RTI Amendment 2019 notwithstanding; RTI remains a powerful tool for citizen empowerment
If more and more citizens conduct inspection of files under Section 4 in the offices of the public authorities, file RTI applications under Section 6 and if activists campaign for Jan Soochna (public information) portals in every State, like the one recently launched in Rajasthan where most suo motu disclosures under Section 4 have been uploaded, then the mischievous amendments made to the RTI Act recently, would be nullified. 
 
These expert views were made on the RTI event held last Friday in The Poona Club, Pune, to commemorate the 14th anniversary of the RTI Act (which falls on 12th Oct), by the Pune RTI Cell of Moneylife Foundation. 
 
A panel of eminent RTI activists headed by Shailesh Gandhi, former Central Information Commissioner, included Qaneez Sukhrani, Vijay Kumbhar, Vivek Velankar and Sarang Yadwadkar. The topic of discussion “How to use RTI: Experts guide you” revolved around making participants aware of the Act, guiding and encouraging them on how to use it for their day-to-day issues. 
 
 
Shailesh Gandhi stated that, “despite the government’s amendments made in the RTI Act recently, it still remains one of the most powerful Acts in the world and continues to be the best tool for information access for any citizen. Besides, getting information is also our constitutional right under Article (19) of the Constitution of India.’’
 
Vivek Velankar, who has persistently procured information under RTI, for toll charges on the Pune-Mumbai Expressway and for various issues in the Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU),  urged the audience to “actively use Section 4 which allows you to conduct inspection of files. If you file a RTI application under Section 6, the Public Information Officer has a period of 30 days to reply to you, whereas; if you go to the office of the relevant public authority to inspect files, you can immediately get the information you want, by going through the files and requesting Photostat copies there and then. Also, instead of asking for any specific pages, ask for the photocopy of the entire file which contains documents relating to the subject. After that, go through them at your leisure and besides finding the information you have sought, you may have a surprise on additional details you may get on the issue.’’
 
 
Qaneez Sukhrani, who has taken up the issues of illegal hoardings in Pune city and illegal induction of  local politicians’ cronies in citizen committees of the Pune Municipal Corporation and sidelined NGOs whose representation is mandatory, stated that, “we should not use RTI for time pass but to solve your problem or pursue a social issue to the logical end. It is not enough to file RTI applications under Section 6; I ensure I hand over my application and make good talk with the Public Information Officer (PIO) who is usually unwilling to part with information. I tell him that he should, for a moment, forget that he is on the other side, and think of himself as a citizen of the country, who has the right to get information. Follow up to your RTI application is very necessary, for which you should continuously hound the PIO. ’’
 
Vijay Kumbhar, who was the first RTI activist in the country to conduct inspection of files under Section 4, in the Pune Municipal Corporation way back in 2006 and gives guidance to hundreds of citizens through his RTI Katta at a public garden, stated that, “citizens would not have to file RTI applications under Section 6 if public authorities upload information on their website, which is mandatory under Section 4. The Jan Soochna portal recently launched by the Rajasthan government is historic in terms of citizen access to information. Information on 23 state government schemes has been uploaded in great detail. If you click on the MNERGA scheme, you will get a list of beneficiaries, payments made to them, in every taluka of the state. We should all moot for a similar portal by all the state governments so that even the PIOs will not be burdened with RTI applications which they often crib about”
 
 
Sarang Yadwadkar, meticulously campaigns against encroachment on river banks in Pune and has gathered scandalising information under RTI regarding tampering of the red and blue line demarcation of the Panchganga River in the Kolhapur Development Plan, due to pressure of the builder lobby, which resulted in horrible floods recently. He stated that, “I’ve been using RTI along with Velankar for river bed encroachments in Pune and have gone to National Green Tribunal, based on the vital information I got under RTI. Similarly, RTI information showed that 1250 acres of land in Kolhapur’s river banks were converted to residential and commercial zones resulting in heavy floods that saw large scale destruction. Citizens can no more ignore this issue and should use RTI to find out if they are buying property in such controversial zones.’’
 
 
The panelists also discussed the contentious issue of the RTI Act being tarnished for blackmailing. All of them stated unanimously that if information is uploaded in the public domain, there would be no question of any blackmail and besides if the officer can get blackmailed, it implies that he has done something wrong, which shows up in the documents. So, although uploading of files is mandatory under the RTI Act and can ensure transparency, there has been reluctance, ever since the RTI Act was implemented in 2005 and no prizes for guessing, the reasons why.
 
The event concluded with a series of questions from the enthusiastic audience. This included a motley group of Rotary Club members and a couple of academics. The subjects included real estate, the recent Amendments, housing society problems and so on. Happy and contented with the session, some of them urged Moneylife to hold RTI programmes, regularly.
 
(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”.)
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    COMMENTS

    GLN Prasad

    2 weeks ago

    There may be hundreds of success stories but there are still lakhs of unsuccessful applicants and even public authorities are smart, they know as to who is seeking information, what should only be given, to whom only it should be given. Unless the penalties are made mandatory, only those who can prevail with their expertise can only benefit and a common man is always the loser.

    M Haridas

    2 weeks ago

    What i find missing is an honest effort to force the govt at the States and at the Centre to prepare a wikipedia or a moving list of RTI queries already answered or pending disposal. I find the replication of a query is a waste of time.

    RTI and the Supreme Court: Justice Ravindra Bhat’s Appointment Revives Hope
    Ten years ago, Justice Ravindra Bhat, then a judge in the Delhi High Court upheld a decision by Central Information Commission (CIC) that the office of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) is public authority under the Right to Information (RTI) Act and therefore judges’ assets should be made public. 
     
    The Supreme Court (SC) filed an appeal, but Delhi HC had dismissed it. Last week, Justice Bhat has been appointed as a Supreme Court judge, along with three others.
     
    Ironically, his order bringing the SC under RTI has now been undone. The central public information officer (CPIO) of the Supreme Court and Secretary General of the Supreme Court have filed a petition against Justice Bhat’s order. 
     
    In April 2019, a five judge bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi had reserved Justice Bhat’s order. During the hearing, CJI Gogoi had stated “in the name of transparency, you can’t destroy the institution.”
     
    Attorney General Venugopal had argued during the hearing that if the CJI office comes under the RTI Act, it will affect judicial independence and cause ‘damage’.
     
    In the backdrop of Justice Bhat’s appointment to the apex court, it is worth recollecting the case and the issues reaised. A simple request for information on whether judges are declaring assets to their respective chief justices turned into a contentious issue of privacy versus public information.
     
    On 10th November, 2007, RTI activist Subhashchandra Agrawal had filed a request with the CPIO of the Supreme Court seeking a copy of the resolution dated 7 May 1997 of the SC requiring every judge to decalred assets and; to provide information on whether any such declaration of assets were filed by judges of the Supreme Court to the CJI and whether High Court judges are submitting declaration about their assets to their respective Chief Justices in their States.
     
    While the CPIO provided a copy of the 1997 resolution, he denied information relating to judges’ declaration of assets.  He replied that the inforamation is under the control of the Registry of the Supreme Court and, therefore it could not be furnished. 
     
    When Mr Agrawal appealed to the first appellate authority (FAA), the latter reprimanded the CPIO and said that he should have transferred the application to the CPIO of the Registry, as per the RTI Act. So, the FAA sent back the application to the CPIO for further perusal.
     
    However, the CPIO of registry not only denied information but reprimanded Mr Agrawal in his reply saying, “In the case at hand, you yourself knew that the information sought by you is related to various High Courts in the country and instead of applying to those public authorities you have taken a short circuit procedure by approaching the CPIO, Supreme Court of India remitting the fee of Rs10 payable to one authority and getting it referred to all the public authorities at the expense of one CPIO. In view of this, the relief sought by you cannot be appreciated and is against the spirit of Section 6 (3) of the RTI Act, 2005.”
     
    Mr Agrawal then filed a second appeal at the CIC. During the hearing, the CPIO of the Supreme Court submitted that the 1997 Resolution was an in-house exercise; and declaration regarding assets by judges is only voluntary and that the resolution describes the submissions as “confidential”. Further, he said that those judges who have submitted declarations to the Chief Justice have done so in their personal capacity and not official capacity and so any disclosure of informationwould be violation of the 1997 resolution.
     
    The CIC reasoned that the Supreme Court was established by the Constitution of India and is a public authority; the Chief Justice of India is the competent authority, under the RTI Act, so both cannot disclaim being public authorities.
     
    The CIC also observed that Mr Agrawal is apparently not seeking a copy of the declarations or the contents therein or even the names of the judges who have filed a declaration of assets, nor is he requesting inspection of such declarations. All he has asked is whether such declaration of assets have been filled by judges of the Supreme Court or High Courts. What he was seeking, said the CIC, cannot be held to attract exemption under Sections 8(1)(e) or 8(1) (j). 
     
    The CIC ordered the CPIO to provide the required information. 
     
    The CPIO then filed a petition with the Delhi High court against the CIC order. Justice Bhat, in his order on 2 September 2009 ordered that, “CPIO shall release the information sought by the respondent applicant, about the declaration of assets, (and not the contents of the declarations, as that was not sought for) made by judges of the Supreme Court, within four weeks.”
     
    Instead of abiding by the order, the CPIO again filed a writ petition against it and this time, the Registrar of the Supreme Court became a co-petitioner and filed an appeal in the Supreme Court. The matter came up for hearing in April 2019 with the Supreme Court hearing an issue that involved its own disclosures. The order is reserved.
     
    It will be interesting to see what happens to this issue. 
     
    (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”.)
     
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    COMMENTS

    P M Ravindran

    2 weeks ago

    This is a classic case exposing the perfidy and waywardness of our judiciary. While the courts never tire of telling how transparent they are just because they hold hearings in open court, the fact remains that they have kept their judicial functions out of purview of the RTI Act. In the case dealt with here the information sought wasn't even about this illegally exempted information. It was definitely on the administrative side. And all those who adjudicated on the appeals- from the CIC (a s a full bench!) to the benches of the Delhi HC- had rightly ordered the info to be declared. The CJI, if he gives a different verdict would only be digging another nail into the coffin of judicial credibility.

    Incidentally there seems to be some errors in the report here. The declarations are submitted to the CJI and CJs of the HCs. So in the SC, the CJI, as the deemed CPIO, was the public servant required to provide the information sought. The application was reportedly transferred to the CJI who then illegally (or call it abusing his authority) declared his office as out of purview of the RTI Act.

    Interestingly, the application and controversies were rendered null and void, except technically, when some upright judges came forward to publish their returns voluntarily and most of the rest, if not all, had to follow suit.

    Deepak Narain

    3 weeks ago

    The conduct of the concerned authorities denying information on one pretext or the other is not praise-worthy and only spoils the image of the top judicial body of the country.

    Rajasthan, Which Pioneered the RTI Movement, Launches Unique Portal for Suo Moto Disclosures
    The trend of central and state public authorities ignoring suo motu disclosures, mandatory under Section 4 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, dates back to the day of its implementation on 12 October 2005. 
     
    Over the years, innumerable memorandums from the Department of Personnel & Training (DoPT) to the public authorities have been ignored. Close on the heels of the 14th anniversary of the RTI Act, we have good news comes from Rajasthan, the state that pioneered the RTI movement. 
     
    Rajasthan has launched the Jan Soochna Portal which will display all information that ought be voluntarily disclosed by public authorities under the RTI Act.
     
    The information will be open to public scrutiny at the click of a mouse and without having to file and RTI application. I will display issues related to 13 departments comprising around 30 government schemes. These include public distribution and ration; farm loans; pensions; beneficiaries of Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA); food grain distribution; government-run medical and health insurance schemes; land extract details to give a few examples.
     
     
    Thus, citizen empowerment would be at its strongest. As you go through the website you will find documents pertaining to these issues have already been neatly uploaded. While the home page has an introduction in Hindi and English, information on every public authority is available at a click on their logo.
     
    The home page of the portal http://jansoochna.rajasthan.gov.in/ states: “The Government of Rajasthan is proud to launch the Jan Soochna Portal, conceptualized in collaboration with peoples' campaigns of Rajasthan”. This is the first public portal of its kind in the country aimed at disclosing information on a suo-moto as required under Section 4(2) of the RTI Act.
     
     “It shall be a constant endeavour of every public authority to take steps in accordance with the Act, to provide as much information suo-moto to the public at regular intervals through various means of communication, including the internet, so that the public have minimum resort to the use of this Act to obtain information.
     
    This endeavour is a result of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) activists, Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey, who were in the forefront of the RTI movement in India. At the inauguration of the portal by Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot last week, Mr Dey said that the objective of ensuring easy access to the public of information that is rightfully theirs to seek under the RTI Act, was achieved through the joint effort of the Gehlot government and MKSS.
     
    Pune-based RTI activist, Vjay Kumbhar, who attended the inauguration in Jaipur says, “This is the true implementation of Section 4’s suo motu disclosures under the RTI Act and is going to give the common person utmost relief. For, with the click of the mouse, she can procure even third party information entirely. For example information on the MNREGA scheme along with the muster roll has been uploaded. The Rajasthan government and MKKS have done a thorough and ideal job of providing information access under RTI.  This will drastically reduce the number of RTI applications filed under Section 6.’’
     
    Against the backdrop of the Centre’s RTI Amendment Act 2019, which weakened the law through an assault on the independence of the Information Commissioners, the pro active attitude of the Rajasthan government in launching this web portal deserves  appreciation. It eliminates all the hassles of filing RTI applications, followed by first and second appeals. 
     
    So, how does one use this portal? All you need to do is go past the home page of http://jansoochna.rajasthan.gov.in/ to the page that has logos of the 13 government schemes. Click on the one you require and it opens to several relevant documents uploaded in pdf format. The next step planned by the Gehlot government is to develop an APP of this portal so that information can be accessed through the smart mobile.
     
    If, every state government follows Rajasthan’s example, the adverse effects of the RTI Amendments 2019 would be nullified. Kudos to this citizen-friendly venture, where governance becomes pro-active and transparent.
     
    (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”.)  
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