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”.