Recent developments in Delhi, Maharashtra and Karnataka indicate that both awareness and usage of right to information (RTI) laws are gaining ground and examples of tenacious use are springing up. The promise of greater and sustained transparency gains is becoming brighter.
The Mumbai Police Commissioner has recently admitted to past mistakes of allowing unbridled and illegal interference by politicians in Police Transfers for many years. Besides warning all officials submitting themselves to political interference, he has initiated a process to prevent interference in future. Significantly, this outcome is the result of several RTI applications by Shailesh Gandhi, a Mumbaikar.
According to section 413 of Maharashtra's Police manual, the law does not permit anyone outside the police force to recommend or order transfers. Gandhis initial applications for information regarding suspension of Rule 413 met with much obfuscation and denial. However, a tumultuous year later, it has led to some real soul-searching in the Police Commissioners office. This is attributed to the deterrence value of RTI applications.
As per the Maharashtra Right To Information (MRTI) Act, a citizen has the right to ask most government organisations for information through the Public Information Officer PIO. The PIO must be appointed in all state government organizations and must give the citizen the information within 15 working days, or in some cases 30 working days; if there is a delay in giving information, a penalty of Rs 250 per day is leviable on the PIO personally; if there is a delay in giving information by the PIO, or the reply is unsatisfactory, an appeal can be made to the Appellate Authority AA appointed by the head of the organization; the AA must dispose of the appeal within 30 days, or in some cases 60 days; if the AAs decision is not satisfactory, a citizen can file a second appeal to the states Lokayukta, the final appellate authority.
On the sensitive police transfers matter, Shailesh Gandhi began by seeking information about the number of recommendations received for transfers and the details of the disciplinary action taken (as required by Rule 413 of the Police Manual) or notices issued to the police personnel to whom the recommendations were made. After a series of (unjustified) rejections by the PIO and the AA and interventions by the Lokayukta, the citizens' Right to Information triumphed. Although starting with complete denial, the Police Commissioner not only accepted the tradition of unlawful recommendations for transfers, but also took action against 71 officers and 64 policemen. Moreover, note has been taken of this in the service books of the people concerned and a strict warning has been issued to everyone discouraging them from resorting to this illegal practice in future.
Gandhi believes that while neither the violations under the MRTI he faced along the way nor the years of wrong practices vis-à-vis political interference in Police transfers can be undone, persistent use of the RTI can certainly reduce this type of corruption and misgovernance. Gandhi also found it very encouraging that the Police Commissioner effectively acknowledged past mistakes and sent out a strong signal to prevent the same in the future. Satisfied by this response, Gandhi withdrew all his appeals asking for penal provisions in this matter, even though he could have insisted that officers be penalized.
As is being observed in other parts of the country, the mere questioning of (illegal) actions using the RTI process is becoming responsible for some change; in this Gandhi's applications precipitated a major change in position against corrupt interference within the police department itself. In the hope that many more such efforts by citizens can change the nature of governance, Gandhi plans to seek information from the state's Police department every six months. He expects that this will ensure political influence does not revive.
On another front, Pune based Shahid Burney using the RTI law to expose malpractices in construction and extension work undertaken by Pune Rural Police. The police denied having undertaken any construction work and passed on the buck to the Grampanchayat, but the states Block Development Officer unmasked the misdeeds of the police stating that it is the Police whore the real culprits.
Regular India Together readers will be aware of the Delhi based NGO Parivartan's pioneering efforts in promoting the proper implementation of the state's RTI law. Until recently Parivartan had been concentrating on exposing corruption in the Public Distribution System and the state of civil works in Delhi.
Beginning 15 August 2004, Parivartan has joined hands with Indian Express (IE) in its campaign to promote proper use and implementation of Delhi's RTI Act. For several days in row, the IE carried one story every day related to the use of RTI and on September 5, the partners organized a camp for citizens in Vasant Kunj. Citizens enthusiastically participated in the camps bringing in specific complaints and learning how to use the RTI application process to file requests. Parivartan staff helped them frame questions.
This journalist demands his rights
Another step towards Parivartan
Earlier this month, reacting to the IEParivartan campaign, Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) Commissioner Rakesh Mehta issued orders to ensure proper implementation of the access to information law within the MCD (IE Report). All junior, assistant and executive engineers, deputy health officials, sanitation officials and other field level officials have been asked to furnish information on time. Mehta also plans to 'institutionalise the system of disseminating information'. Plans are also underway to make available the use of RTI online and to allow the 134 new citizen service bureaus to accept RTI applications. The bureaus are scheduled to begin functioning on October 2.
On September 6, the High Court of Karnataka ordered the Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (city municipality) to respond to a long ignored RTI application under the Karnataka Right to Information Act (KRIA), giving municipal officials 24 hours to respond. The petitioner Wilson Paes, a Bangalore resident, had applied in December 2003 for detailed budgetary allocations on a storm water drain desilting project in a city locality. Both the competent officer -- the municipal Deputy Commissioner -- and the first appellate authority, the Special Commissioner, ignored Paes' request.
While issuing his directive after the preliminary hearing, Justice K L Manjunath left open the question of a penalty of Rs.2000 on the Deputy Commissioner as required by KRIA, indicating that more developments are likely in this case. Also, other petitions on ignored citizen applications are likely to come up at the apex state Court in the near future. RTI expert and advocate Sadashiva Reddy is pioneering this process at the Courts. The Court's ruling sent a clear warning to officials of local bodies as well as state government departments that it would not tolerate the 'business as usual' attitude of public servants.
Reports of increasing usage of the RTI system have emerged from many districts in Karnataka. In Shimoga, a consumer forum had penalties imposed on a Block Education Officer who had tried to deny them information related to the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan scheme. In Udupi, citizens group conducted training programmes for government officials of local bodies and workshops for school & college students and teachers. Using the RTI law, they were able to get information from engineering and public works departments, as well as from a government hospital. In Davangere, a citizen uncovered using RTI that a road claimed to be 30 feet wide on paper was actually 20 ft wide. In Harapanahalli, an NGO conducted a social audit with information procured using the RTI law.
These and several other experiences were highlighted at a consultation meeting held on August 28 at Bangalore on the status of Karnataka's RTI law and the inadequacies in its implementation by the government. The meeting was organized by the 'KRIA Katte', a network of individuals and NGOs pursuing effective implementation of KRIA in the state.
Significantly, in addition to legal experts and civil society organizations, the meeting drew participation from top officials at the Department of Administrative Reforms (DPAR) and the Department of Parliamentary Affairs and Legislation (DPAL) of the state government. The DPAR is the point organization in the state for making the RTI law work. As part of a healthy interaction on various legal and practical matters, the DPAR under-secretary Poonacha reiterated his department's committment to make the KRIA law work and committed to citizens that he would look into complaints about lack of response very seriously.
One of the reasons the KRIA Katte organized the consultation was the worrisome government position that it would repeal KRIA if the Central Freedom of Information legislation was brought into force. While the DPAL secretary Dakshina Moorthy took a softer stand at the meeting and indicated that the state law could coexist with the imminent Central law to extent parallel operation was feasible, legal opinions did not converge. The general conclusion was that until it was clear whether and when a Central law may come into force, and until the separate coexistence matter was clearly sorted out by the governments, citizens are better off continuing to use the state RTI laws and indeed, push for more reforms to the law.
Karnataka's small but growing group of RTI users is aware that the KRIA system has a major bottleneck that has made it easy for government departments to ignore RTI applications. Citizens are unable to have their petition heard at the Karnataka Appellate Tribunal (KAT), the state final appellate authority for RTI petitions. This is because as per KAT rules, the state government or local government office concerned must have disposed off the original RTI request in writing -- something most public officials don't do, especially when they do not want to respond to a citizens application. In fact, it is this blockade that prompted Wilson Paes and Sadashiva Reddy to go to the High Court in the first place. That the Court' responded in favour of relief to the citizen, and speedily, has been widely seen a positive sign for the future of RTI in the state.
For the last two years, September 28 has been observed as the Right to Know Day in many nations after the Freedom of Information Advocates Network decided this at the global network's formation in Sofia, Bulgaria (2002). But this September 28 is a special one for many states in India. With Delhi and Rajasthan taking the lead in the north, Karnataka in the south and Maharashtra in centre-west, citizen pressure for open governments is growing stronger.