RTI activists plead with information commissioners to compel public authorities to put up mandatory data on Web

Over 5.5 lakh RTI applications were filed in Maharashtra in 2010, but the number of appeals were lower, according to the official annual report. Last week, activists discussed with state information commissioners the ways to make RTI more vibrant and effective

A total 5.5 lakh RTI applications were submitted to various government departments in Maharashtra in 2010, confirming the state's pre-eminent position in the use of the Right to Information and public activism. According to the annual report of the chief information commissioner Vilas Patil, of the total applications, 59,000 (or about 10%) went into first appeals. However, the number of second appeals declined from 23,000 in 2009 to 19,000 in 2010.

These numbers are encouraging. But there are issues to be sorted out to ensure effective use of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. Some of these issues were brought up at a meeting of the state information commissioners with regular RTI users, held at the office of the State Information Commission at Mantralaya on Friday.

RTI users, activists of the Mahiti Adhikar Manch and Maharashtra RTI Council, yesterday appealed to the seven information commissioners who were present at the meeting along with the chief commissioner to "enforce" on public authorities to suo moto disclose information on their websites, which is mandatory under Section 4 of the RTI Act.

In response to this plea, Mr Patil said he had sent a circular to about 350 public authorities across the state, in December 2010, directing them to do this by 31 January 2011. But he reported, sounding quite helpless, "About 60% of the public authorities have not even replied to me. What am I supposed to do? I suggest that RTI activists take up this matter with the chief secretary to ensure its implementation.''

Bhaskar Prabhu, convener of Mahiti Adhikar Manch and Maharashtra RTI Council, suggested that since YASHADA (the Yashwantrao Chavan Academy of Development Administration) had already worked out a format that facilitates monitoring of public authorities regarding suo moto disclosure under Section 4 of the Act, the information commission should use that to keep tab on them.

Navin Kumar, information commissioner for the Konkan Region, suggested that since there was a shortage of manpower, outsourcing to NGOs was a possibility. "Since the state commission has already drawn out a list of the 60% of those public authorities who have defied this rule, citizen groups could file RTI applications on each one of them, and file a complaint with the information commissioners, and we ensure you action."

Aurangabad information commissioner DB Deshpande said, "There are many instances of public authorities having followed this rule and having made their functioning transparent, like MSEDCL (Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company), PMC (Pune Municipal Corporation) and the University of Mumbai. The archaic system of punishment will not help.'' Activist Vijay Kumbhar suggested that if strong action is taken, like "issuing summons or levying penalty", public authorities would be motivated to adhere to Section 4.

On reducing pendency and hastening disposal of second appeals, Mr Kumar suggested that all ten posts of information commissioners should be filled, which means that three more officials should be added to the seven, currently. The average clearance of cases is around 300 per month. Activists lamented that "more than increasing the number of commissioners, the state should provide each information commissioner with full-fledged 'relevant' staff, in order to increase efficiency of disposing appeals." Mr Patil confessed that funds or manpower do not come by very easily.
 
Pune division state information commissioner Vijay Kuvlekar is said to have succeeded in reducing pendency, with a novel exercise to bringing the applicant and the appellate authority/PIO together on a one-on-one basis, to try and sort out the issue at that level. Of the 300 appeals, 200 were solved by mutual consent. Mr Kuvlekar suggested this could be one of the ways in reducing pendency. However, this line of action was unreasonably criticised by various quarters.

Mr Patil confessed that "most of the second appeals did not adhere to the norms of the RTI Act and were irrelevant. Many of them gave multiple appeals on the same issue, but we are compelled to go through each appeal, which wastes our time." Mr Kuvlekar pointed out that of the 2,700 appeals, 900 appeals belonged to 60 individuals.  Mr Patil said that "in Maharashtra much of the information is being successfully given by the public information officers and the first appellate authority. We have not received complaints about documents under the Adarsh case, etc." He says information commissioners are left with a large number of trash appeals.
 
Regarding digitalisation and computerisation of the State Information Commission's website, Mr Kuvlekar suggested a public-private partnership in which no money will be involved, but citizens and citizen groups come forward to undertake the digitalisation work. Mr Patil confessed that a sanction of Rs18 lakh to upgrade the website is still pending with the state government.
 
The two-hour interaction session concluded with the information commissioners agreeing to take up the compliance with Section 4 as top priority, with the help of citizens' groups, and towards having a full strength of ten information commissioners.

Comments
Nagesh Kini FCA
10 years ago
Govt. and civic offices are not provided with internet that can save a lot on communication costs.
Where ever internet exists the results can be great.
I got an immediate RTI Appeal response to my appeal on the internet. Also to my complaint to the Insurance Ombudsman.
P M Ravindran
Replied to Nagesh Kini FCA comment 10 years ago
Sorry to disappoint you Mr Kini. Internet is only a tool, a media but what matters is the attitude of the user. I am glad that you had a few good experiences of public authorities responding to you through e mail. But here is one case where I filed an online complaint with the Central Information Commission about a long pending 2nd appeal and I got an automated acknowledgement also in the form of a complaint number. But after one month when I checked up the status of that complaint it was seen that no action had been taken pending receipt of signed copies of the complaint! I send the signed copies of the complaint by post and again checked after one month and the result was the same-no action has been taken pending receipt of the signed copy of the complaint!
nagesh kini
Replied to P M Ravindran comment 10 years ago
The pleasant experiences must be acknowledged and placed on record.
There is no harm in giving the devil its due, when someone does good work.
In all cases constant followup elicits results.
P M Ravindran
Replied to nagesh kini comment 10 years ago
No doubt the devil too must be given its due. But believe you me, in the 100 odd applications I had filed under the rti act and followed upto the 2nd appeal stage, I haven't got satisfactory response even in a single one of them. And mind you all of them have been in the domain of public interest and in the spirit of citizen oversight over the functions of public authorities. The subversion of law, including the rti act itself, is shocking!
C Jyoti
10 years ago
The comments are all very relevant to understand the true attitude of the Indian bureaucracy to the basic idea and purpose of the RTI, both as a movement and also as an Act of Parliament. Politicians are what all of us know they are. One CM's assets increase by several crores in two years while a non entity, fresh in politics, rises to power and becomes a multi-billionare in less than ten years--all with the toothless Acts in operation,viz., Income Tax Act, PCA, etc. Not one communication in writing from any govt. office/official carries the e-mail contact address of the issuing office or the signatory to the letter/notice/communication. Citizens are required to carry ID proof, but anybody can enter into one's house claiming to be from the municipality or police or some govt. office. About the police in India, less the better as they have license to kill. Despite all this, the real operators/administrators of the country, the IAS/IPS/IPS, etc., will never like to see that the people are given the real power. RTI has become an instrument in the hands of the very officers about whom any information ois ever sought and they then seek to "settle accounts" with the applicants. In the income tax department, the officers concerned and their staff openly threaten the RTI applicants and as a result there is hardly any RTI application about/against any action by corrupt officers. In the police, RTI is an anathema--any application about any police action tantamounts to treason in the eyes of the state/police. Unless and until the RTI activists of the mettle of Mr. Kini are able to force the govt. to make it mandatory to ensure that all govt. communications carry the e-mail ID/address(es) of the office/officer(s) concerned and also that, in the absence of the said information, no citizen would be required to treat the communication as official, our bureaucracy will not "behave". A retired civil servant showed me the record of dozens od emails sent to the MCD Commissioner and the TRAI which were never replied to or even acted upon.
The sum and substance of the matter is that the RTI is a non-starter in this false democracy.
P M Ravindran
Replied to C Jyoti comment 10 years ago
E mail may be high tech for the ignoramuses crowding our public offices but have you seen even the PIN codes in the address of these public authorities? And the contents are also mostly non-decodable!
Nagesh Kini FCA
10 years ago
Good for God's own country Kerala!
It is only non-babus like Sailesh Gandhi who make for good information commissioners/ICs.
What is so special about superannuated babus or retired judges as ICs?
Consumer Courts make do with activists and deliver.
We are no better in Maharashtra!
P M Ravindran
10 years ago
Yesterday, that is 12 Mar 2012, activists from all over Kerala held a dharna in front of the Kerala State Information Commission at Thiruvananthapuram. In one sentence the dharna was against the subversion of the RTI Act by the information commissioners themselves. It was interesting to note that all the 4 information commissioners had addressed a press conference a day earlier, repeating the usual platitudes and the big time media had not even bothered to report it, at least not in editions beyond Thiruvananthapuram! Kudos to the media for not not being party to misleading the public!
TD Sharma
10 years ago
P M Ravindran is very correct. Our bureaucracy is indeed thoroughly corrupt and anti-national, in every respect. At least, the top level. This is the only country which has to shamelessly advertise PATRIOTISM over the media, even after seven decades of independence won at the cost of the blood and lives of martyrs conveniently forgotten by the new KINGS. Corruption has become the official religion of the country, especially of the bureaucracy. The going rate for obtaining a completion certificate from the MCD is a minimum of Rs. 9 lakhs as last heard--and the rate goes up depending upon the location, area of the plot/property, etc. BSES, etc, DJB, and all govt./semi-govt. establishments are nakedly corrupt only because the top echelons are corrupt. Thus RTI is indeed a non-starter and, in most cases, the experience of the applicants is most insulting and heartbreaking, like that of an organisation (of retrenched workers of an erstwhile sterling company in Bengal) running a hospital and expanding their activities too. Someone may inquire as to how their RTI application for the obtaining 100% tax exempt donations was rejected twice by the top heavy committee in the CBDT. And this hospital commenced its bigger unit at another place on the 26th Jan this year. The reasons for rejection of the application for obtaining the benefit are too clear.

A BANERJEE
1 decade ago
Thanks for the piece.
RTI in India sadly remains a non starter for the commoners, in my opinion. An indicator of the attitude of the bureaucracy to this potent weapon is the fact inter alia that not one single government communication carries the e-mail address of the sender of the letter. The hesitant and shy bureaucrats of India are not at all interested in transparency and hence hide behind all sorts of facades. They do not have the culture or breeding necessary to impel them to respond to the letters from the public and there is no law or custom requiring them to do so either. The same with the huge corporates who shy away from giving their e-mail contact addresses.
For the RTI to succeed and become purposively functional, the law must be amended suitably to compel the government officials of all levels and the corporates to clearly mention their e-mail contact addresses in all communications and products.
P M Ravindran
Replied to A BANERJEE comment 10 years ago
Please, do not consider our bureaucrats shy and hesitant. They are corrupt and treacherous! The information provided and those not provided, under the RTI Act, speaks volumes for their anti-people and hence anti-national traits.
nagesh kini
1 decade ago
Thanks a lot Vinita for reporting on the SIC meet with RTI Activists.
Like any lay citizen, I'd want basic information. If the query is correctly worded and focused without being a fishing expedition going long winded and there is an adequate positive response to enable me to make use of the information provided, I see no reason to go in appeal at all.
All that is required to enlighten the lay citizen how to frame the query to elicit the right response and not go on to cross by asking why, how and the like.
The proposed PPP approach with the active participation of dedicated activists and organizations like Mahiti Adhikar Mach can go a long way.
RTI can be the forerunner to a more effective Lok Pal because of the information that is provided by the appropriate authority.
Nitin Kirtane
1 decade ago
Yes it is very valid that RTI appeals must be disposed in the right time, yes there should be right staff to clear these appeals also , hope government looks into this subject also , yes there should be digitalisation computerisation of the website also , a superb article again Mrs Deshmukh, you are doing excellent social and RTI work, we need devoted activists like you and your knowledge in RTI is very good also , keep up the good work NK
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