Seven Year Itch

Oct 12, 2012, 07:39 IST | A Correspondent

The Right To Information (RTI) Act marks seven years of existence in India today. Experts and activists analyse the phenomenon that empowered the ordinary and propelled them to show extraordinary courage

Getting it right
Narayan Varma

The acronym RTI stands for different things to different people. To me, RTI means Right To Information. Today, the RTI Act completes seven years in India.

The Right to Information is defined in the RTI Act u/s 2(j) as under:

“Right To Information” means the right to information accessible under this Act, which is held by or under the control of any public authority and includes the right to:

Controversies aside, Anna Hazare was anti-corruption's poster boy
Rock on: Controversies aside, Anna Hazare was anti-corruption’s poster boy

Inspection of work, documents, records; taking notes, extracts or certified copies of documents or records; taking certified samples of material;
Obtaining information in the form of diskettes, floppies, tapes, video cassettes or in any other electronic mode or through printouts where such information is stored in a computer or in any other device.

It is a very comprehensive definition. The important word in that definition is ‘held’. As in many orders of the commissions, it is clarified that only information which is held in the records can be supplied and no information can be created for reply.

The applicants wishing to use RTI are advised to note the above definition and apply for information ‘held’. It is because of the above definition, it is said that you cannot ask “why” (e.g. why my Income Tax returns is not being issued). You may ask: As per Citizen Charter of the department, refund of tax is to be issued in two months. Eight months have elapsed since I furnished my R of I. Please inform me of the records maintained in this matter.

The writer is Jt. Managing Trustee of the RTI clinic Public Concern For Governance Trust (PCGT).

The courage to do and to dare
Bhaskar Prabhu

In what is a tactic to intimidate, threaten and deter many RTI users, activists, including government employees, have been harassed, attacked and even murdered for seeking information to promote transparency. Some face assaults on a regular basis but they continue with the zeal to change governance for a better tomorrow. This contribution of RTI activists is invaluable in the strife to get good governance.

RTI activists are vulnerable human rights defenders in India and a majority are not part of any organisation. Many act alone spurred by frustration and anger. There has been no concrete response by the State to court orders given on May 7, 2010 to Maharashtra to provide police protection to any person or organisation complaining of threats or the use of force after filing the RTI application, and directions of speedy investigation of cases within 90 days.

Sources state that in India more than 175 RTI activists have been either assaulted, murdered, harassed or intimidated.
Safeguards for activists:
>> They should talk about what they are doing in the area so that more awareness is created.
>> Become a part of some organisation working for RTI.
>> Abstain from verbal attacks on corrupt individuals but concentrate on system change.
>> The State Govt. should legislate protection measures for the information seekers.
>> Trial of accused persons should be held within six months.
The writer is Convenor, Mahiti Adhikar Manch & Maharashtra RTI Council.

Pendency Pains
S K Nangia

Maharashtra is number 1 amongst States in the usage of the RTI Act, both in filing of RTI applications for seeking information, as also filing appeals and complaints against denial of information by various public authorities.

While the RTI Act provides for a State Information Commission (SIC) being equipped with one Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) plus 10 Information Commissioners (IC) for disposing off second appeals and complaints received by it, the Maharashtra State Information Commission (MSIC), despite receiving the highest number of appeals and complaints, never had the permissible, full number of ICs. This has resulted in huge pendency with waiting periods ranging between one and two years. MSIC had 22,882 appeals and complaints pending as of end-2011, accounting for over 24 per cent of total receipts during the past five years. Pendency level has gone up further to 24,374 as on end-June, 2012. This is frustrating the aspirations of citizens desiring to seek information.

The writer is a Right to Information (RTI) activist.

Judgement Days
Shailesh Gandhi

The Supreme Court has given a judgement in the Namit Sharma vs. Union of India in WP no. (C) 210 of 2012 on September 13, which may have a very damaging impact on RTI implementation:

1. Whereas the RTI Act provides for 11 Commissioners who could hear cases in 11 benches, the judgement reduces these to a maximum of five benches, since it orders that all matters will have to heard by two-member benches, and one has to be a Retired High Court judge.

2. If the maximum number of benches per Commission is five, it is unlikely that they will clear over 3,000 cases per bench, ie. 15,000 cases per Commission annually.

3. Internationally, over 90 countries have access laws now. Over 35 of them have Information Commissions. None of them have a requirement of having ‘judicial members’. Most of them do not have a requirement of multiple member benches.

4. In India, most quasi-judicial bodies are in existence without ‘judicial members’.

5. The Court has talked of legal interpretations and third party issues to order the requirement of retired judges. A study done by legal interns with me of the Central Commission’s decisions for the period January to April 2012 shows that any legal interpretation is involved only in about 15 per cent of the cases. Is it right that two member benches should be adjudicating all the matters? Even in the High Court, many matters are heard by single judges.

6. The judgement has made decisions, which are really in the jurisdiction of Parliament and the executive. If the Judiciary takes these decisions, the division of power envisaged in the Constitution is unbalanced and this gives no opportunity to citizens to discuss and debate such matters.
This judgement may take us from a cesspool and throw us head down into a valley which would be sure death.

The writer is a former Information Commissioner.

Wham for Scam!
Dr. Ratna Magotra

The Right to Information Act (RTI) became operative on October 12, 2005. It was brought to fruition after a long struggle by RTI activists including a fast by Anna Hazare in Mumbai. Under the provisions of the Act, any citizen may request information from a “public authority” (a body of Government or “instrumentality of State”) which is required to reply expeditiously or within 30 days.

The RTI Act has become an important tool for exposing corruption and the ‘neta-bureaucrat’ nexus. It has removed the wall of secrecy built around vested interests and those holding authority. The Act makes it statutory for the latter to reveal all unclassified information when asked by an ordinary Indian. Major corruption scandals exposed are Commonwealth Games Scam, Adarsh Housing Scheme scam, major corruption in the telecommunications sector or the 2-G scam and more recently, the irrigation scam in Maharashtra.

The revelations have been possible only because a few brave individuals used the tool of RTI to unearth related papers and, like they say, join the dots.

The writer is a trustee of the RTI clinic Public Concern for Governance Trust (PCGT).

Dial E for Effective
Ratnakar Gaikwad

Maharashtra came out with a very comprehensive RTI Act in 2002 which was largely used by GoI while framing central legislation like the RTI Act, 2005.

Speedy disposal of appeals by the Commission is crucial for effective implementation of the RTI Act. However, at present, in most of the benches the pendency of appeals is above two years or so with certain exceptions. In order to dispose off appeals speedily, the following issues need to be addressed by all stakeholders:

1) All three vacant posts of Information Commissioners need to be filled by the Govt on priority.

2)Initiatives undertaken by the Maharashtra Information Commi-ssion in the past, such as the organisation of Lok Adalat-kind of hearing of appeals, are needed.

3) In disposal of appeals, one has to ensure without further delays passing on information to information– seekers rather than passing elaborate orders.

4) Lot of awareness amongst information seekers is needed so that RTI applications are properly filed.

5) The Commission needs to be adequately staffed. Vacancies in various posts is a hindrance.
I am sure the Maharashtra Commission, with the support of all stake holders, would set an example with regard to implementation of the RTI Act.

The writer is Chief Information Commissioner, Maharashtra State Information Commission, Mumbai. 

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