The pioneering work of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan (MKSS) of Rajasthan and Parivartan of New Delhi in using the Right to Information Act to expose corruption, streamline administration and bring the guilty to book is by now well known. A similar exercise has been happening in Bangalore through the Karnataka Right to Information Act (KRIA) Forum or 'KRIA Katte' in short. A group of 'information enthusiasts' belonging to a variety of non-government, consumer welfare, residents' associations and other organisations are its members. Their focus is on issues that plague big cities, like land grabbing, building bye-law violations, encroachments on public lands, delays in implementation of projects, property tax matters, and so on.
B.H.Veeresh of Brashtachara Nirmoolana Vedike (Anti-Corruption Forum) has brought to light that the Bangalore Mahanagara Palike's (BMP is Bangalore City Corporation) own joint-venture multiplex theatre-cum-shopping complex coming up on Magrath Road in Bangalore is completely illegal as it has been given a building license by the BMP Commissioner, whereas the Karnataka Cinema Regulation Act requires permission for theatres to be given by the Deputy Commissioner of Bangalore (Urban) district, a state government functionary. Also, because the project cost exceeds Rs.50 crore (it is in fact Rs. 90 crore), a public hearing should have been held, an Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) done, and an NOC given by the by the Karnataka State Pollution Control Board (KSPCB) for the project. But none of these have been done.
Cities subsidising the rich
'The second freedom struggle'
Veeresh has also been able to bring to light high-profile instances of land grabbing and fraud by obtaining documents under the right to information law. He has filed a PIL in the Karnataka High Court in the name of the Brashtachara Nirmoolana Vedike against the Chief Secretary of the State, the Secretary for Housing and Urban Development and the BMP Commissioner in the case of a parking complex being constructed on Kempegowda Road by Maharaja Buildtech & Developers which he believes to be a fraudulent deal. The issue is now sub judice.
Another interesting case is that of the Basavanagudi National College Flyover in which S Anand of the Anti-Corruption Forum and Palyam Suresh, a consultant, had filed a PIL in the High Court seeking invoking of penalty clause for prolonged delay in completion of the work. The contractor (a Government of India undertaking) did not possess the required equipment, was unable to complete the task even in the extended time period (31st March 2005) and was sub-contracting the work against the terms of agreement/work order issued. They based their petition on documents obtained under KRIA.
The Court, however, felt that the petitioners had filed the case in cahoots with the second-lowest bidder for the project and ordered that they should pay Rs 10,000 as costs to the Karnataka State Legal Services Authority (KSLSA). Not stymied, Anand then asked for the break-up of the costs and also asked how the KSLSA was involved in the case (and what cost it has incurred and how). This has created a piquant situation as the Chief Justice of the High Court N. K. Sodhi (before whom the case had come) is the also Chief Patron of the KSLSA.
Anand has also filed applications under KRIA asking for copies of the mandatory declaration of assets and liabilities and service records of the Chief Justice and two other judges of the High Court. He is preparing to file an appeal in this regard as he has received no reply so far even though the mandatory period of fifteen days is over.
Guru Ravindranath of Consumer Care Society who lived in a purely residential layout, Banashankari II Stage, found that a residential building near his house was demolished and a party hall with two halls built and let out for functions. The owner of the hall has not provided any parking space within the plot as required under the building bye-laws. Residents and other road users are facing problems due to the parking of vehicles on the road and footpath by party hall-users. Ravindranath used KRIA to obtain a copy of the license issued to the hall from the Deputy Commissioner (South) of BMP, Dr.V.Chandrashekar. He found out that BMP had given a license for only one hall, whereas in reality there were two halls.
When an application for the sanctioned drawing was made, the Assistant Executive Engineer Rangaswamy tried to fob off Ravindranath by informing him that the owner of the building did not have the drawing, as he had given it to the bank, etc. The BMP had to be reminded that a copy of the drawing could always be made from the original tracing sheet held by BMP and there was no need to seek it from the owner. It was only after many appeals and several attempted prevarications by BMP that a copy of the drawing was given. From the drawing it came to light that the approval was for an office with a proper parking place in the basement and the party halls had been built completely violating the bye-laws. The 'Conditions of Conversion' from residential to commercial laid out by the BDA
It also came to light that a no-occupancy certificate had been issued and that property tax had been paid for only one hall. Utilising this information, Ravindranath ensured that the license was not extended by BMP beyond 31st March 05. But despite non-renewal of license, the halls continued to be let out after expiry of the license. "It is clearly evident that there is a nexus between BMP officials and the owner right from the beginning", says Ravindranath. Approaching the Director (Vigilance) of BMP K.Vasudevamurthy too did not help. Ravindranath is planning to file a PIL in the High Court for relief. He also plans to take action against a shopping complex whose drawing shows approval for a residential building.
When SHRED applied for information regarding the CA sites to BDA under KRIA, T. C. Kathyayini, the Public Relations Officer who is also the Competent Authority under KRIA stated that the BDA was still in possession of the sites and had not handed them over to BMP since the said land was still under dispute. SHRED then asked the Deputy Commissioner (East) of BMP, Jayaram, whether it had issued a license to the builder to put up flats and how it could do so when the land still belonged to the BDA. BMP prevaricated. Despite several appeals to and hearings, the Special Commissioner Subhash Chandra (the Appeals Authority) has been merely sending the application of SHRED from one official to the other without providing the information or disposing off the appeal with written orders. SHRED has complained to the R Suresh, Principal Secretary at the state government's Department of Personnel & Administrative Reforms (DPAR), the department overseeing implementation of KRIA and is awaiting a reply.
Still, Karnataka has come some distance in making the RTI law work. When KRIA was passed, CIVIC Bangalore empowered several citizens on its provisions. It was these enthusiasts who told several public authorities about KRIA's existence, gave them copies of the law and even told several Competent Authorities (officers responsible for giving information) that a separate register should be maintained by them for applications under KRIA.
The Public Affairs Centre had undertaken several audits earlier on the performance of public authorities in implementation of this law. That had exposed the abysmal status of affairs earlier, and many offices are now adhering to the notification provisions of KRIA. They have now put up boards on their premises providing helpful details about their organisations as well as designating Competent Authorities and Appeals Authorities.
Weaknesses in the Karnataka law and its implementation
The weaknesses of the right to information law are several and have come to light in the course of citizens' applications over the last three years.
First and foremost, the very definition of 'information' is problematic. KRIA's definition of 'information' is in itself broad and says, 'information relating to any matter in respect of the affairs of the administration or decisions of a public authority'. But the application form that citizens use to apply for information, Form A, has room only for requesting 'documents' and not information per se, such as 'status reports' or 'information held by an authority' which may not always be in the form of a 'record'. Some officials have hence been denying information on the ground that what is asked for is not already in the form of an existing document.
Further, Section 3a of KRIA requires every public authority to catalogue and index all records. This is yet to be complied with by most public authorities in the state. Section 3b of the law requires every public authority to publicise the particulars of the organisation, the powers and duties of its officials, the norms set up for the discharge of functions, etc. But even BMP is yet to come out with a citizens' charter specifying its standards for service delivery.
However, there is no provision in KRIA to penalise officials that do not comply with Section 3b related to suo moto disclosures. There is no penalty on a public authority which fails to appoint Public Information Officers or Appellate Authorities. Sections 3(c) and 3(d) require public authorities to publish all facts regarding their decisions and policies, and also before initiation of any project or scheme. These sections have not been brought into force at all.
Officials and their tel.numbers
V.Chandrashekar, 2297 5701
Deputy Commissioner (South)
Rangaswamy, 2297 5716
Assistant Executive Engineer
K. Vasudevamurthy, 2297 5596
Jayaram, 2297 5801
Deputy Commissioner (East)
Subhash Chandra, 2222 3199
T. C. Kathyayini, 2346 4064
Public Relations Officer
Govt of Karnataka
R Suresh, 2286 0120
Principal Secretary Department of Personnel and Administrative Reforms
First Appeals Authorities have also not been issuing written orders, without which a citizen cannot approach the Second Appeals Authority, the Karnataka Appellate Tribunal (KAT). To make matters worse, the KAT has also ruled in the Wilson Pais case (where Pais challenged the BMP in the KAT on not penalising an errant official), that it has no power to direct the First Appeals Authority to impose a penalty on erring Competent Authorities.
In addition to all of this, there are officials who are still unaware of the law in Karnataka. According to Y G Muralidharan of CREAT, a sub-registrar of Hospet replied earlier this year that his office has 'no information on KRIA'.
A better Central law to come shortly
The Central Right to Information Bill, now awaiting Presidential assent, is likely to remedy several of the weaknesses in the right to information regime in Karnataka. For the first time, there will be a strong and independent information commission as the second appellate body at the state level with the power to impose penalties. Under the Central law, information commissioners can fine an errant official Rs 250 per day (subject to a maximum of Rs 25,000) if information is delayed without reasonable cause beyond the stipulated 30 days. Disciplinary action under service rules can also be enforced against those officers who distort, destroy, or obstruct the providing of information. In Karnataka, both KRIA and Central laws may coexist giving citizens a choice.
Maharashtra, Delhi and Karnataka have gained tremendous experience in the use of state RTI laws and thereby learnt a great deal about the strengths and weaknesses of various provisions in their laws. Citizens groups and activists in these states were able to make significant recommendations to the Central Bill during its drafting process.