Guide to drafting a good RTI application
Drafting a good RTI application can be as easy as writing a simple leave letter. As long as the applicant knows the basics of the RTI Act 2005, drafting an application, requesting for information from any public authority, is little more than child’s play.
Your full name and address have to mentioned in the application. If you so wish, you can also mention your telephone number and email id, although this is optional.
Have ready information about the Public Information Officer (PIO), his designation, address etc. In case you have problems locating your PIO/APIO you can address your RTI application to the PIO C/o Head of Department and send it to the concerned Public Authority with the requisite application fee. The Head of Department will have to forward your application to the concerned PIO.
Do not address your RTI application to the PIO by his name, just in case he gets transferred or a new PIO is designated in his place.
2. Preparing to draft an RTI application:
a) Carefully read Sections 2(f), 2(i) and 2(j) of the RTI Act, which defines the “information”, “record” and “right to information”. Your request for information should contain as many words as possible form these three basic definitions.
b) Read the relevant RTI Rules (either for the Centre, State or Courts) which are applicable to the public authority from whom you seek information. These rules will indicate the quantum of fees, the mode of payment of fees, any special application format to be followed, etc. Follow these RTI rules to the letter “T”.
c) Remember to always use a white sheet of paper to write an application. Use of note sheet or the Court stamp paper should be avoided. Use of letterhead for asking information can also be made. However, avoid using your official designation or title and simple sign with your name. The RTI application can be either written by hand or typed. There is no compulsion of typing the content. The application should be easy to read and well legible.
3. Why do you need the information?
First, ask yourself why you need the information ? Unless you have an answer to this question, there is no point in requesting for the information in the first place. What is the issue you are facing? What information needs to be asked to help in getting the issue resolved? A good indication is the preamble of the RTI Act which states that three main objectives of the Act are:
- Increase Transparency in the functioning of the Government
- Hold the Government accountable for its actions or inaction
- Reduce corruption
If your application seeks information which covers these objectives, then there is little chance of it being rejected.
4. What will you do with the “information”, once you get it ?
Now that you know why you need the information, you need to also decide what will you do with the information, once you get it. Are you going to get it published in the media, will you use it in a court case, is it for furthering your case in your office, is it to get some wrong corrected? The answers to these questions will help you decide what exact information to ask for as well as in what form to request the information. For example, if you want to use the documents obtained under RTI in a court case, it is advisable to ask for “certified copies”. If you want to give media coverage to a particular issue, then you must ask for information on a current issue of larger public interest.
5. Ask for only “information” !
Try to draft an RTI application that DOES NOT disclose the overall nature of the problem in your mind. It MUST NOT give a glimpse of what you intend to do with the requested information e.g. register police complaints, approach investigating agencies, file a PIL etc. Also, your RTI application MUST NOT indicate how badly you want the information, and therefore, please don’t mention anything such as
“I am a senior citizen dependent on my pension cheques, and I have been pushed from pillar-to-post in search of this information.”
When you write an RTI application, you must try to gain only information i.e. copies of relevant records and documents, you must not try to gain sympathy, respect etc.
Your application should look like a shopping-list of documents. Name documents that you are requesting by using words from Sec 2(f) and Sec 4(1)(b) of the RTI Act – reports, logbooks, emails, advices, rules, regulations, manuals etc. Only after exhausting these should you use other similar names e.g. quality audit reports, correspondence etc.
In case this information is denied, the similarity of wording will help you to convince appellate authorities that your requested information is “records” and “information” that must be mandatorily given.
There is absolutely no need to give any background, reasons, etc. for seeking information. Don’t make your application sound like a letter of complaint or a letter-to-the-editor. Don’t preface it with a covering letter or an introductory paragraph. RTI applications should be emotionless and bland. No Ramayana, no Mahabharat – just ask for “information” – plain and simple.
6. Be specific in asking for “information” and avoid vague expressions and requests:
While filing an RTI application, the framing of the questions is very important. A slight misunderstanding or vague questions gives the PIO a chance to reject your application. Avoid vague expressions and requests such as:
- Why did I not get my Ration card?
- What is the present status of issue of my Ration card?
- Give me .action-taken report
Words like “status” and “action” are open to interpretation, and usually, fail to point towards any particular document; they can mean different things to different persons like applicant, PIO, APIO and appellate authorities.
In most cases, there is no such document called “action-taken report” in existence, and therefore, the PIO cannot be rightly asked under RTI to generate such a document in reply to your application; PIO can only be asked to give you copy of a document that exists.
The right way is to ask for signed and stamped copy of all correspondence till date in the matter of your complaint, including memos, emails, covering letters for forwarding your complaint etc.
Ask for copy of logbook or any other book where details of your complaint are entered, marked to specific officers for their investigation and action. Ask for a copy of all their remarks, feedback, reports etc. If the case on your complaint is closed, ask for the closing remarks of the officer concerned.
Give particulars of the project to build XYZ.
What “particulars” do you want? Engineering drawings? Budgets? Financial projections? Feasibility reports? Consultants’ studies? This is not clear. Don’t leave it to the PIO to decide what documents to include and what to leave out. Be specific and name the documents that you want copied. Make it difficult for the PIO to loosely interpret your request.
Similarly, do not ask information about a future event – like By what date will my passport be delivered? The PIO is not an astrologer to predict the date of delivery of your passport.
But do not be the jockey of a journalist to solicit opinion, advice or action on an issue. RTI is not meant for hypothetical or subjective questions. Your query may end up being disqualified.
7. How long should your RTI application be ?
Do not make your application very long. The Central Government has set a 500 word limit for each application. Some state governments and legislatures have set a limit of only 150 words and ONE subject matter per application.
Ideally your RTI application should not be more than one A4 size paper sheet – after all your objective is to get “information” and not to test the PIO in collecting maximum information in the shortest possible time ! If you put three related queries in one application, you may get answers to all of them. If you pack thirty queries instead, chances are slim that you will get satisfactory information on any. Put yourselves in the shoes of the Public Information Officer (PIO); what would you do if you saw a lengthy RTI application that asks endless questions and supplementary questions? If I were the PIO, I would endlessly postpone looking at the application, and then go out of my way to justify the delay or denial. Wouldn’t you? Think that you are a PIO, and then think about how to draft an RTI application that you would like to give a reply to without any delay.
A single lengthy application may scare and overwhelm the PIO, and tempt him to throw it into his drawer. He will hesitate and postpone searching for the information. Instead, send a small, manageable RTI application with only 3-4 questions. Then, after you receive a reply to that, send another one… and another. Or maybe, many applicants can file small applications seeking related information, at the same time.
8. Specify the period for which information is sought
Don’t be over-ambitious. For an RTI applicant, it is very easy to write a question like, “Give copies of all licenses issued from January 1981 till date” or “provide a list of all vehicles registered in your RTO since 1990”. For the PIO, this means searching 25 or 30 years of files and records. Older files may have been put into basements or buried under tons of old dusty files. Therefore, please ask yourself whether you REALLY need data that is so old, or whether you are just trying to satisfy an academic curiosity. Don’t request 30 years data if five years data will suffice for your purposes. Don’t ask for five years data if six months data is sufficient.
9. Ascertain if the information is already available:
Before shooting off your RTI application ascertain if the information you are seeking is already available in the public domain. After the advent of the RTI Act, many public authorities have already uploaded mountains of information on their website. Search for the information on the internet – even if the information you seek might not be available on the public authority’s website, it might be available elsewhere. Some other RTI activist might have asked for the same information and released it to the media. Do a thorough search before drafting your RTI application.
10. Exhaust all possible means of grievance redressal before using RTI:
If there is a pending issue or a grievance for which you want to use RTI, first exhaust all possible means of redressing that grievance by already available means, like reminder letters, letters to the head of the public authority, public grievance portals, etc. Only if you have exhausted all means of grievance redressal, use RTI as the last resort. Some Government departments have indicated fixed time limits for certain issues in their respective citizen charters. For example, the if the Income Tax department states that it takes 9 months from the end of the financial year to refund your excess tax, then obviously there is no point in filing a RTI application before that time limit.
- Never draft an RTI application when you are in an angry, revengeful or even a bad mood. Such applications are bound to fail. Relax, get back to normal and then only pick up a paper and pen to prepare your first application draft.
- After you have written down your first draft of RTI application (or complaint or anything else), let it cool down in your drawer for a couple of days. Then take a re-look and think about making improvements. Ask a friend or colleague to have a look and give you suggestions. Can the friend understand what are you asking for ? Does he find it easy to understand?
- There is no harm in redrafting the application several times before you get to the final version.
- Seek help and guidance from RTI activists and experts, who will guide you to draft a correct application. Many websites on the internet also guide RTI applicants during the RTI process. All such guidance is free, so why not make maximum use of it ?