Friday, April 29, 2011

Citizens must use RTI to demand information and inspect documents in government offices

Citizens must use RTI to demand information and inspect documents in government offices
MoneyLife, March 02, 2011 02:50 PM Bookmark and Share
Vinita Deshmukh

Section 6 of the RTI Act makes it mandatory for every government department to provide whatever information that a citizen may apply for, within a specified period. Section 4 empowers citizens to examine official files on the spot 

Does it bother you that trees have been felled in your neighbourhood? Has the road you go by daily to work developed potholes within a month or two of it being re-laid, or have the inter-locking tiles on the footpath you often walk on got loosened within three months of fixing them? Are you curious to know why a multinational company has set up its plant in or around your city? Are you having a problem with disbursement of your pension? As a citizen, you can investigate these matters by invoking Section 4 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act that also enables citizens to conduct inspection of government files. Let us, therefore, examine the contents of Section 4 to better understand how potent it is for you and for me.

Generally. invoking Section 6 of the RTI Act is the most popular way to access information and this is done through filling an application form with a Rs10 court fee stamp in Maharashtra. (In most other states you have to pay the Rs10 in cash.) However, by this procedure, the Public Information Officer (PIO) has 30 days to give you a reply. If he does not answer your query, or he gives you a reply that does not satisfy you, or he gives wrong information, you need to appeal to the First Appellate Authority (generally a senior officer above the PIO) who is allowed a 45-day period in which to hear your case. If he, too, fails, or conducts a hearing that does not satisfy you, you should appeal to the Second Appellate Authority, who is the state or central information commissioner where your case may be kept pending due to an overload.

Now, if getting the information that you require is going to take so long through this process, it may seem like a futile exercise. But it is important to know that not all information is required urgently. Here is where Section 4 becomes useful. It is also vital to know that in many cases public information officers have complied with the request for information, though in some cases you could suffer frustrating experiences. (For the good of democracy and for the spirit of good governance, we all should be positive about the RTI Act.)

Section 4 helps to overcome the time period that is so typical when one files a query under Section 6. I call Section 4 "the way to get information instantly'' and pioneering RTI activist, the late Prakash Kardaley, used to urge citizens to "go on a Section 4 offensive'' by visiting government offices and demanding inspection of files right away. What's more, you can demand photostat copies and even CDs of documents immediately after you have inspected your files and the public information officer is obliged to give it to you for a charge of Rs2 per page.

In fact, if the government departments sincerely complied with the rules of Section 4 and if citizens simultaneously conducted inspection of files in large numbers, we would hardly have had to take the trouble of filing an application under Section 6, and the pendency with information commissioners would have reduced considerably. Why? Because, Section 4 makes it mandatory for every government department to upload most of what it is doing, in detail, putting it in the public domain.

Hence, sincere implementation by government departments would ensure mindboggling transparency. However, despite being directed to suo moto disclose information within 120 days of the enactment of the Act (12 October 2005) and to regularly update it, most of them have not done so, and hence five years down the line we are in a position where information is still being hidden from the public. For example, I recently visited the petroleum ministry website and the information is so grossly inadequate and outdated that one wonders whether this is an insignificant department of the central government.

Let us understand what Section 4 is all about in the two ways that constitutes it and makes it formidable-how its sincere implementation by government departments (termed 'public authorities' in the RTI Act), which means putting all information in the public domain and inspection of files by citizens, can make this sunshine law completely transparent, with good side-effects of accountability as well as to curb corruption.

So, what is the duty of every government department under this section? Section 4(1)(a) states that every department should, "maintain all its records duly catalogued and indexed in a manner and in the 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.''

To elaborate further, what is the kind of information mandatory for every government department to put in the public domain, preferably on its website? Section 4(b) states: Particulars of its organisation in terms of its functions and duties; powers and duties of its officers and employees; procedure followed in the decision-making process, including channels of supervision and accountability;  rules, regulations, instructions, manuals and records; details of private-public partnership (PPP) or build, operate, transfer (BOT). Every department must provide a directory of its officers and employees; salaries of the employees; budget allocated to it; details of plans and execution of subsidy programmes including beneficiaries; particulars of recipients of concessions and permits; the names, designations and other particulars of the public information officers; details of policies or decisions which will affect citizens at large and so on. Each department must provide as much information suo motu 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. So, you will see that even before the citizen asks any query, the government department has been compelled to provide information and because it has not been sincere about it, we, the citizens have to invoke Section 4 and Section 6.

As far as you and me are concerned, please remember that Section 4 clauses (3 and 4) give the right to every citizen to inspect files. It states: "Making known or communicating 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."

(Next week: Examples of inspection of files under Section 4 of RTI Act: How Dow Chemical Plant had to bite dust and withdraw from Pune, thanks to documents procured under Section 4 and how a priceless botanical garden was saved from a 60 ft road cutting through it.)

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