Activist flags hidden costs for online RTI pleas filed in state
Despite central guidelines on low-cost gateway, why is state using a more expensive service and burdening citizens, asks Nagpur-based activist
If you want to file an online Right to Information (RTI) application to the government of Maharashtra, be prepared to pay a little extra. A Nagpur-based doctor, Indrajit Khandekar, has raised concerns about the state portal charging anywhere between Rs 5 to Rs 10 more than the central government's portal for online RTI applications, just because it does not use the mandated State Bank of India (SBI) payment gateway.
Dr. Khandekar, a professor from the Mahatma Gandhi Institute of Medical Sciences, Sewagram, claims that while filing an RTI application online in Maharashtra, the applicant is charged more than the standard Rs 10 fee depending on which mode of payment they use. If they pick net banking, the Mahaonline payment gateway charges around Rs 21.80 and when one pays through debit card, there is a charge of Rs 15.90. The charge goes in the kitty of the Mahaonline company, which manages the portal on behalf of the state government.
To the state government
Khandekar has also brought this to the notice of the state government, by writing to them about the issue around three weeks ago. He's yet to receive a response. In the letter he sent, he also attached screenshots of the payment gateway, which he claims also violates a notification sent by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) directing all the state secretaries to opt for SBI gateway. Khandekar has urged the state government to use the SBI gateway like the central government so that applicants are not charged any additional amount for filing RTIs.
Speaking to mid-day, Khandekar said, "I have sent a letter to the General Administration Department (GAD) of the Maharashtra government to bring these discrepancies to their notice. I have also urged the government to not cause further inconvenience to the common public by violating the directives of the DoPT, which were issued in December 2013, clearly asking state chief secretaries to opt for the SBI gateway for online RTI applications."
The directives Khandekar is talking about were given in a December 3, 2013 letter (mid-day has a copy) addressed to state secretaries by Dr. S K Sarkar, secretary, DoPT. He wrote about the launch of the RTI Online portal, designed and developed by the National Informatics Centre (NIC), for all central ministries and departments. The letter further stated, "It is requested that the feasibility of implementing online RTI in your state on similar lines may be explored. NIC has been requested to provide technical support to the state governments who desire to replicate the web portal for online filing of RTI applications on the state level."
Dr Indrajit Khandekar was charged Rs 10 on the Central portal, whereas the state portal levied a fee of Rs 21.80 on him for the online application
Why use the pvt gateway?
Speaking about how he learnt of the discrepancies, Khandekar said, "I have been seeking information under RTI regarding various public health-related issues and on government policies and circulars from the state and central government. Due to my schedule, it is not possible for me to physically make the applications, which is why I've been opting for the online method. I have been analysing the fee variations accordingly." For a recent RTI application he filed to the state transport department, Khandekar claims he had to pay Rs 34. Khandekar had tried to seek answers from GAD earlier as well and the matter-of-fact response he got was: "For online RTI applications in Maharashtra, payment gateway is provided by Mahaonline Pvt Limited, which charges around R5 for portal charges and service tax."
However, the Centre is not paying the SBI any such fee for its payment facility. This wa revealed in a RTI response on June 17, 2017 received by medical student Mohamed Khader Meeran, which stated that the central government paid no amount whatsoever to SBI for availing the payment gateway facility. The response also stated that SBI is currently not providing its payment gateway facility to RTI portals of any state government. Khandekar questioned why the Maharashtra government picked a private payment gateway instead of SBI's free of charge facility.
Former Central Information Commissioner and RTI activist Shailesh Gandhi said, "This appears to show Maharashtra government's strong aversion to RTI or suggests some corruption. In either case, it reflects very poorly on the state government and should be corrected immediately. The state must ensure that citizens exercising their fundamental right are not penalised."
State government says
Asked about the extra fee being levied through Mahaonline, a senior official from the state's Information Technology department said, "I will have to go through the DoPT notification and only then will I be able to make any comment. You may contact the undersecretary of the department." Undersecretary of the department, Jyotsana Madekar, said, "I will have to get this information from the department concerned and only then will I be able to talk." Madekar remained unavailable for comment thereafter.
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