Will It Be A Case of Despair Amid Hope for RTI Act in Modi Government II?
‘Development’ and ‘governance’ are once again the two most used words as the second innings of the NDA government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is about to begin. In his speech after winning the elections he stated, "Ab hamara koyi paraaya nahin ho sakta hai. Jo humein vote dete hain, woh bhi hamare hain; jo hamara ghor virodh karte hain, who bhi hamare hain. (Now we cannot see anyone as an outsider. Those who voted for us are ours. Those who severely oppose us are also ours). This statement gives us hope that the Right to Information Act (RTI) will get the right respect, as transparency in information is the biggest strength of democracy that gives the citizen a feeling of `belonging’ with its government.
 
In fact, when the NDA government came to power in 2014, there were high expectations that the RTI Act would receive a boost. Soon after the government took over, the department of personnel and training (DoPT) issued a circular to all public authorities stating that the facility to upload the reply to RTI applications and first appeals on the website of the respective ministry or department should be started from October 31, to be available for all to view. Thereafter at the National CIC Convention in 2016, home minister Rajnath Singh in his speech stated that ``Government must be sensitive, corruption-free and accountable to people of the country. Thus, importance of RTI in these times has increased more than ever. It is an effective and strong mode of communication between people and the government.’’
 
However, as the NDA term progressed, it somersaulted on its own commitment. The RTI Act began getting strangulated systematically and cold-bloodedly. So, here’s wishing that NDA II will reverse some of its decisions that have been detrimental to transparency and have put information, which the public has the right to know, under secrecy. 
 
Till then, let’s have a look at the RTI’s killing fields from 2014 to 2019:
1. Mandatory public disclosures reduced to a bare minimum: As per a report in 2018 of the Central Information Commission (CIC), over 85% of the public authorities (PAs) have been reluctant to ensure mandatory disclosures under Section 4 of the RTI Act. This includes crucial information that needs to be suo motu transparent like “budget and programme, publicity and public interface and E-governance.’’ This despite the much tom-tommed circular by the DoPT.
 
2. Deliberate negligence in appointing Central Information Commissioners: With four CIC posts vacant and second appeal pendency increasing by the day, not the government that promised to strengthen the RTI Act, but it is the Supreme Court, which came to the rescue. Based on the petition of activists Anjali Bharadwaj, Amrita Johri and Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd) in 2018, the Supreme Court (SC) directed the Centre to publish names, criteria and other details of search committee’s work so far for appointments to the Central Information Commission, under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. 
 
3. Appointing only retired bureaucrats as CICs: Again in February 2019, the SC slammed the government, observing: ``It is difficult to fathom that persons belonging to one category only are always found to be more competent and more suitable than persons belonging to other categories. One category, namely, public service, i.e., they are the government employees. In fact, even the search committee, which short-lists the candidates, consists of only bureaucrats. For these reasons, official bias in favour of its own class is writ large in the selection process…We also expect that information commissioners are appointed from other streams, as mentioned in the Act and the selection is not limited only to the government employee/ex-government employee.
 
4. Government allegedly protecting accused in RTI whistle blower’s case: the Bombay High Court closed the sensational murder case of RTI activist Satish Shetty in January 2010 abruptly in 2019. This, despite CBI's (Central Bureau of Investigation's) intensive investigation into the murder that had led to a 10,000-page report that named 11 persons as accused, including a high-profile name like Virendra Mhaiskar, managing director of Ideal Road Builders (IRB). Surprisingly, CBI itself appealed to the High Court to hurriedly bring closure to the case, stating there is no evidence against Mhaiskar and the other accused. Strange and unfair to the whistleblower’ fraternity!
 
5. NDA govt puts Official Secrets Act over and above RTI Act: In March 2019, during a hearing in the Supreme Court regarding the Rafale deal case, Attorney General K K Venugopal had stated that the documents presented by the petitioners are protected by the Official Secrets Act and disclosure of the documents come under Section 8(i) of the RTI Act. To this, Justice K M Joseph responded that Section 22 of the RTI Act states that it is over and above the Official Secrets Act and that Section 24 of the RTI Act states that security and intelligence agencies are not exempt from the RTI Act. RTI Act states: `Section (8) (2) Notwithstanding anything in the Official Secrets Act, 1923 (19 of 1923) nor any of the exemptions permissible in accordance with sub section (1), a public authority may allow access to information, if public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm to the protected interests.”
 
6. Private companies in PPT model shielded under Section 8 of the RTI Act: For example, recently, the Adani group won rights to operate, manage and develop airports of Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Lucknow, Thiruvananthapuram and Mangalore by offering highest per-passenger fee (PPF), which is paid by the developer to the Airport Authority of India (AAI) of the relevant state. Unlike the Delhi and Mumbai airports, wherein the GMR and the GVK groups have entered into a 74:26 joint venture (JV) with AAI and have to share profits, the Adani group has been handed over the airports completely for itself for 50 years under the public- private partnership (PPP) model. Information under RTI is not forthcoming despite RTI activist Sanjay Shirodkar’s efforts.
 
With such a disappointing track record, one hopes for miracles by the government but in all probability citizens and activists will have to keep fighting and campaigning to keep this powerful citizen-friendly law, alive and kicking!
 
(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

    Veeresh

    3 months ago

    Personal hearings in context with RTI have become insults to self-respect in most cases and downright dangerous in some. The Public Grievance portal option for larger public good can be considered a more viable option though there too the tendency by the babus is to provide useless answers unless probed repetitively. Good luck to us, let's see what the PM says in his next message, because service delivery on the public grievance mechanism was supposed to be one of three priorities in 2014.

    CIC Asks I-T Department To Provide Cambata Aviation’s Balance Sheet under RTI
    In August 2016, Mumbai-based Cambata Aviation Pvt Ltd, one of the oldest ground services-provider at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, closed its operation without paying over 2,000 of its employees, their salaries and provident fund, which amounted to over Rs100 crore. This led to the state government filing a criminal complaint against the company.
     
    Aggrieved by non-receipt of his salary, an employee, Subramanian Ansari sought information from the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) in the office of deputy commissioner of income-tax (I-T) for certified copy of Cambata Aviation’s balance sheet and profit and loss account for 10 years from 1 April 2008 to 31 March 2017. He also asked for copies of the I-T department’s correspondence regarding closure of the company.
     
    The CPIO, however, denied disclosure of information under Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act 2005. When Mr Ansari filed his first appeal, the first appellate authority (FAA) directed the CPIO to contact the third party, that is, Cambata Aviation and request it to make a submission in writing regarding whether the information sought should be disclosed. Predictably, the company objected to the disclosure of information.
     
    Mr Ansari’s second appeal to the information commission came up for hearing, one and a half years later, on 18 April 2019. The CIC ordered the I-T office to promptly disclose all information to Mr Ansari, as it found the CPIO wrongfully taking shelter under Section 8 of the RTI Act. 
     
    The order issued by CIC Bimal Jhulka says, “Keeping in view the facts of the case and the submissions made by both the parties, it is the considered view of the Commission that it cannot be a mute spectator to the pitiable conditions being faced by the employees of the aviation company, which is seeking shelter under Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act. Therefore, considering the sensitivities of the matter as also in the light of the criticality of sustenance issues faced by its employees, the Commission instructs the respondent (the income tax department) to disclose point wise information as held and available with them to the appellant (Ansari)…in the larger public interest.’’
     
    As per the argument put forth by RTI applicant Mr Ansari during the CIC hearing, “Cambata Aviation had deprived salary and wages to more than 2,100 employees since March 2016 on the pretext of bad condition of finance and loss in the business resulting in extreme financial hardships to him and hundreds of other employees.”
     
    He further alleged that the company was also willfully defaulting in payment of statutory dues of provident fund (PF), sales tax (ST), insurance, employees state insurance corp (ESIC) and credit society.
     
    Mr Ansari was employed with Cambata Aviation at Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai since 1 March 1996 and had not received salary since March 2016. 
     
    The CIC observed in his order that, “…the company had deprived salary since March 2016 to its more than 2,100 employees on the pretext of bad condition of finance and loss in the business. On the other hand the company had given increments in January 2014, and recruited more than 800 employees in the year 2014 and 2015, which was a contradictory activity of Cambata Aviation.
     
    “Furthermore the company had not issued Form No. 16 for the period from 2014-15, to 2016-17 to its 2,100 employees, which aroused suspicion and compelled him (Mr Ansari) to file a RTI application for financial statements, which could unearth the scam of his company such as willfully defaulting statutory dues of PF, ST, insurance, ESIC and credit society.’’ 
     
    Mr Ansari was denied personal hearing for his first appeal due to which CIC Jhulka felt this raised suspicion in Mr Ansari’s mind that the “CPIO and FAA were indirectly helping Cambata Aviation under the pretext of Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act, 2005.”
     
    The CIC pointed out that information sought by Mr Ansari was clearly in the larger public interest and so cannot come under denial of information section. He cited the Supreme Court case of Girish Ramchandra Deshpande vs Central Information Commission &Ors.
     
    SLP(C) No. 27734 of 2012 dated 03/10/2012, which stated: “the details disclosed by a person in his income tax returns are ‘personal information’, which stand exempted from disclosure under clause (j) of Section 8(1)of the RTI Act, unless it involves a larger public interest and the Central Public Information Officer or the State Public Information Officer or the Appellate Authority is satisfied that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information.”
     
    The CIC order will hopefully, be implemented by the I-T department and provide ground for employees like Mr Ansari to further their cause.
     
    (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

    Ashley Christopher Pereira

    2 months ago

    Have always doubted these election results. Convinced now that they have been manipulated! More skeletons will tumble out in the coming days. THIS IS A MURDER OF DEMOCRACY!

    CBSE Students, Do Not Hesitate To Ask for Your Answer Sheets under RTI
    The Standard X and XII results for Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) are just out and, once again, there is heartburn even amongst the students who have scored over 90%. Some of them told me that they were sure of getting better marks in a particular subject and so were contemplating revaluation. When I suggested that they or their parents could put in a right to information (RTI) application to procure copies of their answer sheets, they found it useful but are hesitating to take the RTI route.
     
    For them and many more, who are wary of using RTI for reasons such as ‘the Principal may get offended’, ‘the school authorities may target them in their junior college years’ (some students have got admission in the same school’s junior college), it is time to understand that every student not only has the right to get his or her answer sheet from CBSE under RTI, but can also get the model answer sheet of the subject. 
     
    In 2018, the Supreme Court, had slammed CBSE for violating its 2015 order in which the Board was ordered to provide answer sheets as per RTI rules, that is, at Rs2 per answer sheet. CBSE finally has declared that it would supply answer sheets under the RTI Act. Therefore, every student who has any doubt about his or her marks must use RTI to know the truth. (Read: SC asks CBSE to provide answer sheets strictly under RTI Act without charging exorbitant fees)
     
    As noted RTI activist Vivek Velankar, who has relentlessly fought for students’ rights of procuring answer sheets in the University of Pune, states, “Most of the students go in for revaluation but it is of no use unless and until you get to see the copy of your answer sheet. Moreover, the student should also ask for the model answer sheet of that subject. Once he gets both the documents, he and his parents can assess whether they should go for revaluation or not. Opting for revaluation blindly is a useless exercise.’’ 
     
    He also adds that, “Sometimes the student is confident that he has given the right answers but often when the copy of the answer sheet and model answer sheet is seen, it might be a different story.”
     
    Mr Velankar also urges the CBSE Board “not to take 30 days for a student who is applying for his answer sheet under RTI as the information is readily available and it is a crucial period for both parents and students to know their marks as early as possible. Also, with the Supreme Court having ordered the CBSE to make answer sheets and model answer sheets, transparent, students and their parents need not fear the school authorities for, they know that they are bound by RTI.”
     
    In addition, parents and students should know that in a June 2018 order from the Central Information Commission (CIC), a student can also do inspection of files under Section 4 of the RTI Act, to procure his or her answer sheet and model answer sheet.
     
    RTI resource persons, Pradeep Bhatt and Vinot Ranganathan, who run a website www.onlinerti.com, state “There are no set of rules or standards that apply in examination evaluation by universities or education boards.
     
    There are no norms or any legal rights for the students over fraudulent practices or biased marking. This has created nightmares for millions of bright students and destroyed the future of promising students across India.
     
    Maintaining and giving answer copies may be extra workload for the educational institution, but it is not a reasonable excuse to deny this information under RTI.
     
    Evaluated answer copies have to be open to the public to ensure transparency in our education system. Any student who has got unexpectedly low marks or has failed is an aggrieved citizen. This student can demand to inspect his results so that the evaluators cannot use unjustified means to act against any student.”
     
    The student, in his or her RTI application, should ask for 1) the copy of his answer sheet of the relevant subject and 2) the model answer sheet of that subject.
     
    Just to recall the earlier events, the CBSE published a notification on 29 May 2018 on its website prescribing an exorbitant fee of Rs1,200 per subject for obtaining copies of the evaluated answer-sheets. 
     
    In response to this notification, a contempt petition was been filed against the CBSE chairman, in the Supreme Court appealing for initiating contempt proceedings against the CBSE chairman; setting aside the CBSE notice of 29th May prescribing the fees of Rs1,000 and Rs1,200 for obtaining copies of the evaluated answer sheets and directing the Board to provide copies of the evaluated  answer-sheets to examinees, only as per the provisions of the RTI Act and at the cost or fee prescribed under the Right to Information Rules, 2012. 
     
    The contempt petition was filed by Whistle of Public Interest (WHIP), for the willful and deliberate attempt of CBSE to surpass and overrule the authority of the apex court of the country. 
     
    Consequently, a division bench of the Supreme Court comprising Justices Ranjan Gogoi and PC Pant directed the chairman CBSE to scrupulously observe the directions of the Supreme Court issued in CBSE & Anr. Versus Aditya Bandhopadhyay & Ors., Civil Appeal No. 6454/2011 and provide copies of the evaluated answer-sheets as per the rules made under the RTI Act. 
     
    CBSE since then has been providing answer-sheets under RTI.
     
    You may also want to read…
     
     
     
    (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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