Moneylife Digital Team 17 February 2014

To put it at a very basic level, the RTI Act helps citizens get access to information held by public authorities. The definition of information is not clear. Many RTI applications are rejected in the name of being outside the definition of information.

To understand the definition of ‘information’, I did a Google search and landed on these two links: http://rti.gov.in/rti-act.pdf and http://rti.gov.in/rticorner/guideonrti.pdf  
Both these defined ‘information’ as “Information is any material in any form. It includes records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form. It also includes information relating to any private body which can be accessed by the public authority under any law for the time being in force.”

Here the term “data material held in any electronic form” can give a new meaning. Can it also mean that the code which powers the software written and used by public authorities comes under the purview of RTI Act? Instead of arguing whether it qualifies or not, let’s just assume that it does and consider the implications:

(a) The first and topmost in this list should be the code that powers UIDAI. I personally feel that the people behind UIDAI lack the technical expertise to execute a project of such scale. The vendors haven’t executed projects of such scale and whatever large-scale project they lay their claim to has been poorly designed. The registration statistics released by UIDAI would put Google and Facebook to shame as they haven’t been able to enrol these many users as UIDAI has done in this span of time. The rate of daily Aadhaar cards generated puts a question mark on that number. Leaving aside the controversy surrounding UIDAI, if the source code and architecture of UIDAI is placed in public domain, it would receive feedback on how to improve it, like the way open-source software gets improved. And this will also save taxpayers’ money.

(b) The code and systems that powers IRCTC’s website, which is a point of pain for those booking tatkal tickets, if open-sourced for the public to study, can be improved significantly. When Google can build a scalable search engine which has stood its ground for a decade, then we can build a scalable reservation platform. Suggestions can be taken to improve the hardware or software algorithms can be enhanced.

(c) Other systems that could improve might be TRACES and MCA21. Instead of having them managed by a vendor and taking their suggestions on improving the performance, it would be more beneficial to have a hundred eyes study the system and get their suggestions vetted by the same community. This is the beauty of open-source software. It is a community effort.

(d) Security loopholes can be fixed for government websites which would have otherwise been hacked.

The entire source code/system can’t be made available for the public to study. Except for the critical parts, the rest can be made available to download and study. This is something which has been happening in the US. The US government has open-sourced the code for many of its systems. Many companies also open-source part of their source code; for example, Facebook open-sourced their hardware architecture. Some have also open-sourced their source code like Microsoft, IBM, Google, Apple, Facebook and, most recently, our own Flipkart. Goldman Sachs has also open-sourced certain pieces of their code.

It would be great, if public authorities voluntarily open their systems to be studied. This could be done by hosting them on in-house servers allowing public to download and providing a feedback mechanism. Over the long term, a community can also be developed surrounding them. RTI should enable citizens to get access to this.
Pravesh Pandya, Hyderabad, by email  

While the proposal to demonetise currency notes of Rs500 and Rs1,000 is understandable, making all pre-2005 notes illegal seems to be farfetched. To the best of my information, counterfeiting of only Rs500 and Rs1,000 notes is taking place. Not a single case of counterfeiting of currency notes of denominations less than Rs500 has been reported during the last two decades.

In that case, there is no point invalidating smaller denomination notes of Rs100 and less. For no justifiable reason, there will be a mammoth waste of currency paper, public time and energy, including that of banks involved in replacing such ‘low value notes’ (pre-2005) printed during the past five to seven decades, in just two months by
31 March 2014. It might also lead to great hardship for the public. It is, therefore, suggested that the RBI (Reserve Bank of India) notification invalidating currency notes should be restricted to the ‘high value currency notes’ of Rs500 and Rs1,000 only.
Dipak J Gandhi, by email   

Thank you! I enjoyed Dr Khemka’s talk immensely. As always, the speakers you invite enlighten us about the malaise prevalent all around and motivate people like us to really do something to help. What is more heartening is to know that, invariably, there are people who are ready to take the gauntlet, braving risks, to make a difference. Their success stories against the odds they face are reaffirmed the motto of my alma mater, Harrow School: “Never give in”.  
Prabal Nag, by email

This is with regard to “Trace and give bank customers a chance to re-claim dormant accounts” by R Balakrishnan. Some people leave/keep their unaccounted money also in dormant accounts. The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) should ensure that dormant accounts are transferred to RBI, after due process, by the banks and non-banking finance companies.
SV Taneja

R Balakrishnan replies:
Good thought. Please do write to RBI. The more pressure we can put, the greater the chances of someone listening.

This is with regard to “Jayalalithaa to face prosecution for not filing I-T returns”. Non-filing of income-tax returns should be treated as a mistake by the person for which there should be defined penalties. It should not result in jail, etc. There are too many things in this country that call for the person to be in custody. A financial penalty will do.

As on date, millions of Indians are effectively criminals for not doing something that the income tax, sales tax, service tax, excise department, etc, want them to do. Actually, even the penalties are very high. If A TDS (tax deduction at source) return for even an amount of  Rs10,000 is delayed by a year inadvertently, it can result in a penalty of Rs1.5 lakh—mind you, this is even when the tax was paid—it is just that the return was not filed. The reverse is not true; if any of these departments does not pay you on time, there are no daily penalties of Rs200/-. Our system is lopsided, because the penalties for killing people or for committing similar crimes are often far lower.

This is with regard to “Governance is not rocket science; all it requires is right intent, says Dr Ashok Khemka”. Congratulations, Moneylife, for giving an opportunity to the public to listen to sane voices which uphold the values that sustain good governance. It will take some more time, and effort, to convince the common man that it is not ‘politics’ which is bad; it is a small minority of people who claim to be politicians but are really practising something else.
MG Warrier

A complete somersault
This is with regard to “Aadhaar & LPG: Cabinet puts subsidy transfer scheme on hold; raises subsidised LPG cylinder cap to 12.” A complete somersault by the government. It is a shame that the Aadhaar card, which was touted as a game-changer, is now going to be dumped. But, even though several crores of rupees have been spent on it, it does not look like it will achieve finality in the near future because of its poor planning and shoddy implementation.
SK Nataraj

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