Saturday, April 30, 2011

Why Anna Hazare's movement must not lose momentum


 Why Anna's movement must not lose it's momentum

Writer: Vinita Deshmukh
Supporters throng Pune Airport after his return from his successful fast in Delhi
 Appeared in MoneyLife

Only a few months back, Anna Hazare who woke up the entire nation and commanded unprecedented and historic public support on streets, stated in a public consultation meeting of the Area Sabha bill in Pune (organized by Arvind Kejriwal), where I was a participant too -`` Wherever I go people say, Anna Hazare aage badho, hum tumhare saath hei. Lekin mei jab piche dekhta hu, toh koyi nahi hei (Anna Hazare please lead ahead, we all are with you. But when I look behind, there is no one there). Visible citizen power is the only answer to good governance and eradication of corruption.’’

 We smiled and shook our heads in sadness and I for one wondered if a person of Anna’s stature has such a tough time to garner public support, what am I cribbing about poor response whenever I have steered public campaigns for local issues like saving hills or protesting against a disastrously planned metro for the city?

Almost like a miraculous and Bollywood movie like ending, last fortnight saw an incredible backing for the same Anna (who has been single-handedly and silently fighting corruption in Maharashtra by taking on political bigwigs since the last four decades), that crossed all barriers of caste, creed, religion, social status, age and region. From North to South and East to West, educated people who are chronically indifferent also came out on streets to back Anna against his fast unto death at Jantar Mantar in Delhi. At last they had found in Anna a personification of honesty, humility, genuineness and the spirit of sacrifice – all qualities that appealed to them, thanks to the image of Mahatma Gandhi which is innately and deeply entrenched in each one of us.

Undoubtedly, it is the turning point in the history of Independent India, wherein the sea of humanity has sent a strong message to the corrupt powers-that-be that `we, the people will not tolerate corruption anymore and if it is the Jan Lokpal bill that will give us justice and send the guilty behind bars, then we want it, badly and immediately! Very clear, that people are losing their patience and will not take it lying down anymore, as they did before.

In a historic move, the government had to bend to people’s cry and agreed to a joint committee of government representative as well as members of the civil society. Very obviously, the final Lokpal Bill will be a result of a series of discussions amongst members from both sides and it is not as if Janpal Bill (drafted by the civil society ) will be blindly accepted nor will the weak Lokpal bill drafted by the government be pushed through as it is. Hence, it is so distressing that several activists and eminent citizens are actually deriding Anna Hazare’s movement and feat, in the garb of contents of the bill drafted by the civil society, by citing ``unconstitutional’’ nature of the fast-unto-death or through frivolous criticism against Anna. Ironically, each one of the critics has been passionate about condemning corruption and even has been relentlessly working towards that cause with a missionary zeal. Now that people have been awakened and are willing to participate in good governance and eradication of corruption to the extent of coming out on streets (visibility of this force is very important to politicians as they only care for the vote bank) it is time to react with maturity and magnanimity for the larger good.

They say, indifferent citizenry is extremely dangerous for a democracy and we have been living in this danger zone, not for just a year or two but for decades together. Some of us have been taking up issues, invoking the RTI Act, seeking legal intervention, holding rallies – but they have been just tiny oasis in the vast expanse of corruption and indifference and audaciously disregarded by corrupt politicians and bureaucrats as crusades of ``just a handful’’ to be ignored and made mockery of.

Now that we have achieved a breakthrough in turning citizen indifference into citizen participation, we should stand united. Otherwise, it will be the triumph of the evil once again. Do we want that?

Friday, April 29, 2011

How Kalmadi reached Delhi, and slipped


How Kalmadi reached Delhi, and slipped
MoneyLife, April 26, 2011 05:53 PM Bookmark and Share
Veeresh Malik
Kalmadi Dixit

Suresh Kalmadi, the so-called darling of the voters and corporate chieftains from Pune, would not have come to much harm had he stayed content as the Lord Arbitrator in that once sleepy retirement town 

On Monday, as the rumour mills in Delhi worked overtime on the Suresh Kalmadi arrest process, much attention was once again focused on what is known as the "CWG scam", as well as various aspects of the Indian Olympics Association (IOA) and its activities in India. The fact remains that till as recently as a year ago, even the accounts of the IOA and Commonwealth Games (CWG) in India were not open to public scrutiny, despite almost total funding by the Indian government, with complete support of the Indian government and its multiple arms. As a matter of fact, Suresh Kalmadi's IOA and CWG defended vigorously across all forumsfrom the Central Information Commission to the Delhi High Courttheir rights to not provide any information pertaining to accounts and activities, and they were backed by the Union of India in this.

Against yours truly, incidentally, was this complete effort mobilised. Until a judgment by the Delhi High Court changed the course of history; by clarifying once and for all the meaning of the term "public authority". (This, incidentally, is being challenged again, by no less an entity than the Securities and Exchange Board of India and a few others, with support fromyou guessed itthe same government!)

But is this only about the issue of misuse of public money related to sports activities in connection with a series of incidents referred to as "embarassing" by the current government?

Actually it is all this, and much more, and it certainly does not start or finish with the present high-profile developments over the arrest of Suresh Kalmadidarling of the voting public in Pune as much as he was a darling of corporate chieftains also from Pune and the page-3 wonders there.

If anything, he was and still is even in absentia the ruling chief as well as 'Lord Arbitrator' of this previously sleepy retirement town, which suddenly evolved especially over the last decade, as not just an extension of Mumbai, but as a hub of industrial, infotech, educational, religious and other commercial activities. This also included a property boom of the sort which Harold Robbin's "The Carpetbaggers" made famous, and a market for tax evasion and fake products which competed with Ulhasnagar; so extensive was its scale.

It has been said that every loaf of bread sold in Pune had two slices removed before it was re-packed, and these were reportedly for the "K Fund". The milk co-operatives were kept out of the retail market and Pune was one city where cooking gas was freely available, for resale, on the pavements of the city. So tight was his hold that even senior managers of central government organizations, like oil companies, would defer to him.

And lest we get taken in by the smug looks and grins on some of the faces of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) representatives doing their thing on television, be fully aware that the Big K was equally at home with the BJP and the Shiv Sena, as he was with the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP), in forming alliances as well as sharing the pie. In everything, there was a role and a share for everybody, and nobody knew how to keep things together with opponents as well as supporters as he did.

To a large extent, this was also because the growth in Pune was so exponential over the last decade, that there was enough to go around. So who was, or who is Suresh Kalmadi?

With an Indian Air Force background, which in itself has been the subject of some speculation on the how and why of his departure, to the rapid growth in and around his Poona Coffee House in the Deccan area of Pune's Jangli Maharaj Road, where he also started his filling station and Maruti as well as Bajaj dealerships, to greater game that is still whispered about in the corridors of Air India and ITDC, Kalmadi has been there and seen it all.

Big transport companies? Take a look at the track record of Neeta Travels and Ashok Travels and Tours, allegedly controlled by close friends. There's no smoke without fire, including all sorts of allegations pertaining to the misappropriation of cheques issued to similar sounding public sector companies, and the use of such inter-state bus companies for movement of a variety of contraband, including narcotics and counterfeit currency. Certainly, not proved, but then how does one prove such things?
Octroi evasion? Pune, like Mumbai, has its own octroi games. Along with Pimpri, as well as non-octroi areas surrounding both the municipalities, the environs in and around Pune are a genuine delight for those who wish to evade paying octroi, but certainly do not have an issue with charging it from unwary customers. It is well known that fake "octroi paid" certificates were available for almost everything, and every now and then the issue would be raised, to die down again.

Another racket in which Pune had become famous was as a location where the Road Transport Office (RTO) could be persuaded to do almost anything for a price. Whether this was responsible for Pune becoming a hub for the disposal of stolen vehicles is always whispered about.

But the real big games were always played out in Delhi. Whether it involved Air India or ITDC, or railways contracts, the Big K was always there in the background with his well-oiled fleet of fixers and movers playing their roles. Among various names mentioned in Delhi are his tie-ups with a nephew of the Nehru clan, who is also associated with a major international hotel chain which involves an ex-chief of Air India.

It has also been whispered that a hoard of documents have been kept by the Big K in these cases, with friendly contacts abroadspecifically with retired officers from a particular intelligence agency. And that's one reason for the delay in arresting him as these entities were slowly and steadily being neutralised.

Another good friend the Big K has is a famous filmstar-turned-BJP politician, whose daughter is an aspirational actress, and whose PR was handled by a company close to the Big K. The friend has been trying to use his not inconsiderable clout, as loud as a shotgun, but has been silenced due to reported linkages with Andhra politicians involved in the Hasan Ali case.

For sure, of course, we have not heard the last of the Big K. Unlike other people who have vanished quietly, he has been around far too long in the corridors of power in Delhi, and would have probably not come to much harm if he had stayed satisfied with his grip over matters in his part of the country. Nobody would, even now, dare question his hold.

But Delhi has always been the aspirational target for many people, and eventual graveyard for them too. While the efforts to save his skin continue, it seems that the word is outhe has been neutralised.

And Pune is now ready for a new leader, who will, hopefully, be loyal to Delhi, instead of trying to take on Delhi. You see, the real Marathas have already made their peace and signed their treaties, so others had to be side-lined. Besides, there is an old saying in Delhiyou really can not mix flour in salt, and then expect to make a paratha that everybody likes. Salt in small quantities in flour, yes.

Suresh Kalmadi’s tryst with Pune and politics

Suresh Kalmadi’s tryst with Pune and politics
MoneyLife, April 26, 2011 01:00 PM Bookmark and Share
Vinita Deshmukh
Untitled-2

The man who was often referred to as the CEO of Pune, may have brought much glamour to Maharashtra’s cultural capital, but he didn’t do much to relieve the problems of common Puneites 

The first time I had a glimpse of Suresh Kalmadi and his simple and sweet wife Meera on a public stage was in the mid-1970s when they hosted a live programme of Usha Uthup in, if I remember right, at the Sub-Area Grounds. I was a teenager in college then and all of us had gone to see and hear the charismatic pop star whose metallic voice was a rage in those days. I remember the crowd was huge. The other association with Mr Kalmadi was the Poona Coffee House opposite the Deccan Gymkhana bus stand that we patronised on Sunday evenings when dinner would not be served in our hostel mess.

During those days, the surname 'Kalmadi' was associated more with Dr Shamrao Kalmadi, his father, who was well known as a Good Samaritan, in the role of a doctor and community man. He established the Karnataka High School, by literally going door-to-door for donations. His humility and social conscientiousness captured the hearts of many.

It is said that Dr Shamrao was not too happy when Suresh left his career in the Indian Air Force and plunged into politics. In fact, when Mr Kalmadi's house was raided by income-tax authorities many years back, his father was most embarrassed and believed that his son was on the wrong path. No prizes for guessing what he would have thought of the recent CBI action now!

Suresh Kalmadi surged ahead in his career in politics and there was no looking back after he became member of the Rajya Sabha in 1982, until the Commonwealth Games scandal halted (whether this is permanent, or temporary time will tell) his otherwise smooth-sailing political race. He has an impressive record of over a decade in the Rajya Sabha and then was elected to the Lok Sabha from Pune thrice.

Though Suresh Kalmadi is synonymous with Pune, at the national and international level in politics and sports, it is ironical that he is perceived as having little rapport with the common man or the woes of Puneites. When Pune was ridden with pot-holes that threatened the lives and limbs of citizens and they raised a hue and cry about it, he said that the media ought not to highlight such negative views about Pune that would scare away investors, instead of promising to rectify the corrupt road construction system and the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC)-contractor nexus. Though he doled out money for the roads from the funds available to him as a member of Parliament, the common Puneite did not see him as being sympathetic to their cause.

Recently, while swine flu rocked Pune (the city was stamped as the swine flu capital of the country), Mr Kalmadi was occupied with his responsibilities as president of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) came in a bit late to air his concern over the situation.

Public transport, the prime inconvenience of Puneites, has been in a mess; his Pune Vyaspeeth (the forum he established to tackle issues concerning Pune) took up the issue, but it did not reflect at the ground level. He ruled the PMC for many years as the local Congress chief, but the civic body had a laid-back attitude and was always mired in cases of financial misappropriation.

One of the few exceptions where Mr Kalmadi got his act together for the benefit of the common Puneite was on the issue of protecting the hills of Pune. Thanks to his firm stance against the proposal of allowing construction on the hills, the PMC passed the Green DP for the 23 merged villages of Pune, and the state government has had a tough time trying to undo the step taken by the PMC.

Paradoxically, despite not being the common man's man, Mr Kalmadi is synonymous with Pune, sometimes even called its CEO. To many, Mr Kalmadi is a politician of the elite, an impeccable organiser of mega sports and cultural events. Personally, he comes across as a friendly, amiable person, but his mask as a politician somehow belies these traits.

He enhanced the status of Pune by hosting the Pune International Marathon which completed 25 years this year; held the National Games in the city in the mid-1990s; and the Commonwealth Youth Games in 2009 (the curtain-raiser for the 2010 Commonwealth Games). However, to common Puneites, this has not been reflected in any sort of change in the sports culture of the city, and even access to facilities at Chhatrapati Shivaji Stadium at Balewadi comes at a high price. Yet, they have been compassionate towards him. Puneites showed their appreciation for the work done during the 2009 youth games by attending the event in thousands, even if some went only to have a look at the new dream destination for sports. Then they re-elected him to Parliament  in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections.

The Pune Festival, mooted by Mr Kalmadi, was a star-studded cultural extravaganza in the first few years after it was launched in the 1990s. The country's leading maestros of music and the performing arts, as well as Bollywood stars, swooped down on Pune, and his abilities as a brilliant organiser came to the fore again. But the Pune Festival has lost its sheen in recent years, as the primary objective to attract foreign tourists on the occasion of the historic, traditional 10-day Ganesh Festival has come a cropper. Although he denies this, and insists that the Pune Festival is for locals too.

So, has Mr Kalmadi lost account of accountability and credibility over the years? No doubt, there are other bigger players in the mega Commonwealth Games scam, but the fact remains that he was the face of the Games management and he will have to bear the merits and the demerits too. Besides, he will have to also answer many uncomfortable questions about the questionable public expenditure and lack of expenditure details with regard to the Commonwealth Youth Games, the Pune International Marathon and now the Pune International Film Festival (PIFF). RTI documents have revealed that public money has been spent, but no, or haphazard, details are available of the same.

The last big and glittering party he held in Pune was a few months back, when the IPL Pune team, now called Pune Warriors, was born, and Subroto Roy was the prime guest. No doubt, Mr Kalmadi brought glamour to Pune now and then, but now the clamour to prove his credibility is increasing from Puneites. Has he lost ground now?

(This article first appeared in Intelligent Pune on 31 December 2010. Vinita Deshmukh is a senior editor, author and convener of Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She can be reached atvinitapune@gmail.com.)

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
lockandkey

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.)

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
rtiinspect

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.)

On writing a letter to the authorities for inspection of files under Section 4 of the RTI Act

On writing a letter to the authorities for inspection of files under Section 4 of the RTI Act
MoneyLife, March 16, 2011 02:47 PM Bookmark and Share
Vinita Deshmukh

While it is not mandatory to write a letter to request inspection of files it is nice to be courteous. Here are some other guidelines to follow in this process

It is pertinent to understand and use Section 4 thoroughly as it is the most powerful section of the RTI Act. Its potency lies in the user's right to procure information almost instantly. That is, once you have access to inspection of files, you have the right to get Photostat copies of the documents/maps etc. Section 4 is also significant in that, besides citizens having the right to inspect files in public offices, all government departments have to mandatorily put information of all their functions, duties, proposals, decisions, etc, in the public domain (preferably on the website) and update it from time to time. The deadline given to all these public offices was 120 days from the day of the implementation of the RTI Act on 12 October 2005 and to thereafter update the information on a regular basis. Since many government departments have not followed this mandate, citizens have to take the trouble of physically visiting the offices and conducting inspection of files.

So, the first rule to remember is that, we, as citizens, are doing a big favour to the government department by taking out our precious time to visit the office for checking the documents, as we are covering up for their inefficiency of not putting the information in the public domain. So, the first rule for inspection of files is not to feel awkward, guilty or even feel inhibited. We should make that particular government official feel so, as he has faltered in his duty. In fact, he should be paying us for our conveyance. (Chuckle!)

The most common question that is asked is: "Do I need to send an application under Section 4?" The answer is `No, but it is courteous to send a letter in advance, so that the government official is aware that you are coming to his office for inspection of files and he can make himself free accordingly. When I invoked Section 4 of the RTI Act in the case of Dow, at the office of the secretary of the environment department at the Mantralaya state headquarters in Mumbai, I not only sent a letter, but also sent an SMS, as well as an e-mail, to let the officer know that I would be there the next day at 11am for file inspection.

The second question commonly asked is: "So what kind of letter should it be? And should I wait for a reply? Should I wait for a fixed appointment from the officer after I have sent the letter?" Since inspection of files under Section 4 was incidentally pioneered in Pune, with RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar being the first citizen to invoke it, activists spearheaded by the late Prakash Kardaley have made a format for the letter for Section 4. It has held us in good stead and in fact opened the eyes of government officials as well. In the sense that, you will be surprised to know that many government officers are ignorant of Section 4, so a letter had to be drafted comprehensively.

Remember, once you send off the letter, you do not have to wait for a reply from the officer. Simply because, a citizen has a right to inspect files during any working hours of a government office, but he or she is being kind enough to let the officer know in advance. Yes, if the officer particularly wants another time, he or she should call up and tell you that. If he or she hasn't, then you simply walk into the office at the time requested by you. It is always a good idea to take someone along with you as a witness.

The third question often asked is: "Can I demand Photostat copies of the documents I have inspected?" The answer is, yes very much so. You have the right to have copies of documents, maps, CDs, etc. Once you have gone through the documents, ask the officer for Photostat copies. I have encountered that most of the times the Xerox machines are under repair, and I overhear clerks complaining that the budget for the cartridge has not been sanctioned! In such cases, officers have been kind enough to send their peons along with us to a private outfit and give us the Xeroxes. At best, the officer might say that he promises to give you the Photostat copies by the next day, which should be okay unless you are in great urgency.

The fourth question is: "Do I have to pay for the Photostat copies?" Yes, at the rate of Rs2 per page. If it is maps, then it would depend on the actual cost of xeroxing. When we procured the voluminous document of one of the DP (Development Plan) of Pune, we paid Rs3,000 as it involved several coloured maps of large sizes and colour xeroxing is comparatively expensive.

VERY IMPORTANT NOTE: Your letter under Section 4 should be addressed to the top authority of the government department (meaning the municipal commissioner, if it is a municipal corporation) unlike an application under Section 6 which is addressed to the public information officer (PIO).

For the moment, I think I have cleared most of the doubts regarding Section 4. Do feel free to write to me for any other query. In the meanwhile, following is the format/sample of the letter for Section 4 which was actually sent to the concerned office. In this case, RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar wanted to inspect whether the Pune Municipal Corporation was following the procedures of keeping records of official documents. Please note this inspection was for larger public interest. This sample will give you an idea of how to write the letter for inspecting documents for whatever purpose you have. 
---------------------SAMPLE--------------------------------------------------
From:  Vijay Krishna Kumbhar

A/6 Anupama Co-Op Hsg Society,
Bodygate, Aundh,
Pune 411 007
Tel: 9923299199
Email: - kvijay14@gmail.com
Dt: 1 January 2008

To,
Mr Pravinsinh Paradeshi
Commissioner,Pune Municipal Corporation,
Head of the "Public Authority" under RTI 2005,
Pune 411 005.

Dear Mr Commissioner,

1.  Your kind attention is drawn to Section 4 of the Right to Information Act, 2005 under Chapter II on `Right to Information and Obligation of Public Authorities'.

2. As per the provision, it is obligatory for every public authority (including Pune Municipal Corporation) to publish certain categories of documents so as to make voluntary disclosure of information so that citizens have ``minimum resort to the use of this Act to obtain information''.

3. Information covered by Section 4, in fact, should have been published on October 12, 2005 and disseminated widely in such form and manner which is easily accessible to the public and should have been updated at regular intervals later.

4. It is further explained in the provision that "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." I am enclosing here the full text of Section 4 as adopted by the Parliament of India for your reference.

5. I regret to bring to your notice that no information covered under this Section 4 has been disseminated yet by the Pune Municipal Corporation, a public authority under the state government, through notice boards, newspapers, public announcements, media broadcasts and internet.

6. Nevertheless, citizens have a right to inspect these documents in the office of the public authority, including the Pune Municipal Corporation, as explicitly mentioned in the provision under Section 4.

7. It may be noticed that a citizen desiring to inspect the documents containing information covered under Section 4 of the Right to Information Act, 2005, need not make any formal requisition under Section 6 of the Act because these documents should have already been published by the public authority (including the Pune Municipal Corporation) so that citizens have ``minimum resort to the use of this Act to obtain information''.

8. Provision under 4 (1) (a), 4 (1) (b), 4 (1) (c) and 4 (1) (d) of the Act incorporates various duties and obligations for public authorities, including Pune Municipal Corporation, regarding suo motto dissemination of records and various documents.

9. As per resolution No. 6/692, dated 20th August 1956. then Municipal Commissioner of Pune Municipal Corporation had approved to preserve various registers and documents of departments of the corporation by circular no AMC/CR/34 dated 20th August 1956 under the A,B,C,D system.

10. Registers and documents preserved as per circular no AMC/CR/34 dated 20th August 1956 fall under section 4(1)(a) and 4(1)(b) of The Right to Information Act, 2005, and these registers and documents should have been pro-actively published by Pune Municipal Corporation.

11. However, since those have not been pro-actively published by the corporation, I intend to exercise my right as a citizen to inspect these documents in the relevant offices of the corporation.

12. I intend to bring other well informed citizens to assist me in the inspection, whose names are: 1) Mr. Vivek Velanlar 2) Mr. Sandeep Khardekar 3) Mr. Vihar Durve.

13. We will call on
a) The General Record Keeper's office, on 7th January 2008, at 11.30 A.M.
b) The Municipal Commissioner's Office, on 8th January 2008, at 11.30 A.M.
c) Lands and Estate Department's office, on 9th January 2008, at 11.30 A.M.
d) The Garden Department's office, on 10th January 2008, at 11.30 A.M.
e) The Health Department's office, on 11th January 2008, at 11.30 A.M.
demanding inspection of registers and documents preserved as per circular no AMC/CR/34 dated 20th August 1956 and registers and documents covered under section 4 of The Right to Information Act 2005

14. Please note that it is not necessary for us under the Act to give such notice before inspection of documents covered under Section 4 of the Act. However, being responsible citizens, we thought it preferable to intimate you beforehand.

15. Implementation of this provision of the Act (under Section 4) is the direct responsibility of the head of the public authority. In this specific instance, it is your direct responsibility as the municipal commissioner and the administrative head of the Pune Municipal Corporation. Hence this letter is addressed to you and not to any public information officer (PIO) since no formal requisition is needed to be filed, please note.

Thanking you.
With regards,

Vijay Kumbhar

Copy to:
1) The General Record Keeper, Pune Municipal Corporation
2) Dy Commissioner, Lands and Estate Department, Pune Municipal Corporation
3) The Chief Garden Superintendent, Pune Municipal Corporation
4) Medical officer of health, Health Department, Pune Municipal Corporation

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
FOLLOWING is the text of Section 4 of the Right to Information Act, 2005

4. (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 motto 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 the print 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.

(Next week: There are some types of information which cannot be made public. Such information comes under Section 8 of the RTI Act. We will discuss Section 8 in detail so you can gauge whether the authorities are hoodwinking you under the garb of Section 8.)

Vinita Deshmukh is a senior editor, author and convener of Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She can be reached at vinitapune@gmail.com.

How Section 8 of the RTI Act is used as a lame excuse not to provide information

How Section 8 of the RTI Act is used as a lame excuse not to provide information
MoneyLife, March 23, 2011 10:19 AM Bookmark and Share
Vinita Deshmukh

The RTI Act lists special instances where the authorities are exempt from disclosing information. But this provision has been misused to avoid giving information. Here are a couple of cases where people have persisted and won 

While the Right to Information (RTI) Act is all about transparency and dissemination of information to citizens, there are certain kinds of information mentioned under Section 8, which government departments have the power not to disclose. This includes information that would threaten national integrity, security or economic interests; would amount to contempt of court; would hamper police investigations; would affect commercial interests like trade secrets; would affect 'fiduciary' relationships; would harm the person physically (like asking for details of VIP security, for example). This Section also protects information pertaining to deliberations of the Council of Ministers and Secretaries while the process is underway. (Information can be given after a Cabinet decision, though). (Read details of the list of exclusions under Section 8, listed separately at the end of this report.)

However, every citizen must remember that many of these exceptions can be overruled if public interest is seen to be more important than protecting information. The relevant clause in Section 8 states that, "a public authority may allow access to information, if public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm to the protected interests.'' This is indeed interesting and there have been many examples where the citizen has got the information he or she asked for, which has been earlier denied to him by the Public Information Officer (PIO) or Appellate Authority, under the pretext of Section 8. For, when the citizen pursued the matter by appealing to the Central or State Information Commissioner, he or she invariably received the information. In other cases, the Information Commissioner also denied the information, so the citizen appealed to the High Court and won the case, as the judge directed the information commission to provide information.

One of the most sterling examples is that of Vinita Kamte, wife of additional commissioner of police, Ashok Kamte (who was killed in action on the night of the 26/11 Mumbai terrorist attack). Her book To The Last Bullet, co-authored by me, brings out the shocking truth behind the death of her husband including two other officers-Hemant Karkare and Vijay Salaskar. The book, which exposed the utter negligence of the Control Room in not relaying vital messages, like movement of terrorists, and not sending reinforcements to the three police officers despite their urgent request, was made possible thanks to audio and written call log records (wireless) which she procured under the RTI Act. However, she received the information after much difficulty, as the Mumbai police authorities took undue advantage of Section 8 to avoid giving information.

Vinita Kamte was determined to find out the chronology of events that led to the death of her husband, but the Mumbai police authorities refused to tell her the truth, despite a formal request in the form of an official letter in January 2009.

In March 2009, Vinita filed an RTI application, under Section 6, to the PIO, and requested for the call log records (wireless)-both the written and the audio transcripts (these records provide conversations between the Police Control Room and officers/policemen at Ground Zero).

She also requested for inspection of these log records under Section 4. Her application was rejected, saying that the information comes under Section 8 (h) of the Act which states "information that may impede the process of investigation or apprehension or prosecution of offenders."  The PIO also enclosed a letter of the Joint Commissioner of Police, Crime, Rakesh Maria (who was in charge of the Control Room on the night of the terror attack) which stated, "Please reject the information sought by Mrs Vinita Kamte under the RTI Act. The information cannot be given to her under Section 8 (h) of the said Act."

Mrs Kamte challenged this order before the appellate authority. The Appellate Authority, Deputy Commissioner of Police SM Sabade, observed that the PIO was wrong in rejecting her request and had not applied his mind. He mentioned that he had simply relied on Mr Maria's letter to reject Mrs Kamte's application. He observed that the order of rejection does not specify how parting with the information would affect the investigation. He also mentioned that Ashok Kamte and the other officers had laid down their lives for the country and to reject Mrs Kamte's request on such baseless grounds was wrong. However, in his order he allowed only inspection of the log records and did not permit copies of the same (which is mandatory under Section 4).

So, Mrs Kamte filed a second appeal with the State Chief Information Commissioner, Maharashtra, Dr Suresh Joshi, seeking the original copies of the call logs, both written and audio, and the Commissioner ordered that she be given the required copies and the audio record on CD.

This was indeed a historic order, and it helped an individual to take on the state government, which was embarrassed by it. It also exposed the utter inefficiency and negligence of the Control Room-the anchor point of action during such a crisis-which led to the needless sacrifice of three of the most brilliant IPS officers of our country.

Sometimes, information is denied under the pretext of 'fiduciary' relationship. Here's a classic example wherein a high court overruled the verdict of the Kerala Information Commission. A postman (a woman), Treesa Irish, appeared for the written examination for selection to the post of last grade officials in the Kerala Circle of the Postal Department sometime in 2005. When the results were published, she learnt that no one qualified in the examination from the Ernakulam Division.

Treesa applied for her examination marks list, which she procured after she appealed to the Central Administrative Tribunal, Ernakulam Bench. She learnt that she had failed to obtain minimum marks in one of the three papers, having scored only 37 marks in that paper. She scored 45 and 70 marks for papers I and II, respectively.

She, therefore, applied under Section 6 of the RTI Act to the PIO of the Kerala Postal Circle, for a copy of the evaluated answer paper III for which she was shown as 'failed'. The PIO rejected her request, on the ground that no public interest is involved in the case. She then appealed to the Appellate Authority who also rejected her request stating that "disclosure of such nature will compromise the fairness and impartiality of the selection process and such disclosure does not justify the larger public interest.''

She then appealed to the Central Information Commissioner who again rejected the information citing Sections 8(1)(e) and 8(1) which states that, "the public authority is holding the information in fiduciary relationship and the information is purely a personal information, which has no relation to any public interest or activity.''

Treesa then filed a petition with the Kerala High Court, where the judge gave an order in her favour. Among other things, he stated that, "The conduct of the examination for selection to the post of Last Grade officials is certainly a public activity and, therefore, the valuation of answer papers of that examination has relationship to a public activity of the department in the matter of selection to a higher post. A candidate writing an examination has a right to have his answer paper valued correctly and he has a right to know whether the same has been done properly and correctly. Both the public authority and the examiner have a public duty to get the valuation done correctly and properly, which is a public activity and duty. Therefore, the supply of the copy of the answer paper, which is for enabling the candidate to ascertain whether the valuation of the answer paper has been done correctly and properly, has relationship to a public activity or interest.''

There are several high court judgments regarding Section 8, wherein citizens have won favorable orders after the information commissions have dismissed their appeals, says Pralhad Kachare, director, Centre for Public Policy, YASHADA, a government training centre for RTI for government employees. He recommends the following links:
http://judis.nic.in/judis_kerala/qrydispfree.aspx?filename=166293(Treesa Irish case)
http://www.rtiindia.info/ 
http://www.cic.gov.in/ (Please see link to 'High Court Rulings' in the left margin.)

What is Section 8? (From the RTI Act) 


Section 8. Exemption from disclosure of information.
(1) Notwithstanding anything contained in this Act, there shall be no obligation to give any citizen,
(a) Information, disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign State or lead to incitement of an offence;
(b) Information which has been expressly forbidden to be published by any court of law or tribunal or the disclosure of which may constitute contempt of court;
(c) Information, the disclosure of which would cause a breach of privilege of Parliament or the State Legislature;
(d) Information including commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property, the disclosure of which would harm the competitive position of a third party, unless the competent authority is satisfied that larger public interest warrants the disclosure of such information;
(e) Information available to a person in his fiduciary relationship, unless the competent authority is satisfied that the larger public interest warrants the disclosure of such information;
(f) Information received in confidence from foreign government;
(g) Information, the disclosure of which would endanger the life or physical safety of any person or identify the source of information or assistance given in confidence for law enforcement or security purposes;
(h) Information which would impede the process of investigation or apprehension or prosecution of offenders;
(i) Cabinet papers including records of deliberations of the Council of Ministers, Secretaries and other officers; provided that the decisions of Council of Ministers, the reasons thereof, and the material on the basis of which the decisions were taken shall be made public after the decision has been taken, and the matter is complete, or over; provided further that those matters which come under the exemptions specified in this section shall not be disclosed;
(j) information which relates to personal information-the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public authority or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual unless the Central Public Information Officer or the State Public Information Officer or the appellate authority, as the case may be, is satisfied that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information; provided that the information, which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person.

(2) Notwithstanding anything in the Official Secrets Act, 1923 (19 of 1923), nor any of the exemptions permissible in accordance with sub-section (1), a public authority may allow access to information, if public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm to the protected interests.

(3) Subject to the provisions of clauses (a), (c) and (i) of sub-section (1), any information relating to any occurrence, event or matter which has taken place, occurred or happened 20 years before the date on which any request is made under section 6, shall be provided to any person making a request under that section; provided that where any question arises as to the date from which the said period of 20 years has to be computed, the decision of the Central Government shall be final, subject to the usual appeals provided for in this Act.

(Vinita Deshmukh is a senior editor, author and convener of Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She can be reached at vinitapune@gmail.com.)

Do private organisations come under the purview of RTI?

Do private organisations come under the purview of RTI?


MoneyLife Digital
April 06, 2011 11:46 AM Bookmark and Share
Vinita Deshmukh

While the RTI Act states that only those private organisations which have “substantial” funding from the government come under the purview of the RTI Act, in cases where these entities are in partnership with the government, it is possible to get necessary information. The Pune-Mumbai Expressway toll matter is a sterling example 


With municipal corporations, state and central governments increasingly opting for Public Private Partnerships (PPP), transparency could take a beating, as private organisations have been given an opportunity to duck under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. The Act says that only if private organisations are "substantially" funded then they come under the purview of public domain. Who's to decide what is "substantial funding"? And here's where private bodies take cover and refuse to give information.

A sterling case is that of the Ideal Road Builders (IRB), a private agency which collects toll fees from most of the highways in Maharashtra, including the Pune-Mumbai Expressway. It is impossible to procure information regarding the data of toll collection. However, in such cases, since their partnership is with a government body, the citizen can get access to such information from the government organisation.

Strangely, the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC), the government body in this case which is mandated to monitor whether IRB is collecting toll honestly or is cheating people, itself has not monitored the revenues of the IRB, despite appointing an independent engineering consultant, STUP Consultants Pvt Ltd, headed by RY Deshpande. However, thanks to citizens demanding this information under RTI, the MSRDC was compelled to request the IRB to send the data of toll collection, year-wise. When this writer conducted inspection of files under Section 4, one of the officials confessed that they had only recently asked the IRB to supply information due to pressure of RTI queries, otherwise they had nothing to do with the information. The fact is that it is binding on the MSRDC to do proper auditing of the toll revenue collected by IRB and gauge whether it is usurping more profits than what it is supposed to get.

Similarly, Metros that are being "forced" upon citizens in several towns and cities across the country, without proper planning, are mostly constructed by the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC). Here too, the DMRC is a private body and any query under RTI is denied. In the case of the Pune Metro, the DMRC has disastrously planned the metro and submitted a shoddy and superficial Detailed Project Report (DPR). Despite the project report not satisfying the Pune Municipal Corporation's (PMC) terms of reference and it not abiding by the central government guidelines while making the DPR, the PMC's general body and the administration has blindly passed the project. It now lies with the state government, which failed to allot finance for it in the current budget. The scandal of this Rs10,000-odd crore infrastructure that is going to add to the chaos of the already congested roads in Pune and become a heavy tax burden for citizens for many years, came to light due to the RTI invoked at the PMC. Thus, in private-public partnerships one can get access to public documents by putting a query to the 'public partner'.

However, as per a high court judgment, co-operative banks do not come under the RTI. A few years back, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) declared that co-operative banks do not come under the purview of the RTI Act. At that time, the Gujarat State Cooperative Bank Ltd, which is an apex institute of co-operative banks, had sought the opinion of the RBI. The RBI stated that since co-operative banks come under the Co-operative Act of the respective states and not under any parliamentary statute, they are not public authorities as defined by the Act.

According to Shailesh Gandhi, central information commissioner, the Company Law gives significant rights to those who own 26% of the shares in a company. Perhaps this could be taken to define the criterion of "substantial finance".

"Subclause d(i) and (ii) together mean any non-government organisations which are substantially owned, controlled or financed directly or indirectly by the government would be covered. Thus aided schools and colleges are public authorities, as also any trusts or NGOs which have significant government nominees; or companies where the government either owns substantial stake, or has given substantial finance, are directly covered under the RTI Act. The substantial finance can take into account tax incentives, subsidies and other concessions as well.

Elaborating further, Mr Gandhi states, "There is some confusion about the words owned and substantial finance. This confusion is evident in the various decisions of the information commissions. Let us look at the words carefully. "Public authority" means any authority or body or institution of self-government established or constituted, … and includes any

(i) body owned, controlled or substantially financed; 

(ii) non-government organisation substantially financed, directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate government."

The finance could be either as investment, or towards expenses, or both. The way in which the words have been placed, indicates that perhaps (i) relates to investments and (ii) relates to the running expenses.

"Thus every institution which is owned by the government is clearly covered. By any norms, whenever over 50% of the investment in a body lies with any entity, it is said to be owned by that entity. Since bodies owned by government have been mentioned separately, the words 'controlled' and 'substantially financed' will have to be assigned some meaning not covered by ownership. Thus it is evident that the intention of Parliament is to extend the scope of the right to other organisations, which are not owned by it. No words in an Act can be considered to be superfluous, unless the contradiction is so much as to render a significant part meaningless, or it violates the preamble. Therefore, it becomes necessary to consider a situation where an entity may be controlled by the government without ownership or substantial finance. Such a situation exists when a charity commissioner or registrar of societies appoints an administrator to run the affairs of a trust or society, or a court liquidator takes over administration of some body.

Thus concludes Mr Gandhi: "It is therefore obvious that as per Section 2 (h) (i) 'a body …substantially financed' would be a body where the ownership may not lie with the government, nor the control. Hence, clearly the wording 'substantially financed' would have to be given meaning at less than 50% holding. Company law gives significant rights to those who own 26% of the shares in a company. Perhaps, this could be taken to define the criterion of 'substantially financed'. The finance could be as equity, or subsidies in land or concessions in taxation.

"Similarly some definition is required where the State provides money for the running expenses of an institution as covered under (ii). Presently, aided schools and colleges have all clearly been accepted as 'public authorities', though there appears to be no clarity in the matter of NGOs and other organisations which are receiving significant amounts of finance.

"The key approach and philosophy of the RTI Act appears to be that since the State acts on behalf of the citizens, wherever the State gives money, the citizen has a right to know. In my opinion, if the money given for the running expenses is over either 20% of the running expenses, or Rs1 crore, the body should be considered as receiving 'substantial finance' and is covered in the definition of a 'public authority'."

Putting up information in the public domain, especially where infrastructure is concerned, is very important in the case of roads. The Economic Survey of India estimates that over the next five years (the survey was of February 2008) the investment needs in physical infrastructure will be $500 billion, out of which the share of the private sector will be $150 billion-odd, which comes to over 30%.

It is time to know the truth, as the truth involves us all!

(Vinita Deshmukh is a senior editor, author and convener of Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She can be reached at vinitapune@gmail.com.)



Hassled over the delay in the delivery of your gas cylinder? Try the RTI route



Hassled over the delay in the delivery of your gas cylinder? Try the RTI route


MoneyLife issueApril 13, 2011 02:48 PM Bookmark and Share 
Vinita Deshmukh
lpg13

Supply of LPG as kitchen fuel is covered by the Essential Commodities Act, which requires the cylinder to be delivered at home within 48 hours of booking. However, many get it up to a week or even a fortnight later. Some activists have invoked the RTI Act successfully to shake up the oil companies and the gas agencies

LPG kitchen fuel is covered by the Essential Commodities Act. But how often has the gas agency not taken you for a ride, rarely delivering the gas cylinder within the stipulated 48 hours? A common complaint is that it takes up to a fortnight to get a gas cylinder at home. Or, that no one answers the phone at the agency. So, you have to go personally to the agency to pick up a cylinder. Or, you may have doubts over the weight of the cylinder.

So, what are the rights of consumers under the Essential Commodities Act 1955 and the corresponding LPG (Regular Supply & Distribution) Order 2000? Here are some not-so-well-known aspects.

* Bookings for the gas cylinder must be accepted over the phone.
* 100% home delivery.
* The gas cylinder should to be delivered within 48 hours of booking.
* The customer has the right to weigh the cylinder on taking delivery.
* Gas agencies must be open for business between 10 am and 6 pm, except on public holidays and Sundays.

Now, were you aware that a gas agency must accept bookings for cylinders over the phone and that you should not be asked to collect the cylinder from the agency office (for the purpose of safety)? And that it is mandatory for the delivery man to carry a portable weighing machine and weigh the cylinder at your doorstep?

And are you aware that most of the times the LPG shortage story concocted by gas agencies is absolutely false? That it is because the agencies indulge in large-scale illegal sale of domestic cylinders to commercial establishments that you do not get your cylinder in time? Look around and you will find that street-side vendors and even kitchens of big restaurants use the red-colour gas cylinder (that is supposed to be only for domestic use) and not the blue-colour ones (which is meant for commercial establishments and is more expensive).

Recently, former petroleum minister Ram Naik stated that scarcity of LPG cylinders has reached dangerous proportions all over the country and he requested Jaipal Reddy, the current petroleum minister, to check this. Many a time, the ministry of petroleum releases advertisements to announce that there is no scarcity of LPG cylinders. Hence, almost always, the root of the problem is the illegal sale of cylinders, and so you as a domestic consumer must not take this injustice lying down. Invoke RTI to scare the gas agency and compel him to do his duty.

In Pune, for example, a leading LPG distributor stated that around one and a half lakh domestic gas cylinders are sold to commercial establishments, thus the delay in delivering cylinders to homes. The problem is never sternly addressed by the district collectorate and the petroleum company, putting the housewife to constant inconvenience.

Pune-based RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar has made it his mission to help people overcome poor service by gas agencies. His own experience steered him to help others. Way back in 2005, he was hassled with his gas agency who took three weeks or more to deliver the cylinder. He addressed a query under RTI to the Hindustan Petroleum Company (HPCL) asking for details of the distribution of cylinders by Kankaria Gas agency in New Sangvi (a fringe neighbourhood of Pune). The questions in his RTI application were as follows:

1) How many domestic and commercial cylinder gas customers does Kankaria Gas Agency have (the period of information was for one and a half year) and if there was any fluctuation in the number of customers in any month;

2) The number of domestic and commercial customers having one, two, and more than two gas cylinders?

3) Between 1 September 2005 and 30 November 2005 how many gas cylinders did the Kankaria Gas Agency procure from HPCL (information to be given date-wise); and

4) Whether HPCL has taken action against any gas agency in Pune regarding the erratic distribution of gas cylinders-if so, the names of such agencies.

While the officer is allowed by law to take 30 days to answer a query, Mr Kumbhar got a shock when, within two hours of his filing the RTI application, his wife called him to say that the dealer had sent the gas cylinder. This showed a strange nexus between the gas agency and some officials at HPCL.  Ever since, Mr Kumbhar has urged many people to invoke the RTI and remind the respective gas agency that it cannot take consumers for a ride.

There are three main LPG suppliers-Hindustan Petroleum Corporation Ltd (www.hindustanpetroleum.com), Bharat Petroleum (www.bharatpetroleum.com) and Indian Oil Corporation (www.iocl.com). In order to file an RTI application under Section 6 of the RTI Act, you should visit their websites depending on which LPG gas you are using and click where the names of Central Public Information Officers (CPIOs) are given, depending on which city/town you reside.

As per a central government gazette notification on 26 April 2000, the dealer of LPG is required to display the stock of LPG as follows:
  • Every distributor shall prominently display the stock and price of LPG at a conspicuous place on the business premises, including the storage point.
  • The opening balance of filled, empty and defective cylinders and regulators.
  • The backlog of preceding working day of the filled cylinders to be supplied.
  • Every distributor shall ensure that stocks of LPG are available at the business premises, including storage at all times.
  • No distributor can close his shop on any working day unless notified by the ministry.
Sometime in 2005, the then Sangli collector Manish Mhaiskar had raided all gas agencies in Sangli and taken action against those indulging in blackmarketing and delaying delivery. For more than a couple of years thereafter, Sangli had the best record of door delivery within the prescribed time. It is necessary for the collector's office to take such action and sustain it.

In case you are harassed by delay in delivery, you may ask the following questions under RTI, addressing it to the PIO of the particular petroleum/oil company under which your gas agency operates:
1)  How many domestic and commercial cylinder gas customers does the (write name here) gas agency have (the period of information could be 10 days) and if there has been any fluctuation in the number of customers in any month.
2) The number of domestic and commercial customers having one, two, and more than two gas cylinders.
3) In the 10-day period, how many gas cylinders did the gas agency procure from the petroleum/oil company (details of demand and supply to be given date-wise)?
4) Details of the demand and supply of cylinders to customers of the particular gas agency (for the 10 days) to be given in the following format.  



5) Whether the petroleum/oil company has taken any action against any gas agency regarding erratic distribution of gas cylinders; if so, the names of such agencies and the details of action taken.

Believe it or not, it works like magic.

Here are some things to keep in mind about your gas connection. 

When receiving the gas cylinder, you should be vigilant about
  • The date and serial number of your booking.
  • Sign the receipt only after checking the amount written and pay only the specified amount.
  • Insist on installation of the cylinder by the company's person.
  • Check the cylinder, asking the delivery man to open the seal and fix it to the regulator and check for any signs of leakage and only then accept the delivery.
  • Ensure you receive your domestic gas cylinder within the mandatory 48 hours of booking.
  • Ask the delivery man to carry a weighing machine to facilitate you to check the weight of the cylinder.
When taking a new connection, remember it is not mandatory to buy the gas stove, mixer, pressure cooker, tea boxes or any other consumer product.
Ask for a complete breakup of the cost at the time of paying for a new connection. This includes the deposit, regulator charges, cost of cylinder, stamp duty, documentation and administration charges, and in case you are not buying a gas stove, some basic charge to inspect the gas stove at your house as a safety measure.

And some safety tips
  •   Fix the cap when you are not using the cylinder.
  •    Switch off the regulator when you are not cooking and especially at night.
  •    Check the gas tube regularly and get it changed at regular intervals.
  •    Once in two years, ask your distributor to send a certified mechanic for a mandatory inspection and pay the basic charges for the servicing done.
And if you feel inspired to do more, when you find restaurants using domestic cylinders, report this misuse to the concerned authorities.

(Vinita Deshmukh is a senior editor, author and convener of Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She can be reached at vinitapune@gmail.com.)