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Citizens' Infobahn


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Gayathri Nivas
The RTI Act is potentially a powerful tool in the hands of the public but only if the latter chooses to use it.

*Was Sanjay Dutt granted permission to smoke in jail?


*How many encroached government plots have actually been slated for re-auction because they did not fetch a good price the first time round?


*Who is answerable to the fact that there are few or no fire-extinguishers at important public places like railway stations?


You can have answers to these and more intriguing questions, thanks to the Right to Information (RTI) Act, hailed as probably the most significant legislation enacted since Independence, allowing the common man to seek – and receive within 30 days – information on most aspects of government functioning. The RTI Act is potentially a powerful tool in the hands of the public but only if the latter chooses to use it.


The RTI Act, enacted by Parliament in 2005, extends to the whole of India except the State of Jammu and Kashmir. It provides for the creation of a Central Information Commission (CIC) and Information Commissions (ICs) in the states. The CIC is headed by a Central Chief Information Commissioner (CCIC) and the state ICs by Chief Information Commissioners (CICs). In addition, up to ten Information Commissioners may be appointed for the Central and State Commissions.


Karnataka Information Commission (KIC), almost two-year-old, has had an action-filled but unarresting run as people generally seek information to redress personal grievances such as an encroaching neighbour (violating building plan) or about a civic problem.


Former Chief Secretary K K Misra, whose comment that he is busier now as CIC than before, is an indication that people are, indeed, using the RTI tool, though not very effectively. He believes that the RTI Act medium is just as powerful as the public interest litigation and should be invoked to serve larger public interest.


The KIC acts as a second appellate authority and may be approached when the information officer and first appellate authority of a Public Authority (PA) fail to satisfy an applicant. A PA is any body constituted under the Constitution or law of Parliament/legislature and receiving substantial public finance. The KIC hears the two parties and disposes of the case in one or two sittings. The backlog is kept low in order to win the confidence of the people, says Misra.


Penalty may be levied on a PIO for refusing or delaying the requisite information. Cost and compensation is also ordered to be paid to the applicant (calculated on the basis of 'avoidable expenditure' to the applicant) if a respondent (PIO or PA) seeks an adjournment.


While the penalty and cost have to be paid by the PIO from his pocket, compensation is payable by the PA. Penalty ranging from Rs 500 to Rs 10,000 (at Rs 250 a day and up to a maximum of Rs 25,000) has been levied in about 40 cases so far, and payment of cost and compensation ordered in about 20 cases. The compensation amount varied from Rs 200 to Rs 4000, reveals K A Thippeswamy, State Information Commissioner.


KIC is no redressal mechanism. However, merely seeking information puts a public authority on alert and that is half the job done, believes Thippeswamy.


The Commission has asked the various public utilities such as BBMP to standardise procedures like Khata transfer and publish it so that people have ready access to them. Preventive Vigilance is another proposal.


Under this, NGOs and special interest groups such as Public Affairs Committee will be asked to prepare Citizens’ Charters to be made a part of the disclosures under RTI.


graph.jpgSouth Africa model better


The South African Constitution guarantees the right to information wherever it is needed to fulfill another constitutional right, and its RTI Act applies to both public and private institutions. It also has a "whistle blower protection" to protect citizens from harassment.


Bone of contention


Should personal information such as medical records and Income Tax assessment details be divulged? This remains a bone of contention between KIC and Central Information Commission. While KIC is against disclosing personal information, the Central Commission contention is that no information should be denied as ‘personal’.


To illustrate, K K Misra, KCIC, cites the example of a dowry harassment victim, who approached the police helpline - Vanitha Sahaya Vani. After she recorded her statement, her in-laws applied for details of her statement, which was denied as it could jeopardise her case. The alibi for denial - the helpline “does not receive substantial public finance and does not constitute a Public Authority”.


Missing CA sites!


In Byatarayanapura City Municipal Council limits, the CMC and Canara Bank Employees House Building Cooperative Society together formed sites on land transferred by the Bangalore Development Authority (BDA) for parks.


The sites were “allotted” to private persons. A complaint was filed before the KIC, which sought details from the CMC. The CMC denied any sites transfer from BDA. When BDA confirmed the transfer, the CMC owned up the fraudulent transaction and its Commissioner was slapped a fine of Rs 5,000. It was ordered to vacate the encroachment and maintain the land as CA sites, said Mr Thippeswamy.


Deccan Herald - Citizens' Infobahn


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