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karira

Your Right to Information is TRAPPED

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karira

A series of articles that appeared in The Time of India, Hyderabad Edition, dated 04 April 2010.

This was full page of articles on RTI.

 

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karira

As reported by Shobhan Saxena of TNN:

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Army of activists a boon or bane?

 

The Facebook page on the Right to Information challenges the government with some provocative questions. “We all pay taxes. Even a beggar on the street pays sales tax when he buys anything from the market. This money belongs to us. But where does this money go? Why are there no medicines in the hospitals? Why are people dying of starvation? Why are the roads in such pathetic conditions? Why are the taps dry?” says the page’s opening lines. Most of the 1000-odd members of the online community agree that a “good government is an open government”.

 

India has been a democracy since 1947, but the process of good governance — strengthening the link between citizens and the state — began only in 2005, with the enactment of the RTI. Before that it was next to impossible for an ordinary citizen to get any information from the government because of ‘confidentiality’ and the Official Secrets Act.

 

Subhash Chandra Agrawal, who has caused much disquiet with RTI applications on a wide range of issues from judicial reforms to Padma awards, laments that “the babu mentality is still a big stumbling block in getting real information. The government officials neither know the RTI nor are they ready to share information with us.”

 

One, if marginal reason, is the birth of the RTI activist. From 2005, the country — from its villages to its towns and cities — has seen a new kind of civic activist. He or she uses information procured from government files to insist its functioning is more transparent and accountable.

 

V Madhav, 30, has filed more than 250 applications and been the trigger for landmark change. He believes the Act is meant more to ensure transparency than good governance. “There are many obstacles to utilizing the RTI Act, but it is the only legislation that had given power to the people,” says the activist who quit his job with a IT firm and joined an NGO.

 

But there is a decided nuisance value about RTI petitions that seek information about silly things. Some government officials say this is the “misuse of the RTI”. It is noteworthy that a Principal Information Officer (PIO) makes the case on an internet discussion portal for the RTI to be made more “responsible. If India has to progress, RTI has to be reformed. There must be some control over what can be asked under RTI,” the officer argues. “Also there must be some limit over the number of questions one can ask. If a citizen asks something beyond the Act, there must be some provisions to punish him,” says the anonymous officer, calling the RTI a tussle between “working and nonworking people”.

 

It is true that there have been recent instances of estranged wives attempting to put a figure on their husband’s salaries using the RTI. Neighbours have tried to use RTI to settle scores with each other. In UP, a group of RTI activists asked chief minister Mayawati to set-up an expert committee to investigate ‘Gumnami Baba’, whom a retired Supreme Court judge purportedly identified as Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in a documentary.

 

But Agrawal says frivolous cases do not make a nonsense of the RTI.

“Even educated people don’t really know about the RTI or how to use it. That’s why there are some frivolous cases, but that’s no reason to make any amendments to it.”

 

How to file an RTI

 

Draft your application on an ordinary sheet of paper and submit it to the Public Information Officer (PIO) by post or in person. But some states specify a set format

 

Applications can be filed with the PIO or Assistant PIO (APIO). In Central government departments, 629 post offices have been designated APIOs

It costs Rs 10 to file an RTI with a Central government department. The fee differs by state. It can be paid in cash or through a demand draft, bankers cheque or postal order

 

 

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karira

REALITY CHECK March 29, 2010

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CENTRAL INFORMATION COMMISSION CHIEF SHAILESH GANDHI, WARNING THAT THE RISE IN PENDING RTI APPLICATIONS KILL OFF THE VERY SPIRIT OF INDIA’S MOST PROGRESSIVE LAW

 

Number of pending cases with the CIC |

11,500

 

Backlog in UP, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka | Six months

 

Number of pending cases in Maharashtra | 15-18,000

 

It can be tough to file an RTI application, even at the Ministry of Personnel and Public Grievances, the Act’s nodal department in the heart of the national capital, as Sunday Times learnt this week. Here’s what happened:

 

The guard at North Block, home to the DoPT, uses the point of his gun to point out the “RTI window” at Gate No 5, hidden in a dusty corner. The window panes are broken and have been replaced by plywood, wire mesh and a rusty iron grill. A small hole in the lefthand corner is your window to the RTI in New Delhi. There is no signboard. Push the wood covering the hole and a head pops up. It asks: “What do you want?” Even before you hand over your RTI application, the head asks you to “come tomorrow” because his “cash receipt book is finished”. He finally accepts the application, shuts the “window” and promises to telephone when the “receipt book arrives”. He does, the next day and you get your receipt 24 hours after filing the application. We expect the answers to our RTI query (below) in 30 days. Watch this space. – Shobhan Saxena

SUNDAY TIMES’ RTI QUERY

 

Which Central ministries and departments have not so far abided by the obligation cast on them by Section 4 of RTI to make a proactive disclosure of the specified information?

 

What action have you, as the nodal department for RTI, taken against public authorities that have not complied with Section 4 of RTI by not making suo motu disclosure of the prescribed information?

 

Is there not a prescribed format for disclosure of information under Section 4 of RTI?

 

What action have you taken against public authorities that have not disclosed Section 4 information in the prescribed format?

 

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The RTI window at Delhi’s nodal department

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karira

As reported by Manoj Mitta of TNN

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5 years on, babus know too little

 

As the five-year-old RTI continued to display precocity, these were two of the cases that pushed the envelope - for better or for worse:

 

A query that sought information on the Prime Minister’s delegation responsible for the notoriously flawed drafting of the Sharmel-Sheikh declaration

 

An application that seeks to get to the bottom of the disaster that struck Delhi’s showpiece metro project when a pillar bracket collapsed on a busy street, killing six people

 

The first case smacked of over-reach as the Central Information Commission (CIC) directed the Ministry of External Affairs to allow the RTI applicant, Subhash Chandra Agrawal, to inspect sensitive files that had information on India’s relations with Pakistan. The second application, filed by architect Sudhir Vohra, threatens to expose structural design defects that risk the travelling public's safety. The CIC ordered disclosure brushing aside a range of rather desperate objections raised by the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC).

 

The Sharm-el-Sheikh case was an opportunity for those who oppose transparency to clamour all over again for RTI to be diluted. But the fault lies less in the law and more in the way it was implemented in this case by the CIC, an independent appellate body, and the MEA, the public authority that had been approached for information. The RTI exempts the authorities from disclosing information that would “prejudicially affect ... relations with a foreign state”. This is one of the exempt categories of information listed in Section 8 of the RTI.

 

This is what the central public information officer (CPIO) of the MEA, Debraj Pradhan (a diplomat of joint secretary rank) should have said when responding to Agrawal’s query in September 2009. He should have cited Section 8 of the RTI Act and refused to disclose the names of officers and the file notings behind the goof-up in the Indo-Pak declaration. Instead, Pradhan appeared to adopt a cavalier attitude to the ministry’s obligations under RTI. He gave Agrawal a list of the entire official delegation; he did not indicate who was responsible for the blunder; he offered no explanation for withholding their file notings.

 

When the CIC took up the matter, the MEA merely said no file notings of the joint statement were available and it was therefore, impossible to identify the officials who drafted it. The then information commissioner Annapurna Dixit controversially directed the MEA in January to allow Agrawal “to inspect the relevant files to locate all information as sought by him”.

 

That the CIC gave such an over-the-top order, with little regard for foreign relations repercussions, was because of the MEA’s error of omission. It took the MEA months to wake up to its statutory entitlement of claiming exemption under Section 8. It did so only when appealing in the Delhi high court last month against the CIC’s order. The high court passed a stay order, showing that the RTIbashing that had followed the CIC’s order was misplaced.

 

In the metro pillar case, on the other hand, the public authority concerned excessively invoked Section 8. This was part of its attempt to deny structural drawings and calculations to Vohra. The DMRC tried in vain to seek exemption under Section 8(1)(a) saying disclosure would compromise India's “security interests”. It also claimed exemption under Section 8(1)(h) saying disclosure would “impede the process of investigation”. However, the police told the CIC it had no objection to the divulging of structural information.

 

The DMRC’s most serious argument was its invocation of Section 8(1)(d) to claim that the requested information was its “intellectual property” and the result of considerable money and time. But once it conceded that it was part of the state structure and claimed that it had copyright over the information in question, Vohra demolished the DMRC’s argument. The CIC upheld his counter this month that Section 9 of the RTI specifically barred the state from denying information on the ground of copyright infringement. Thus, a vigilant applicant helped expand the scope of information available under RTI. This is the way to go for RTI to fulfil its much touted objective of deepening the democracy in the country.

 

IN THE FRONTLINE OF THE CRUSADE

 

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Subhash Agarwal | His applications are the reason Supreme Court judges will have to make their assets public

 

 

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V Madhav, |

His query forced the Tamil Nadu chief minister to appoint a public information officer

 

 

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Aishwarya Sharma, | The eight-year-old forced the municipal corporation to stop dumping garbage near her school

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karira

‘The govt is fooling us’

Harpal Singh is 60 and has fire in his belly. A retired Indian Airlines operator, Singh has filed roughly 25 RTI applications from October 13, 2006. This is his way of fighting corruption, favouritism and nepotism in the aviation sector. He tells Shobha John why he bothers to file RTI queries and if they do the job

 

What type of information have you asked for?

On many issues: Why has GMR, the private developer of Delhi airport, been charging high parking and user development fees? Why have arrears been paid to AI and not to IA (since 1997) despite their merger? Why is IA lending cars to the ministry of civil aviation?

Were you satisfied with the answers?

No. Most of the replies were half-baked, given simply so that the officer concerned wouldn’t have to pay the penalty of Rs 250 per day that the RTI Act imposes. But I understand why people don’t give me full information — it’s to save their jobs.

 

So, is the RTI Act of any use?

The government is fooling everyone with this Act. I have never been given the information I sought. The Act should be amended so that just one application is enough to get all the information. It’s a can of worms now.

What can an RTI applicant do with the information he gets?

A public interest litigation can be filed on the basis of the information. The information can be given to the media, sent to the CBI or given to the opposition who can take it up in Parliament. But the opposition here is not strong enough.

Are you seen as something of a nuisance now?

I am called RTI Harpal Singh! Most people say of me, “Yeh naak mei dam karta hai (He is a troublemaker).” Some senior people even tried to dissuade me from filing applications, telling me to take it easy after retirement. My family has suffered, no one was ready to employ my son because of my reputation. Now, he’s in business.

 

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US and Europe are mostly land of the free

AN OPEN SECRET? HOW THEY DO IT ELSEWHERE

 

Washington: Some 15 years ago, an Indian correspondent here tentatively phoned the US commerce department to ask about the then commerce secretary Ron Brown's forthcoming visit to India. The Indian Embassy was tightlipped and used to the desi system that abhorred giving ‘sensitive’ information to the media/public. But the US commerce Department was not only happy to answer questions, it had a question of its own when asked about the Indian-American entrepreneurs accompanying Brown: “What’s your fax number? We’ll send you the list.”

 

The US remains one of the most open societies in the world when it comes to harmless, retaillevel information. It’s a society that discloses intimate details of the President’s annual health check up, his tax returns and the salary of every White House and Congressional employee.

 

The internet has helped. But Uncle Sam gets touchy when it comes to state secrets pertaining to national security and individual privacy. Although President Lyndon Johnson signed the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in 1966 to make government more transparent, the legislation has been amended several times to create nine notable exemptions, ranging from national defence to foreign policy interests.

 

A tenacious public, a vigilant Congress and receptive judicial system keeps the US government on its toes, but the executive still manages occasionally to dance around the law.

– Chidanand Rajghatta

Sweden

 

It enacted the Freedom of the Press Act in 1766, granting the public access to government documents. The Act, considered the first freedom of information legislation in the modern sense of the term, became part of the Constitution. Known as the Principle of Public Access, the Act guarantees:

 

An unimpeded view of activities of the government and local authorities

Access to all documents handled by the authorities

Individual handling of each request for potentially sensitive information

 

United Kingdom

 

The Freedom of Information Act was passed by parliament in 2000, but came into force only in 2005. It guarantees:

 

The right to access information held by 1,00,000 public bodies and police forces, hospitals, schools, local councils

The government is obliged to reply to requests for information, making it possible for people to know how decisions are made and how public money is spent

Any person, of any nationality, and living anywhere in the world, can make a written request for information, and expect a response within 20 working days. For the majority, there is no charge. However, requests can be rejected for reasons of cost or public interest

China: Baby steps towards open society

 

Beijing: China has begun to take baby steps towards a relatively more open society in which citizens have the right to know what’s on the mind of their leaders. The Communist state is still miles away from granting its citizens the right to information. Of late, provincial governments have begun to hold meetings with select groups of people, who are shown the draft versions of new laws being formulated by the government. The consultation process aims to get feedback on crucial matters, such as property laws and health services. But such consultations are still rare.

 

This is a long way away from a cast-iron right to information. Questions have also been raised about the composition of the groups, with some alleging they are linked to the Communist Party.

– Saibal Dasgupta

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