After several years of persistent campaign by RTI activist Commodore Lokesh Batra and several RTI activists abroad, the RBI, early this week, has given a “no objection” to the government for the sale of electronic postal orders through credit/debit cards for paying RTI fees. Now the Department of Posts has to quickly find a technology solution
Each time that Vishal Kudchadkar, an RTI (Right to Information) activist from Los Angeles wanted to file a RTI application or file a second appeal to the state chief information commissioner of Maharashtra, he had to seek the help of his family and friends back home in Pune. For hundreds of others residing in various countries abroad, the right to procure information under the RTI Act was denied due to the Indian government’s lethargy in giving a green signal to online payment for the applications.
The victory is almost in sight as the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), on 1st March gave its “no objection” to the government. Now, it is for the Department of Posts to stand by its commitment of implementing the electronic postal orders through Axis Bank—a module which it is already familiar with. However, the DoP would have to would have to work on technology solutions to meet the conditions laid down by the RBI.
Delhi-based activist Commodore (Retd.) Lokesh Batra has filed over 150 RTI applications since 2008 to pursue this issue. For this, Commodore Batra sought information on action taken by different government departments, whether it is the ministry of finance, the Department of Personnel and Training (which implements the RTI Act), the Department of Posts (which can make e- payment possible), the National Advisory Council (NAC) and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
Finally, his relentless efforts bore fruit when on 1st March, the RBI stated in a reply to another of Commodore Batra’s RTI application filed on 15th February this year, asking for the status of the issue of `approval for purchase of Indian postal orders by Indian citizens abroad for RTI fees that it has sent its “no objection letter” to the government.
In a letter dated 3 February 2012 to the ministry of communications & IT, Department of Posts, Anita Kumari, manager of the RBI has stated, “the payment gateway provider will be Axis Bank’’ and “online payments from abroad should be made only through debit and credit cards issued by the bank having affiliations with one of the card payment networks authorised under the PSS Act 2007”.
Mr Kudchadkar stated enthusiastically that, “we have been working very closely with Lokesh sir on this issue. All kudos to him for doggedly carrying forward a fight, we started, to its conclusion. Without him I don’t think we would have been able to navigate the bureaucratic hoops. This process started almost four years ago and finally we see the light at the end of the tunnel. We are excited to finally be able to exercise our right to seek information!”
Another RTI activist from the US, Somu Kumar stated, “We are ecstatic that finally Indian government has taken action on a long-standing demand of Indians living abroad, which was to establish a proper and easy mechanism for us to seek information from our government. We have so far been stone-walled by the Indian embassies and consulates from actively seeking information by using various excuses but finally we hope this new announcement will end the difficulty and allow free flow of information.”
Not ready to give it up until the ‘actual’ implementation, Commodore Batra predictably has dashed off a letter on 6th March to Sachin Pilot, minister of state for communications & Information Technology, seeking his intervention in expediting the issue of electronic Indian postal orders (IPOs) to help Indian citizens abroad to make online payments for RTI application. He says, “It’s not a complete victory unless Department of Posts implements it”.
So, what would this mean for the Indians living abroad? They would be required to log on to the Department of Posts website and then register (if it is his or her first time) and click on the “RTI counter”. He/she would have to upload passport copy after filling the RTI application. Then he/she would require to pay the fees through the electronic postal order. Thereafter, the RTI application would be sent to the relevant public information officer of the department that the applicant is seeking information from. The CPIO can verify the IPO number by logging on to the ePO portal.
Way back on 4 February 2011, Commodore Batra found out under a RTI reply that the Department of Posts had written to the RBI stating, “The Department of Posts has developed a portal called ‘e-portal’ office. We have received a reference from the secretary, Department of Personnel and Training, requesting to include a provision for the purchase of Indian postal orders by Indian citizens living abroad to enable them to seek information under the RTI Act, 2005. The challenge faced by the Indian citizens is in remitting the prescribed fee for seeking information as per the specified mode of the Act. The post office can provide a solution to this challenge, since the Indian postal order is one of the most prescribed modes of payment under the RTI Act. To put a system in place to facilitate this, we would require clearance to accept credit card/debit card for online payment from abroad through e-portal.'”
Further, RTI documents revealed that the Department of Posts had also written to the RBI on 15 March 2011 stating that Axis Bank has been accepted as the “payment gateway provider'” for such online payments.
However, the RBI in its reply on 15 June 2011 to Commodore Batra’s RTI query on the status of letters from the Department of Posts said quite ridiculously, “The RBI has not taken a final decision on the request of the Department of Posts. As such this information cannot be given as per Section 8 of the RTI Act.'”
Commodore Batra steered the campaign for Indians abroad, when he had a personal experience in 2008 when he was in the US. The date for his appeal before the Information Commission in Delhi was fixed while he was abroad, and then chief information commissioner, Dr Wajahat Habibullah, allowed the hearing through audio-conferencing. However, when he began to ask about regular RTI applications filed from the US, he found that Indians there faced many hurdles.
The Indian embassy in Washington put its hands up, saying that it could only accept RTI applications pertaining to queries related to its office, or at the most those related to the ministry of external affairs. Indians tried to impress upon the embassy that under Section 6(3) it is the duty of the PIO to forward applications not relevant to him, to the concerned departments. But the embassy refused to take responsibility. This triggered off his campaign.
He was joined by activists abroad. In 2010, a delegation of US-based Indian activists submitted their petition to prime minister Manmohan Singh, carrying 316 signatures from Indians residing in Australia, Burundi, Canada, Dubai, Ethiopia, France, Germany, Holland, Japan, Kuwait, Maldives, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Sweden, Switzerland, South Africa, UAE, the UK and the US. However, the PMO was silent on this issue (not surprising).
My earlier article on the same topic: Indians living abroad keen to use RTI, but the government isn’t making it easier
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also 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. She can be reached at [email protected])