There has been a startling breach of trust and public confidence by Govt of Maharashtra. Without any public debate, the government has quietly notified an amendment to Maharashtra RTI Rules on 16th January 2012. See this link.

Shockingly, we did not even learn this from any government source such as a public notice in the dailies. Nor was it told to any RTI activist - many of whom are in regular touch with Mantralaya. We were informed by our RTI Union member Advocate Vinod Sampat, who saw this notification in the March edition of a publication he purchased outside City Civil Court. After reading it, we are left no doubt as to the authenticity of the notification and the amendment.

The Amendment says,

  • Request for information must not ordinarily exceed 150 words

  • Request for information must relate to one subject matter only. If necessary, separate applications must be made if it relates to more than one.

  • Public Information Officer (PIO) must allow the person inspecting the documents to take a pencil only. All other writing instruments must be deposited with the PIO.

The third point appears aimed at preventing RTI applicants from making permanent marks on public documents while taking inspection. On the face of it, that seems fair enough.

There should have a public consultation of stakeholders before changing the rules. We object to point (i) because a majority of Maharashtra's people - less educated people living in slums and villages - may lack the verbal skills for drafting an RTI application within a word limit of 150 words. By what process was the 150 word-limit arrived at? Why not 250 words? Unless it is based on study and judicious reasoning, this rule is arbitrary and capricious. If we accept such an arbitrary rule today, the government may pass another amendment tomorrow imposing a limit of 10 words. It is therefore unacceptable to the community of RTI activists and users.

And finally, coming to point (ii), We strenuously object to the 'single subject matter' rule, as it gives the PIO unnecessary discretionary powers. There is a large subjective element involved in deciding what is a 'single subject matter'; where does one draw the line between two subject matters?

Consider this example. An RTI applicant asks the Municipal Commissioner's office for copies of complaints, and the papers showing action taken on them, relating to impure water supply in A, B and C wards. An uncooperative PIO can argue that this RTI application has three subject matters, as each ward is a separate subject matter. Another man in his position can argue that complaints are one subject matter, and the actions taken on complaints are a different subject matter.

Based on our common experiences, we anticipate that the PIOs and appellate authorities will be drawn into such hair-splitting disputes, diverting their attention from the intent of the RTI Act. This will end up hurting the inexperienced first-time RTI applicants the most.

Going backwards

We may have differences of opinion about the merits or demerits of the amended rules, but there can be no differences on one point: the RTI activists and users of the State should have been consulted. There should have a public consultation of stakeholders before changing the rules. This is as mandated by Section 4(1)(c), which says, "Every public authority shall - publish all relevant facts while formulating important policies or announcing the decisions which affect public."

In response, RTI activists and users have written to the Government to convey our shock, dismay and sense of betrayal. We feel cheated that the Government saw fit to notify an amendment to the Maharashtra RTI Rules taking us into confidence. And we are disappointed that we learned about this amendment post-facto from an unofficial source - a private publication sold outside Mumbai's city civil court, rather than from the official machinery. The Union government held public consultations last year for rule amendments; why not the State Government too? Why did they not take the people into confidence, as mandated by Section 4(1)(c)?

We intend to challenge this amendment in the Bombay High Court, if it is not immediately withdrawn, and have informed the Government of this in writing. What makes all this particularly egregious is that it is going on while the Information Commission is already weakened.

In the absence of sufficient numbers of Information Commissioners, many benches of the State Information Commission are lying vacant, numbers of pending Second Appeals are mounting to 30,000, and the time-interval before getting hearings is exceeding 18 to 24 months. Many public authorities in the state are increasingly delaying or denying RTI applications, as the Second Appeal is fast losing its potency. And what is the State's solution? To try and reduce the number of applications, rather than address the ones that are made!