Over 45 Right to Information (RTI) activists came together on Wednesday to take a strong stand on the constant devaluation of the RTI act and the propensity of politicians and bureaucrats to label activists seeking legitimate information as blackmailers and extortionists, without making any push to identify or punish those who may, in fact, be guilty of abusing the act. The #RTIBachao campaign initiated at the meeting seeks better accountability of government and demands that information, as envisaged under Sec 4 of the RTI act must be put in the public domain.
The activists met at Moneylife Foundation's office at Dadar under the guidance of former Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi and endorsed his demand that the BMC publish all RTI queries and their replies on its website to prevent any information being misused by vested interests. "Insisting on compliance with Section 4 of the RTI Act in line with the Office Memorandum issued by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) and Government Resolution issued by Maharashtra government. We demand that all RTI applications and responses be displayed on the website as mandated. This will reduce the need for RTI applications and any charge of blackmail," Mr Gandhi said.
It was also decided to collectively write to Ajoy Mehta, Commissioner of BrihanMumbai Municipal Corp (BMC), and meet him personally to ask him to issue a circular that officials cannot denigrate RTI users calling them blackmailers and to strongly demand a reversal of BMC's illegal action in declaring Praja Foundation as persona non grata. Deciding to stand with Praja, several activists offered to file RTI applications on behalf of Praja to ensure that it continues to get the information it is seeking and defeat the BMC's action against it.
The meeting was attended by activists such as Gerson da Cunha, Sumaira Abdulali, Naina Kathpalia, Praja Foundation's Nitai Mehta and his colleagues, Save our Land, and Bombay Catholic Sabha's Dolphy D'Souza, Citizens Justice Forum's Sulaiman Bhimani, Moneylife Foundation's Sucheta Dalal, and individual activists like Samir Zaveri, Prakash Munshi, AV Shenoy, Shirish Shanbhag, Sudhir Badami, IK Chhugani, Kamlakar Shenoy, Mohammed Afzal and Chetan Shah. Former Assistant Police Commissioner Vilas Tupe was also present during the meeting. Pune-based Sanjay Shirodkar, who championed the anti-toll campaign, was also present during the meeting.
Mr Gandhi has already filed RTI applications he had used 'Shailesh Gandhi Praja' as name and received reply to one of his queries. Ms Kathpalia of Citispace said that her organisation has used this strategy effectively in the past.
During the meeting, activists also decided to launch a contact programme to communicate with all municipal corporators and members of legislative assembly (MLAs) to raise this issue in the BMC House as well as the state legislature. Some activists also mooted a campaign through public meetings to make public aware of the injustice done to genuine RTI activists by painting all information seekers as blackmailers.
Mr Gandhi informed the activists the actions suggested by the Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) set up by the BMC to increase transparency and accountability. Mr Gandhi, in his letter to the BMC Commissioner had said, "...when the TAC started insisting on its recommendations being followed you disbanded it in an uncouth manner. I might point out that if RTI applications and responses were put on the website, no blackmailing could occur. Since TAC was actively pursuing these and pointing out the huge gaps, you took a decision to disband it. If these transparency measures had been followed, BMC would have gained citizen's respect and better governance would have been possible. I agree that there would have been a huge reduction in the bribes and the corruption revenue would have taken a downturn."
Mr Gandhi also cited on records statements made by BMC officials Nidhi Choudhari and Devendra Jain. Mr Jain, who is Assistant Municipal Commissioner in BMC had filed a police compliant naming 70 citizens, majority of them RTI users, as 'extortionists and blackmailers'. However, Mr Jain could not provide any evidence and was reprimanded by the State Information Commission (SIC).
In an order issued in October 2017, BMC Commissioner Mr Mehta allegedly declared Praja, an NGO and its employees as 'persona non grata', which resulted in BMC officials refusing to respond to RTI queries from the NGO.
Drawing an analogy with the phrase 'the chain is as strong as its weakest link', Mr Mehta from Praja Foundation stated that the BMC has become the weakest link for the city, with the undemocratic approach of the Municipal Commissioner. "BMC has no issues in supplying information asked under RTI to us. The problems occurs when we put out all this information and our analysis in public domain," he added.
In July 2017, Praja Foundation made public its annual report on public health, which seems to have angered officials from the BMC. The Report, based on information gathered through RTI data shared by the BMC, pointed out how the Municipal Corporation had doubled its budget for TB prevention programme despite 50% of participants leaving the programme. The report also exposed how one out of three children in BMC schools was malnourished. Rejecting analysis of Praja Foundation, the BMC blacklisted the NGO and since then have been denying any information asked under RTI Act to the NGO and its employees.
In the aftermath of the Kamala Mills fire, the BMC Commissioner had allegedly blamed an unholy nexus between officers and so called activists at ward level for the tragedy.