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Plug loopholes, RTI campaigners demand

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Pune, May 14 (IANS) India, on paper, has a very good law granting citizens the freedom to access official information. But campaigners are impatient to make the law work better and more efficiently.


In Jammu and Kashmir, the Right to Information Act 2005 has not yet been extended and awaits ratification from the assembly. Social campaigner Raja Muzafar Bhat argues that this act is crucial to fight corruption and human rights cases.


Speaking during a two-day convention on the nearly two-year-old act, held on the weekend here, Bhat said: 'Rs.2,400 crore (Rs.24 billion) were sanctioned to J&K by the prime minister two years back as a special package. But on the ground we don't see any development. Corruption in Kashmir is a serious issue. But even the opposition isn't willing to take up this issue.'


From Tamil Nadu, Prof Vishwanathan of the University of Madras stressed the need for orientation courses for all civil servants, and said that urban dwellers were more aware of the RTI act.


In Maharashtra, campaigners felt that the RTI implementation shouldn't become 'just a ground for retired bureaucrats'. Disclosure of official information should be 'the norm and not the exception', they protested.


Organisations in Orissa questioned the government approach of routing funding through NGOs (non-governmental organisations) via the Right to Information Council. This, it was felt, could not just cause a conflict of interest, but also incorporate critical elements in a way that affects the functioning of the RTI Act.


In Orissa too, there were rules that required a person to come forward with 'proof of citizenship' before applying for the RTI Act. Many concerns were raised about the 'absurd' rules of the state government in implementing the law.


Jasbinder Singh of Ludhiana in Punjab said there were as many as nine information commissioners for a small state like Punjab. Larger Maharashtra was making do with just three, he noted.


In Bihar, campaigners stressed for the need of orientation and training. Andhra's rural areas were still found to be lagging behind in implementing the law. Some 5,300 applications had been received in a year and a half, which was seen as 'small' for a state of its size. Pamphlets and booklets were being printed too.


Haryana had a problem with high fees - Rs.50 per application, and Rs.10 per page, nearly five times the cost for applying for central information, or the rate fixed by most states.


Nagaland advocate G. Lydia Yeptho said the commission there was 'fully running', but campaigners supported by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative had been trained and had worked on a campaign last year through all the districts.


'This year we want to make it an action year. We've started filing applications, helping people to write them. Just now the State Information Commission has penalised four principal information officers for not giving information,' she said.


Roy Laifungbam of Manipur said the Right to Information Act could play a crucial role in his home state to raise human rights issues. Tripura campaigners' complaint was that there were many cases pending before the state information commission. The Tripura government was seen as being 'not interested' in the state.


In Assam, some officers had never heard of the Right to Information, campaigners complained. Two districts in Chhattisgarh were being trained as 'model districts' for the RTI, in a scheme aided by the UNDP.


Problems of rising RTI cases in Naxalite-prone areas, and in areas where only partial human rights were allowed, like the northeast, were also raised.


'When it comes to the RTI, Kerala is as illiterate as any state in the country,' said Jithin Paul Varghese of Kochi. Kerala is also very poor in the implementation of Section 4, the law that requires self-disclosure of official information, he argued.


Making payments easier while applying for information, lack of nameplates of responsible officers outside government departments, poor training for government staff, high security making secretariats inaccessible, and incorporating NGOs by offering them funds, were among the other issues raised.


'By asking for the right to information, we are asking for a political right to govern ourselves. When a people fight for their ration, water or protection of their land, they are also fighting for democracy,' said Aruna Roy, a former IAS official who played a key role in persistently campaigning for the RTI Act over the years.


Plug loopholes, RTI campaigners demand

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