Wednesday, June 29, 2011

RTI activists plead with information commissioners for more transparency

RTI activists plead with information commissioners to compel public authorities to put up mandatory data on Web
June 25, 2011 12:32 PM Bookmark and Share
Vinita Deshmukh

Over 5.5 lakh RTI applications were filed in Maharashtra in 2010, but thenumber of appeals were lower, according to the official annual report. Last week, activists discussed with state information commissioners the ways to make RTI more vibrant and effective 

A total 5.5 lakh RTI applications were submitted to various government departments in Maharashtra in 2010, confirming the state's pre-eminent position in the use of the Right to Information and public activism. According to the annual report of the chief information commissioner Vilas Patil, of the total applications, 59,000 (or about 10%) went into first appeals. However, the number of second appeals declined from 23,000 in 2009 to 19,000 in 2010.

These numbers are encouraging. But there are issues to be sorted out to ensure effective use of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. Some of these issues were brought up at a meeting of the state information commissioners with regular RTI users, held at the office of the State Information Commission at Mantralaya on Friday.

RTI users, activists of the Mahiti Adhikar Manch and Maharashtra RTI Council, yesterday appealed to the seven information commissioners who were present at the meeting along with the chief commissioner to "enforce" on public authorities to suo moto disclose information on their websites, which is mandatory under Section 4 of the RTI Act.

In response to this plea, Mr Patil said he had sent a circular to about 350 public authorities across the state, in December 2010, directing them to do this by 31 January 2011. But he reported, sounding quite helpless, "About 60% of the public authorities have not even replied to me. What am I supposed to do? I suggest that RTI activists take up this matter with the chief secretary to ensure its implementation.''

Bhaskar Prabhu, convener of Mahiti Adhikar Manch and Maharashtra RTI Council, suggested that since YASHADA (the Yashwantrao Chavan Academy of Development Administration) had already worked out a format that facilitates monitoring of public authorities regarding suo motodisclosure under Section 4 of the Act, the information commission should use that to keep tab on them.

Navin Kumar, information commissioner for the Konkan Region, suggested that since there was a shortage of manpower, outsourcing to NGOs was a possibility. "Since the state commission has already drawn out a list of the 60% of those public authorities who have defied this rule, citizen groups could file RTI applications on each one of them, and file a complaint with the information commissioners, and we ensure you action."

Aurangabad information commissioner DB Deshpande said, "There are many instances of public authorities having followed this rule and having made their functioning transparent, like MSEDCL (Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company), PMC (Pune Municipal Corporation) and the University of Mumbai. The archaic system of punishment will not help.'' Activist Vijay Kumbhar suggested that if strong action is taken, like "issuing summons or levying penalty", public authorities would be motivated to adhere to Section 4.

On reducing pendency and hastening disposal of second appeals, Mr Kumar suggested that all ten posts of information commissioners should be filled, which means that three more officials should be added to the seven, currently. The average clearance of cases is around 300 per month. Activists lamented that "more than increasing the number of commissioners, the state should provide each information commissioner with full-fledged 'relevant' staff, in order to increase efficiency of disposing appeals." Mr Patil confessed that funds or manpower do not come by very easily.

Pune division state information commissioner Vijay Kuvlekar is said to have succeeded in reducing pendency, with a novel exercise to bringing the applicant and the appellate authority/PIO together on a one-on-one basis, to try and sort out the issue at that level. Of the 300 appeals, 200 were solved by mutual consent. Mr Kuvlekar suggested this could be one of the ways in reducing pendency. However, this line of action was unreasonably criticised by various quarters.

Mr Patil confessed that "most of the second appeals did not adhere to the norms of the RTI Act and were irrelevant. Many of them gave multiple appeals on the same issue, but we are compelled to go through each appeal, which wastes our time." Mr Kuvlekar pointed out that of the 2,700 appeals, 900 appeals belonged to 60 individuals.  Mr Patil said that "in Maharashtra much of the information is being successfully given by thepublic information officers and the first appellate authority. We have not received complaints about documents under the Adarsh case, etc." He says information commissioners are left with a large number of trash appeals.

Regarding digitalisation and computerisation of the State InformationCommission's website, Mr Kuvlekar suggested a public-private partnership in which no money will be involved, but citizens and citizen groups come forward to undertake the digitalisation work. Mr Patil confessed that a sanction of Rs18 lakh to upgrade the website is still pending with the state government.

The two-hour interaction session concluded with the information commissioners agreeing to take up the compliance with Section 4 as top priority, with the help of citizens' groups, and towards having a full strength of ten information commissioners.

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