The genie is out, granting one key right that the common citizen of India had been yearning for. Whatever the bureaucrats may now wish, it cannot be pushed back into the bottle. And after all, it is a spirit with superhuman powers. Any attempt to contain it will seriously backfire.
Citizens have evinced overwhelming interest in the Right to Information Act, 2005. The law became fully operational all over the country on the Vijayadashami Day, both at the central and state levels.
Shahid Burney from Pune, a die-hard user for the past four years of the now-repealed Maharashtra RTI Act, went to the government book depot in the city on 15 October (Saturday) morning to buy a copy of the new national Act made available by the Maharashtra Government. He was surprised to see that there were already 50 odd citizens lined up there for copies. Employees at the depot looked reasonably harassed. Theirs was the last place to witness a stampede for buying copies of a recently released book. Surely they were not selling the latest in the Harry Potter series.
Maharashtra had witnessed during the two years of the existence of its state law that the number of persons demanding information actually went up during the second year unmindful of numerous difficulties faced during the initial year. Pressure on the government went on mounting to straighten up its system and the success rate is getting answers to information requests actually soared up to as high as about 30 per cent by the time the state law was pulled down to make way for the national law. Around 8,000 people of the state had filed nearly 30,000 requisitions*, one-third of these successfully, when the Maharashtra Right to Information Act was repealed on October 11. These citizens are now all set for a fresh bout under the new Act, ready to overcome new hurdles all over again and eventually overcome.
They will be joined by a fresh lot of RTI enthusiasts from other states where a law on right to know is a new phenomenon and together it will be a countrywide force to reckon. It will be India, together, on the right to know. Frustration is so acute that these users will not be deterred by all the teething trouble and hurdles planted by the bureaucracy in their march forward. They are determined to and destined to overcome.
At every training session I have been conducting for citizens in Pune during the past few days, I begin my presentation on a discouraging note. "Do not expect a smooth journey." I caution them. "It is going to be rough and tough, full of disappointments. Please do not seek any information under this law if you are not prepared to undertake all the trouble." Still, large numbers of citizens approach me for details and an overwhelmingly larger number throngs the government book depot for a copy of the bare act with no explanation and commentary. None of them is wasting their time. By all indications, they are ready throw in their lot in the crusade for transparency and in the process humble a reluctant bureaucracy into submission.
The new national law has all encompassing definitions of what is 'information' and what is 'right to information'. The right extends not only to demanding copies of documents but also to demanding inspection of files and asking for samples of material. But it is not going to be a cakewalk. Information commissions both at the Centre and States will invariably will face a torrent of complaints and second appeals against obstinate bureaucrats. Much of the success of the Act, therefore, will depend upon a fiercely independent stance taken by information commissioners in administrating justice. An information commissioner, in fact, is the fulcrum on which hangs the fate of this much hyped piece of legislation.
But while the national campaigners were probably patting each other's back on having achieved for the country a well drafted piece of legislation on people's right to information, the bureaucracy, during the 120-day of countdown prescribed for full implementation of the Act, was busy planting landmines, digging trenches and erecting bunkers.
The national leadership of the right to information movement had struggled hard to get the draft bill amended so that the crucial posts of information commissioners did not turn into an asylum for retired bureaucrats but was thrown open to eminent personalities from different walks of life. They succeeded in getting the desired amendment incorporated but failed in getting it implemented in letter and spirit.
One sees Babus adorning these positions all over the country, barring barely two examples so far of the posts at the secondary level being filled by academicians one at the centre and another in Orissa. This appears more in ridicule for the spirit of the legislation than a sincere compliance.
Aruna Roy, the torch bearer of the RTI movement in India and Shekhar Singh, convener of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information under Aruna's leadership say that the Information Commission, through its orders and judgements, is expected to initiate a change in the mindset of the bureaucracy. "Not only must the bureaucracy recognise and accept that the right to information is a fundamental right of the citizen, but they must also be prepared to justify their actions and decisions before the public. This is essential in a participatory democracy." They rue that whether a Commission exclusively or overwhelmingly populated with former civil servants can provide such a leadership is doubtful.
"An applicant's first encounter for RTI is with a bureaucrat. Second encounter i.e. first appeal is again with a senior bureaucrat," points out none less than Julio Ribeiro, a veteran bureaucrat himself with impeccable track record. "If dissatisfied with both, the Applicant (citizen) will prefer Second Appeal and once again face a bureaucrat? Is this justice?"
The bureaucracy did not stop in annexing most of the positions of information commissioners. They have raised an impregnable army of public information officers designating all and sundry as PIOs. Single window approach was systematically sabotaged and now a common man will never know which exact PIO to approach for the information he is seeking from among the horde of PIOs popping up from almost every unit, every section, every department and every desk. Maharashtra Government in has now positioned a public information officer positioned to receive formal queries under the RTI law for information on "canteens in Mantralaya", its citadel in Mumbai.
Aggravating an information hunter's bewilderment is an additional para-military brigade of Assistant Public Information Officers. The legislation devised this position merely to function at sub-district or sub-division levels where a department may not be in a position to deploy a full-fledged public information officer. These Assistant PIOs are expected to function merely as counters to receive requisitions from the people in the semi-rural areas and forward these to the appropriate PIO. Instead, one finds scores of APIOs propped up at all kinds of places where they have no business to exist down from ministries to district-level offices. Is it to facilitate a common man in his quest or deflect his aim?
There's more. People friendly provisions of the legislation needed elaborate regulations for smoother practice. Rules had to be framed so that the actual operation of information demand and supply left no room for uncertainties. Knowing our Babus, care had to be taken to leave no scope for them to find a hole in the requisition. But the Department of Personnel and Training of the Government of India the nodal agency for implementation of the legislation in the country has precisely avoided just that. Rules declared by the GoI are vague and truncated and all state governments have obligingly adopted the same model.
This was despite the fact that the National Campaign for People's Right to Information presenting its own meticulously drafted suggestions to the Department for it consideration. The suggestions were promptly consigned to the waste paper bin. The inevitable result is going to be a chaos.
Despite all this, citizens are not discouraged. Their enthusiasm and earnestness remains unassailable.
In Karnataka, highly surcharged volunteers of a citizens' forum for the use of the RTI law KRIA Katte, and the Ella Kannada Abhimaanigala Vedike International (EKAVI) prevailed upon the state government to reduce the requisition fee from a whopping Rs 100 straight to one-tenth. They also succeeded in getting the operational rules of the state from being among the worst in the country now to among the best.
Next in the firing lines are bureaucrat-turned-information commissioners. Activist Vijay Kumbhar in Pune has vowed to keep a close watch all decisions that the state information commission would take in the next few months and challenge every single dubious or questionable decision in the high court. He has already created a cell for the purpose comprising friendly lawyers.
In using the new law itself, citizens have wasted no time in putting to test their new empowerment. On the very first day, though Vijaya Dashami was a holiday and most government officials were closed, Pune's Shahid Burney filed his first requisition with a police inspector manning a police station near his home, in the latter's capacity as the Assistant PIO.
Next day, as offices opened, a retired government official in New Delhi, filed his requisition with the Urban Development Ministry demanding to know how much government was spending on the repair works of the residential houses of its employees.
In Pune, Vijay Kumbhar filed his requisition with the Pune Municipal Corporation demanding to inspect files on properties leased out by the civic body to private parties without inviting any tenders.
In Bangalore, N Anbarasan walked into the E-Governance secretariat of the Karnataka Government and demanded to inspect files containing documents that have to be pro-actively made available to the people by the office.
In semi-urban Satara of Maharashtra, veteran of RTI use Shivaji Raut, filed a requisition with the Income Tax department wanting to know wealth tax returns by politicians who had contested the recent elections in the state.
This is not euphoria. This is beginning of a mammoth awakening. The die is cast. There may be no looking back now. ⊕
Select sections of the National Right to Information Act that came into force on 12 October, 2005.
(f) "information" means any material in any form, including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force;
(j) "right to information" means the right to information accessible under this Act which is held by or under the control of any public authority and includes the
(i) inspection of work, documents, records;
(ii) taking notes, extracts, or certified copies of documents or records;
(iii) taking certified samples of material;
(iv) obtaining information in the form of diskettes, floppies. tapes, video cassettes or in any other electronic mode or through printouts where such information is stored in a computer or in any other device; .
(1) Every public authority shall
(a) maintain all its records duly catalogued and indexed in a manner and form which facilitates the right to information under this Act and ensure that all records that are appropriate to be computerised are, within a reasonable time and subject to availability of resources, computerised and connected through a network all over the country on different systems so that access to such records is facilitated;
(b) publish within one hundred and twenty days from the enactment of this Act,-
(i) the particulars of its organisation, functions and duties;
(ii) the powers and duties of its officers and employees;
(iii) the procedure followed in the decision making process, including channels of supervision and accountability;
(iv) the norms set by it for the discharge of its functions;
(v) the rules, regulations, instructions, manuals and records, held by it or under its control or used by its employees for discharging its functions;
(vi) a statement of the categories of documents that are held by it or under its control;
(vii) the particulars of any arrangement that exists for consultation with, or representation by, the members of the public in relation to the formulation of its policy or implementation thereof;
(viii) a statement of the boards, councils, committees and other bodies consisting of two or more persons constituted as its part or for the purpose of its advise, and as to whether meetings of those boards, councils, committees and other bodies are open to the public, or the minutes 'of such meetings are accessible for public;
(ix) a directory of its officers and employees;
(x) the monthly remuneration received by each of its officers and employees, including the system of compensation as provided in its regulations;
(xi) the budget allocated to each of its agency, indicating the particulars of all plans, proposed expenditures and reports on disbursements made;
(xii) the manner of execution of subsidy programmes, including the amounts allocated and the details of beneficiaries of such programmes;
(xiii) particulars of recipients of concessions, permits or authorisations granted by it;
(xiv) details in respect of the information, available to or held by it, reduced in an electronic form;
(xv) the particulars of facilities available to citizens for obtaining information, including the working hours of a library or reading room, if maintained for public use;
(xvi) the names, designations and other particulars of the Public Information Officers; ,
(xvii) such other information as may be prescribed; and thereafter update these publications every year;
(c) publish all relevant facts while formulating important policies or announcing the decisions which affect public;
(d) provide reasons for its administrative or quasi judicial decisions to affected persons;
(2) It shall be a constant endeavour of every public authority to take steps in accordance with the requirements of clause (b) of sub-section (1) to provide as much information suo moto to the public at regular intervals through various means of communications, including internet, so that the public have minimum resort to the use of this Act to obtain information.
(3) For the purpose of sub-section (1), every information shall be disseminated widely and in such form and manner which is easily accessible to the public.
(4) All materials shall be disseminated taking into consideration the cost. effectiveness, local language and the most effective method of communication in that local area and the information should be easily accessible, to the extent possible in electronic format with the Central Public Information Officer, or State Public Information Officer, as the case may be, available fee or at such cost of the medium or theprint cost price as may be prescribed.
Explanation: For the purposes of sub-sections (3) and (4), "disseminated" means making known or communicated' the information to the public through notice boards, newspapers, public announcements, media broadcasts, the internet or any other means, including inspection of offices of any public authority.
5. (1) Every public authority shall, within one hundred days of the enactment of this Act, designate as many officers as Central Public Information Officers or State Public Information Officers, as the case may be in all administrative units or offices under it as may be necessary to provide information to persons requesting for the information under this Act. .
(2) Without prejudice to the provisions of sub-section (1), every public authority shall designate an officer, within one hundred days of the enactment of this Act, at each sub divisional level or other sub-district level as a Central Assistant Public Information Officer or a State Assistant Public Information Officer, as the case may be, to receive the applications for information or appeals under this Act for forwarding the same forthwith to the Central Public Information Officer or the State Public Information Officer or senior officer specified under sub-section (1) of section 19 or the Central Information Commission or the State Information Commission , as the case may be.
Provided that where an application for information or appeal is given to a Central Assistant Public Information Officer or a State Assistant Public Information Officer, as the case may be, a period of five days shall be added in computing the period for response specified under sub-section (1) of section 7.
(3) Every Central Public Information Officer or State Public Information Officer, as the case may be, shall deal with requests from persons seeking information and render reasonable assistance to the persons seeking such information.
(4) The Central Public Information Officer or State Public Information Officer, as the case may be, may seek the assistance of any other officer as he or she considers it necessary for the proper discharge of his or her duties.