the mission can serve as proof of payment.'”
Earlier stories on this issue:
(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”.)
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