Avalanche of Applications To Use, Defend, Protect RTI but Denial of Information Continues
As many as 375 Right to Information (RTI) applications have been filed in the past four months with public authorities of Aadhaar, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), police stations (where crimes of hate and mob lynching have been registered), mining and the judiciary, to prove, hearteningly, the point that citizens are not going to be cowed down by regressive amendments to the Right to Information Act.
An initiative of the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI), was to collaborate with other peoples’ collectives to launch the "Use RTI, Demand Accountability" campaign on 1 August 2019.
States Rakshita Swamy, member of NCPRI, "By coordinating the filing of RTIs at different locations across the country and collectively tracking government responses, the UseRTI campaign will give strength and support to lakhs of RTI applicants in villages, towns and districts across India. The collective filing of applications on a range of issues will counter the rhetoric of this government that all publicly relevant information is already being proactively disclosed and the need for the RTI is diminishing.’’
Presented below is a capsule of the RTIs filed so far and the information/denials received:
Aadhaar and Welfare:
UIDAI: A set of RTIs were filed by Rethink Aadhaar (A non-partisan campaign concerned about the Unique Identification or Aadhaar project) to track the modalities of its widening scope and to verify the claims UIDAI makes on the impact of Aadhaar on reducing corruption. However, information on the names of those corporations that used to have the licence to use Aadhaar-based e-KYC services and had their licences cancelled, was denied. The basis of that denial was the need for the government to protect the commercial confidence of these corporations. To challenge the UIDAI’s claim that Aadhaar has reduced leakages in the public distribution system (PDS) and other welfare programmes, another RTI asking for exact numbers of fake or duplicate ration cards, Jan Dhan accounts and PAN cards was filed. The UIDAI and its representatives have quoted these figures at various forums including in the Supreme Court when the linking of Aadhaar to welfare was challenged. However, the UIDAI deflected the query and responded by simply stating that this information was in the domain of various implementing agencies and ministries.
PDS: Of the 42 hunger-related deaths since 2017, 25 have been linked to Aadhaar where people with ration cards were unable to access the PDS because of Aadhaar authentication failures amongst other issues. Although, the Supreme Court in its Aadhaar judgement has clearly stated that no beneficiaries should be deprived of their rightful entitlement for want of Aadhaar, large-scale exclusions have been reported in Rajasthan and Odisha.
An RTI application was filed by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, with the department of food and public distribution, asking for a month-wise count of the number of ration cards on which authentication was tried at least once during the month but the beneficiary did not receive her entitlement for the year 2018-19. While the department has started publishing useful reports on beneficiaries who were given their entitlements through a 'manual override' in spite of failure in biometric authentication, but information on how many are denied entitlements because of failed transactions by Aadhaar or non-Aadhaar means 'is not available and maintained'. The government maintains no records, and therefore no responsibility, for the numbers of beneficiaries whose biometric authentication failed and for whom no 'manual override' was initiated, depriving them of their most basic legal entitlement to food security.
After two media reports stated that the ministry of rural development (MoRD) was considering proposals from states asking for permission to use machines (instead of human labour and banned under the law), an RTI plea was filed by NREGA Sangharsh Morcha. The ministry has now gone on record to say that “no requests to relax the rules on the use of machinery have been received in the ministry from the State governments of Andhra, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh.”
Also, the government claims that from 2017-18 onwards, 90% of the NREGA wage payments have been made on time, i.e., within 15 days of completion of work. This is despite independent studies and researchers pointing out that this figure is closer to 30%. Another RTI application was filed asking the ministry for the number of transactions in which payments of wages were made to workers beyond the statutory period of 15 days. The ministry’s response only directs the applicant towards an existing report which does not inform citizens of the full extent of the delay.
Hate Crimes and Lynching
Data shows that of the spate of close to 250 incidents of hate crimes, between 2009 and 2018, about 90% have taken place since 2014.
In 2018, the Supreme Court issued directives to state governments to curb the 'menace of mob lynching' by implementing preventive and remedial measures such as setting up fast track courts and special task forces, issue directives to police stations in 'sensitive areas' and review incidents and related orders in periodic meetings.
Over 300 RTI applications were filed by young lawyers with the Centre for Equity Studies, with the district collectors, DGPs and chief secretaries of five states, namely, Bihar, Haryana, Rajasthan, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh.
The responses received so far reveal that local administration has not responded with adequate seriousness. While some authorities have simply transferred the RTI queries to other departments, others have refused to provide any evidence of concrete steps taken to curb hate crimes such as minutes of meeting or even orders issued by the director general of police. Replies to the RTIs are still being received and we will continue to systematically track each response by district.
RTIs were filed by Environics Trust to access details on the number of mines, workers employed in mines, illegal mines, show cause notices issued to companies with mining leases for non-compliance of norms, forest land acquired for mining amongst other details. The RTIs exposed this government’s utter disregard of the law and its responsibility to regulate and monitor mining activities in the country.
RTI applications revealed that the government does not collect information on even the total number of workers engaged in mines across the country. How will the government regulate the welfare of mine workers and ensure that they work in conditions that are considered safe when they do not even know the number of mine workers in the country?
The government responded to a question on an RTI application that it does not collate information on the number of illegal mines in the country, whereas the same government as of 2016-17 had reported that there are 96,089 illegal mines operating in the country in response to a Parliamentary question. The Justice Shah Committee had also shown the massive scale of illegalities in mining amounting to Rs59,000 crore in its 2015 report. The response also revealed that government has no data on the number and location of closed mines.
There has been reason for the RTI community to celebrate when the Supreme Court declared that the office of the chief justice of India will come under the scope of the RTI and that transparency has no bearing on the independence of an institution.
RTI applications filed by the Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Judicial Reform before the judgement came out, seeking information about complaints received against judges, action taken under the in-house mechanism and action taken thereafter by the chief justice of India, were faced with denial citing various provisos including the need to respect the privacy of the people concerned. Hopefully this will change.
States Rakshita, “We will continue to file and track responses to these RTIs and appeals through this campaign over the next several months and will periodically publish the status of key RTIs through such press releases. We will also post a tracker and the actual RTIs and responses on a website in the coming month so that citizens and groups can collectively monitor and share the details of their RTIs with us.”
(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”