Friday, April 29, 2011

RTI Act is the only people-friendly law; use it

RTI Act is the only people-friendly law; use it
MoneyLife February 23, 2011 06:29 PM Bookmark and Share
Vinita Deshmukh

Right to information is a formidable weapon that promotes transparency and helps to curb corruption. While there are some drawbacks that can be addressed separately, we must use this law to its full potential 

Just who can use the Right to Information Act? This would seem a strange or at best stale question, considering that the Right to Information (RTI) was implemented in 2005, on 12th October to be precise. But a little over five years later, the question is still relevant, as many people continue to be ignorant of the potency of this Act that could give them the information they seek, sometimes resulting in justice for oneself-all with the power of just a pen and paper.

The beauty of the RTI Act is that it is very Gandhian in its nature, as it non-violently demands information from public authorities (government departments) who are compelled to provide it under this law. Prior to this Act, the executive and the legislature took umbrage under the Official Secrets Act, 1923, and evaded making any information public. When the RTI Act came into force, it generally overruled the Official Secrets Act (which strangely has not been made null and void as yet). So, if any officer tells you that he is forbidden from revealing information under the Official Secrets Act, do tell him that the RTI Act has nullified it, even though it may still exist on paper.

Besides, all government departments across the country have been directed to suo moto disclose information in the public domain, preferably on a website, under Section 4 of the Act, within 120 days after the Act was implemented, and to update information at regular intervals. Many of them either have not done so, or have uploaded inadequate information (read as, that which is convenient to them).

We shall discuss, in another article, the intricate details of Section 4 which empowers the citizen to procure information faster than a written application under Section 6. Suffice to mention for now that inspection of files (under Section 4) can be done by any citizen by simply visiting a government office, and using the right to go through the official documents, as well as demanding and getting photostat copies/CDs of the required documents. Of course, certain documents cannot be revealed under Section 8 (which also we will understand with examples).

The best thing about the RTI Act is that the Public Information Officer (PIO)-the designated officer to whom the application is sent-cannot ask you the reason/purpose for your seeking information. Section 6(2) clearly states, "An applicant making a request for information shall not be required to give any reason for requesting the information or any other personal details, except those that may be necessary for contacting him." It does not matter who you are-you could be a criminal-but you have the right to get the information.

A unique example comes to mind. Several years ago, when I was working with a national daily, our resident editor received a very well written inland letter in English from a prisoner, who was serving a life sentence for murder in Yerawada Central Prison. He was kept in the Open Jail due to his good behaviour. However, after he led an agitation-joined by many fellow prisoners-against bad quality food being served in the jail, the authorities decided to put him in the closed prison as a punishment.

Humiliated, he filed an application under Section 6 of the RTI Act, demanding a copy of the Prison Manual Act, to find out the reasons under which he was transferred to the closed jail. Predictably, his application was rejected and, therefore, he dashed off a letter to the newspaper. My editor asked me to follow up the story. I called up the Inspector General (IG) of Prisons and asked him the reason why the prisoner's application was rejected. There was a flutter in the police office as the IG asked his officers to have the RTI application re-written by the prisoner and within 24 hours the prisoner received a copy of the prison manual. What happened after that is another story, but it highlights how people-friendly this Act is.

In all other laws, it is the citizen who is at the receiving end. For example, if you disregard the red traffic signal, you could face action from the traffic police. If you do not pay your income-tax in time, you could be penalised. However, in the case of the RTI Act, the public information officer has to supply the information asked for within a time frame (30 days, if it is under Section 6, and instantly if it is under Section 4) when the citizen (applicant) demands it. Else, he could be penalised. (This has not been implemented in right earnest as most of them are given a hearing and pardoned.) The applicant can appeal to the first appellate authority (a senior officer of the department given this additional charge), or the second appellate authority, that is, the information commissioner.

Recently, Lucknow-based Aishwarya Sharma, all of nine years old, filed an application under the RTI Act about a garbage heap in front of her school. Thanks to her initiative and the amplification of the issue by the media, the overflowing garbage dump has been taken away and a library has come up at the spot. Teenagers in various parts of the country and those who have appeared for competitive examinations have filed RTI applications to demand copies of their original answer sheets, when in doubt about the marks they have received. While some have received them, most have had to file second appeals before the information commissioners who have given favourable decisions.

As per the official record at the State Information Commissioner's office in the Pune Division, 70% of the applicants seek personal information. But as information commissioner Vijay Kuvalekar states, most of them reflect social trends that affect many.

Of course, the RTI Act is not a magical wand, as procuring information requires perseverance. At times, rejection of the application can make one skeptical about the Act. There are cases of misuse also. But, overall, it is a formidable weapon for the common man that promotes transparency and helps to curb corruption, and since it has come more than five decades after Independence, we should use it to its full potential. Drawbacks such as its misuse could be addressed by experts. Each one of us should conserve and strengthen the Act by invoking it.

(The writer is a senior editor, author and convener of Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan.)

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