The Right-to-Information Act has emerged as a powerful tool for India’s civil society to promote transparency and hold those in power accountable. The law, which allows Indian citizens to seek information from most government bodies, was first implemented in October 2005.
Adarsh Housing Society, Commonwealth Games, and 2G are just a few of the scams and scandals that spring to mind when musing about the impact of the The Right To Information Act, over the past several year.
And while the RTI, which came into force on October 12, 2005, has exposed the rot and corruption of the country's institutions and leaders, it has also played a huge role in improving the daily lives of people by making government accessible and accountable.
The sweep of questions and concerns covered in tens of millions of RTI applications is impossible to catalogue, but whether it is seeking entitlements, exposing hoarding at local ration shops, or getting a village road constructed, these queries and complaints are all guided by the principle of standing up and being counted.
The below are some of the most successful RTI cases:-
Adarsh Society Scam:
The applications filed by RTI activists like Yogacharya Anandji and Simpreet Singh in 2008 were instrumental in bringing to light links between politicians and military officials, among others. The 31-storey building, which had permission for six floors only, was originally meant to house war widows and veterans. Instead, the flats went to several politicians, bureaucrats and their relatives. The scandal has already led to the resignation of Ashok Chavan, the former chief minister of Maharashtra. Other state officials are also under the scanner.
Public Distribution Scam in Assam:
In 2007, members of an anti-corruption non-governmental organization based in Assam, the Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, filed an RTI request that revealed irregularities in the distribution of food meant for people below the poverty line. The allegations of corruption were probed and several government officials arrested.
Appropriation of Relief Funds:
Information obtained through an RTI application by an NGO based in Punjab, in 2008 revealed that bureaucrats heading local branches of the Indian Red Cross Society used money intended for victims of the Kargil war and natural disasters to buy cars, air-conditioners and pay for hotel bills – among other things. Local courts charged the officials found responsible with fraud and the funds were transferred to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund.
IIM’s Admission Criteria:
Vaishnavi Kasturi a visually-impaired student, in 2007 was denied a seat in the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, one of the country’s premier management institutes – despite her impressive score at the entrance examination. Ms. Kasturi wanted to know why, and wondered whether it was because of her physical disability. She filed an RTI application to request the institute to disclose their selection process. Although she failed to gain admission to the institute, her RTI application meant that IIM had to make its admission criteria public. It emerged that the entrance exam, the Common Admission Test, actually mattered little compared to Class 10 and 12 results.
Soon after the Act came into force, parents in Panchampur village in the district of Banda, Uttar Pradesh, used it to track their local school teacher, who rarely made an appearance in the classroom.
After learning from RTI activists that they could seek attendance and leave records of the government school teacher, 15 villagers filed an applicationasking about his whereabouts, and also questioned the responsibility of the Primary Education Department in such a situation.
Immediate action was taken: a new school teacher was appointed to the village school, and an enquiry was ordered against the absconder.
Chandigarh--Smoke Free City:
In 2007, Chandigarh became the first smoke free city in India, which meant banning smoke in indoor spaces as well as prohibiting it in outdoor public places likes parks and markets.
But Hemant Ghosh didn't expect his RTI applications to lead to such a landmark decision, which would influence other cities to enforce smoke-free laws in the years to come. His work is widely regarded as the trigger for the campaign to create awareness about the hazards of smoking, involving public service messages on television and cinemas, which has grown over the years.
Soon after the Act came into force, Ghosh inundated the governments of Punjab and Haryana with over 300 queries on how The 2003 Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA),which sets out provisions to address smoking in public places, was being implemented in their shared capital.
According to the 2003 law, his application asked whether the No Smoking Area Smoking here is an offence warning was displayed in offices and premises under government control."
In 2007, 1,800 "warning boards" appeared in all government departments, police stations, hospitals and schools.
Ghosh, who heads a Chandigarh-based NGO called Burning Brain Society, said that he was only trying to hold the government accountable. "What has been most satisfying is to see this replicated across the country," he said.
Almost ten years on, however, another RTI application filed by Gaurav Bansal, a 21-year-old resident of Chandigarh, revealed that only fined 78 people were fined for smoking in public in 2013, which included 61 people in just the one area of sector 19.
"Despite the claims of the administration to make the city a smoke-free one, only 78 persons were challenged (fined) in an entire year," he said.
The Seven Ponds:
In 2010, K.S. Sagaria smelt a rat when the paperwork showed that seven ponds had been constructed for below poverty lines families in Kushmal village of Orissa, but no one in the village could spot them.
So he filed an RTI application which revealed that the ponds were never dug, the “labourers” who worked to “construct” the ponds included dead people.
Following complaints, the administration suspended the officials involved in the subterfuge, and the project was renewed, but this time, the villagers vowed to keep a check on its progress.
Scholarships For Students:
While several of his classmates and their parents were fretting when they didn't receive their scholarships for the academic year of 2011-2012, nine-year-old Manoj, a student at the government primary school in Vailpoor, Nizamabad district of Telangana, filed an application.
In his application directed at the Labour Welfare Department, the class 4 student asked why the money had not reached the students, and by when they could expect their scholarships.
Manoj's RTI application secured scholarships for 10 students, who are the children of beedi workers.
When students of Gulrahai Primary School in Allahabad did not receive their school uniforms in December 2006, nine parents filed an RTI application questioning the administration about the missing uniforms, which led to school dresses being delivered in the first week of January, 2007.
Parents of a government school in Chitrakoot, Uttar Pradesh, also procured school uniforms by filing an RTI application.
Unjustifiable restrictions imposed by CBSE on the examinees:
A must- read information which may be helpful to a large number of our fellow citizens. A landmark decision with respect to unjustifiable restrictions imposed by Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), Patna on the examinees delivered by Central Information Commissioner (CIC) Prof.M.Sridhar Acharyulu (Madabhushi Sridhar). This is one of the best decisions delivered ever by CIC which may be useful to a large cross section of society.
The appellant, father of a student has sought copies of the answer sheets of his son for the subjects Maths and Science of 12th Class examination appeared in 2013 and the related matters. The information sought was denied by CPIO on the following grounds:
1. The request for the supply of evaluated answer sheets was made, not by the candidate, who appeared in the examination, but by his father, as the rules framed by the CBSE vide its Notification dated 17.06.2013 mandates the candidate should to make application.
2. The last date for the receipt of requests through online for the supply of evaluated answer sheets was 3.7.2013, and the RTI request, made by the candidate’s father was 12.8.2013.
3. Requests/applications for supply of answer sheets should be made only through online within 10 days from the date of declaration of the result.
4. After downloading the hardcopy of the printout of the request/ confirmation page, from the website, the candidate should get the same reached to the CBSE office, before the specified date, along with the fee and other prescribed enclosures.
5. Among the documents to be enclosed along with the application, there is an undertaking from the candidate, written in his own handwriting and under his own signature and not by anyone else on his behalf. The signature should correspond to that present on the Admit Card of the candidate. The candidate cannot question the evaluation done by the examiner. The candidate can only point out the errors in the totaling of marks, or the answers which were not evaluated by the examiner. These errors should be communicated by the candidate in writing to the CBSE within 10 days from the date of receipt of the evaluated answer sheets. There is no provision in the CBSE Rules, for the revaluation of the answer sheets again.
6. The candidate should also undertake that the copies of his answer sheets shall not be given to any institution or school for display, commercial purpose or to print media.
The Commission considered that the respondent authority has created several unreasonable conditions to either limit or delay and deny the right to information of the student who appeared for the examination conducted by CBSE in 2013. The reasonability and legality or validity or otherwise of the contentions of the CBSE are given below:
1. The CBSE has no authority to impose such restriction on the rights of minor and his guardian. The natural guardian (father) has a legal duty and authority to secure the rights and benefits of the minor boy. In that capacity he has every right to seek right to information of his son be implemented and any injustice occurring to his son in evaluation of his answer scripts which might affect his career forever. The CBSE did not explain in reasonable terms why it has denied the natural guardian from exercising his legal duty to secure the legal interests of his son including his right to information. Hence the reason cited to deny the ‘father’ is unreasonable and illegal and also in violation of rights of the minor boy. The CBSE has no authority to impose such restriction on the rights of minor and his guardian. Hence the Commission holds that the appellant who is the father of the candidate is entitled for the copies of the answer sheets of his son, which shall be supplied to him.
2. Application was submitted beyond last date prescribed by the CBSE. The appellant has exercised his right to information under RTI Act, 2005 according to which the public authority should give information held by it. The CBSE has not denied the fact of holding the answer scripts of the son of appellant as on the date of RTI application. Once the RTI has been filed, it has no authority to destroy the answer scripts since the demand under statute is pending. Hence the contention that appellant approached beyond the last date does not hold good under RTI Act.
3. The candidate has to sign undertaking papers relinquishing his right to reevaluation has been imposed unreasonably. If a student has a legally recognized right to reevaluation, why should he relinquish it simply because he wanted to exercise another legal right to information by seeking to have copy of the answer script? The recognition and guaranteeing of right to information is aimed at making the public authority ‘accountable’. But by imposing this condition the CBSE is not only restricting that right to information, but also insulating itself from being accountable. This condition that student should sign off his rights by an undertaking is a serious obstruction to right to information of minor boy and his guardian.
4. Condition to relinquish right to share answer script with others, media to question the wrong evaluation etc. Another unreasonable condition imposed by CBSE is that candidate shall not display answer script after obtaining it under RTI Act. He should not share with print media also. These are unconstitutional restrictions on the right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by Article 19(1)(a) of Indian Constitution.
5. Condition against using information for commercial purposes. This is yet another unreasonable condition on use of information obtained under RTI Act. The CBSE wanted the appellant to file an undertaking saying he would not use it for commercial purposes. How can CBSE impose restrictions on the use of information obtained by the citizen, which were not imposed by the Right to Information Act, 2005.
CIC has passed following Directions/ Order:
1. The undertakings prescribed by the CBSE have the effect of seriously obstructing the access to information beyond what was permitted by the Right to Information Act, 2005. By prescribing such rules and imposing conditions such as above, the CBSE tried to legislate something which is not prescribed or authorized by the Parliament through the Right to Information Act, 2005.
2. The Commission directs the CBSE to put in place such system with conducive practices by which the Right to information of the appellants is not limited but facilitated, by removing the obstacles such as undertaking to give up their legal rights, as mentioned above.
3. The Commission further directs the CBSE to pay a compensation of Rs.25,000/ to the appellant within 15 days from the date of receipt of this order for harassing him and compelling him to sign illegal undertaking to give up rights. The Commission directs the CBSE to furnish the certified copies of the answer scripts as required to the appellant, free of cost, within 21 days from the date of receipt of this order.
Massive stink over Planning Commission's Rs 35 lakh toilets:
The government may be speaking of austerity and curbing expenditure on various public schemes, but the the Planning Commission must not have got that memo and an RTI application has revealed a massive Rs 35 lakh to renovate two toilets at Yojana Bhavan.
According to the RTI application filed by activist Subhash Agrawal, not only were the two toilets renovated for this sum, an additional five lakhs was spent on installing a smart-card system which restricted access to the toilets to 60 senior officials who work at the complex.
NDTV reported that the commission also planned to install security cameras in the corridors leading to these toilets to ensure equipment was not stolen. The 35-lakh toilets were, according to plans, to serve as models for upgrading another three toilets in the building at a later stage. Whether they would also have access through smart cards was not clear.
The petitioner S Agarwal meanwhile, hit out at the Planning Commission, and said his RTI application had revealed that another three such toilets were in the works. "It will not end here. Some other government and public offices will follow the same trend. This kind of wasteful expenditure when the government is talking about austerity and when the planning commissioner says that Rs 28 is the poverty line, is ridiculous", he said.
The revelations of the RTI application has drawn massive criticism from opposition parties. Senior BJP spokesman Balbir Punj said that the revelation was 'shocking' and strongly condemned the move.
Meanwhile the news has prompted the phrase Rs 35 to start trending on Twitter, with some well intentioned 'toilet humor'. @Roflindian said, "Spending Rs 35 lakhs for two toilets must be the most expensive way to relieve a south block in the morning", while @RameshSrivats said "By spending Rs. 35 lakhs on renovating two toilets. India has made it clear that it is an emerging superpower."
There have also been some obvious references made to the extravagance of the planning commission, particularly comparing the large sum of money to the much criticized Rs 28 urban poverty line that was decided upon by the members of the commission.
Travel costs of Planning Commissioner Montek Singh Alhuwalia were also criticized in a recent report in The Hindu. columnist P Sainath argued, based on RTI information obtained by other journalists, how massive the overseas travel expenses of Montek, who is otherwise known for his justification of the poverty-line argument, were. The highlight of Sainath’s article was that the average daily expense of Alhuwalia was Rs. 2.02 lakhs during his overseas travel between May and October last year.
Using Montek’s own Rs 26 a day calculation, this could have sustained a poor person in rural India for more than 20 years!
I have purchased a land and have already registered it. How can I use RTI to know details of said Land to know if everything is alright as I have some doubts.