The Indian government has, early this month, suddenly decided to stop non-resident Indians (NRIs) from filing online applications under Right to Information (RTI) through the e-IPO way, which they fought for so hard for in 2013. With a whopping 176 Indian Missions abroad showing favourable responses to RTI applications from Indians abroad, the latter is upset at this knee-jerk decision.
This decision was revealed not through an announcement but in the Lok Sabha on 8 August 2018, when Jugal Kishore, member of Parliament (MP) asked, “Whether non-resident-Indians (NRIs) are also eligible to file online RTI applications and if so the procedure aid down in this regard.” (http://184.108.40.206/loksabhaquestions/annex/15/AU3535.pdf)
Dr Jitendra Singh, minister of state in the ministry of personnel, public grievances and pensions and who is also the minister of state in the prime minister’s office (PMO), stated, “Only citizens have the right to seek information under the provisions of RTI Act, 2005. Non-residents are not eligible to file RTI applications.”
The minister blundered in saying only citizens have the right to file applications under RTI and NRIs cannot. This is because NRIs are Indian citizens. What the minister probably meant was all Indians abroad.
This is in total contrast of the office memorandum issued on 22 March 2013 by the department of personnel & training (DoPT) under the ministry of personnel, public grievances & pensions.
This circular states that a special service called ‘e-IPO’ (electronic Indian Postal Order) has been launched for Indians living abroad to facilitate them to seek information from the central public information officers (CPIOs) under the RTI Act. Debit and credit cards were allowed to be used to purchase e-IPO.
Also, the government then in its circular had stated under Right of NRIs: “…under the current provisions of the RTI Act, NRIs can file RTI applications seeking information from either from a particular Mission or Post abroad or from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) itself. Accordingly, a fee of Rs10 per application equivalent in local currency is accepted by Missions and Posts abroad.”
Thereafter, the campaign focused on e-IPO where you could buy the Indian postal online and the citizens triumphed.
Electronic postal order was a big achievement for Indian citizens abroad, who had been pressing the government for the five years to facilitate them in nation building by exercising their right to know. Their victory finally came in 2012 after several Indians living in different countries sent a petition to the then Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh.
Expressing shock over the development to bar NRIs from using RTI, Commodore Lokesh Batra, a noted Delhi-based RTI activist, who had been at the helm of this campaign to facilitate e-IPO so that Indians abroad can use RTI, states, “the Centre’s response in the Lok Sabha is misleading. NRIs are shocked and are raising questions over the government statement denying their right to file RTI when they have been doing so since the last five years. What has changed they ask. They also find this ridiculous that they are allowed to vote from their countries of karma but have been thrown out from the arena of transparency.”
Commodore Batra had filed more than 150 RTI applications in various relevant departments since 2008 and consistently pressured the government to provide online payment facilities for RTI fees.
He questions the sluggish attitude of the central information commission (CIC) in fighting this out with the government. He also slams the government for lack of public knowledge and consultations regarding this vital issue.
The efforts That went into empower NRIs in filing RTI applications:
4 February 2011: Department of Posts wrote to the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) stating, “The Department of Posts has developed a portal called ‘e-portal’ office. We have received a reference from the Secretary, DoPT 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. Anita Kumari, manager of the RBI, in a letter to the Ministry of Communications & IT, Department of Posts, on 3 February 2012 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.
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 threw 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 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 DoPT 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 the then prime minister Singh, carrying signatures from 316 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.”
Our earlier stories:
(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”