Mumbai: Have a grievance? Can't approach third parties, says Government order

Updated: Oct 19, 2019, 07:55 IST | Vinod Kumar Menon | Mumbai

61-year-old government order says citizens can't use third parties like lawyers to file grievances to government offices; move comes immediately after public campaign against tree-felling in Aarey

The protests at Aarey in September against the Metro car shed coming up inside. File pics
The protests at Aarey in September against the Metro car shed coming up inside. File pics

The government circular asking departments not to accept or acknowledge any communication from third parties or organisations on behalf of individuals has upset activists, who say this is a blatant attempt to silence their voice. The circular was first issued in 1958 and has been revived days after the government was shown in bad light during the recent Aarey protests.

The circular, dated October 14, says any individual having a grievance should approach concerned departments directly, without involving any third party individual or organisation. "Third party individuals/organisations are writing letters and are also doing follow-up on behalf of aggrieved persons on issues they are not connected with. Many government departments have sought clarity on whether to take cognisance of such letters or not," said the circular issued to 28 government departments.

It quoted a December 3, 1958, circular that apparently states that only an aggrieved person can make applications, and no application drafted on behalf of an aggrieved person by any agent should be accepted. Departments and regional offices have also been told to take action against third parties or organisations who intervene on behalf of an aggrieved person.

Protests against the tree-felling at Aarey started gaining momentum last month
Protests against the tree-felling at Aarey started gaining momentum last month

Recently, the government rejected thousands of objections against felling of trees in Aarey Colony on the ground that they were emailed collectively by an organization on behalf of several concerned individuals. The government asked each concerned citizen to personally submit written objections to a civic official's office. This came under heavy criticism.

RTI activist and former Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi said, "This circular is illegal and unconstitutional and it goes against Article 19 (1)(a) of the Constitution. This clearly shows the arrogance of the present government, which thinks it can get away with things and win election after election by curbing the voice of common man. Tomorrow the government may come up with restrictions on media, asking them to refrain from publishing certain matters that the government does not want the public to know about."

Advocate Godfrey Pimenta of Watch Dog Foundation, whose organisation has been vocal about various civic issues including the Save Aarey campaign, has in the past written various complaints to the state and central governments on behalf of aggrieved citizens. "This is a clear attempt to muzzle the voice of common man, which is guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution and this circular will not stand the test of law," he said.

"It seems like the state government was under tremendous pressure thanks to citizen-led protests like Save Aarey, and other public interest issues like potholes, flooding, etc. If the elected representatives do their job properly, the common man will not come out on the street. And instead of behaving like a progressive government, they are dusting off a 61-year-old circular to muzzle dissent."

Nitai Mehta of Praja Foundation said the circular was ridiculous and aims to resurrect an an archaic law to stifle people's voices. More importantly, Mehta said, it cannot legally override the Right to Information Act. Advocate Vinod Sampat, who has founded several social organisations to help citizens, called it the murder of the Right to Information Act.

"RTI is a thorn in the eyes of bureaucrats, who are scared that all their wrongdoings will be exposed by activists," said Sampat. "What is wrong if one activist files 50 complaints, unless the government has ulterior motives in hiding corrupt acts? Let me state in clear terms that even anonymous letters have exposed wrongdoings in the government. Instead of punishing culprits, the approach here is to punish the whistleblower, which speaks volumes about the intentions of some bureaucrats."

Sampat said information is the pillar of the RTI Act and it shouldn't matter who obtains the information. The only thing that should matter to the government is to ensure there is transparency till the highest levels, he said. "There is nothing wrong even if some third person not connected to a subject matter has written to the government authorities," he said.

Oct 14
Day state govt sent a reminder circular to 28 govt depts and political party offices

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