Shahid Burney is a rare journalist-cum-citizen activist. He was recently in the news in Pune for having caused long pending transfers of Police officers to come through. The officers were not transferred outside their posted districts before the April-May Lok Sabha elections, in violation of EC norms. What is rare about Burney is that he gets his information using Maharashtra's Right to information law (MRTI).

The MRTI law itself is known to be the most progressive in the country and came about as the result of a crusade led by noted activist Anna Hazare. Burney used the state's right to information law both to good effect and good timing, with the Maharashtra elections just around the corner. Burney is presently Editor-in-Chief and publisher of "Aapla Saptah", a bilingual Hindi/Marathi news weekly, published from Pune. He is also a special correspondent of "Arab News" in Western India. A widely traveled and award winning journalist, he has visited the USA, UK, Germany, Switzerland, Canada, Australia, Egypt, Sudan, Kenya, Gulf countries, and Pakistan.

Excerpts from an India Together interview with Shahid Burney.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. What is your primary occupation and how did you come to be filing right-to-information applications?

I was born and educated in Pune. I am married with two daughters and a son. I ventured into journalism as a cub reporter, with Poona Daily News (now defunct) at the age of 12, while studying in standard five. Since I took up journalism as my career, I have worked as investigative journalist in various English, Marathi and Gujarati newspapers and magazines in Maharashtra and English and Arabic publications in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. For 13 years I worked as Coordinating Editor of Arab News, the leading International English newspaper of the Middle East based in Jeddah. I covered the Gulf War in 1992, and operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm on behalf of Arab News. I contributed to various international English newspaper and electronic media, i.e. BBC, CNN, NBC, CBS etc. I have interviewed various international dignitaries and was awarded gold and crystal memento by the Saudi government for war coverage. In all, I have around 35 years experience in journalism.

I became one of the earliest members of the MRTI user e-group "Mahadhikar" floated by my old friend Prakash Kardaley, Senior Editor, "Indian Express" Initiatives, Pune. I came to know of the MRTI law through an article released by the Publicity and Information department of the Maharashtra government in 2000. I thought at that time that the MRTI was a boon to expose the corruption and unearth the scams prevailing in government departments.

As per election commission rules for ensuring free and fair elections, Police officers who have served for extended periods of time in a district must be transferred by the state government to a different district before elections. You used the MRTI law to get information about Police officer transfers and in turn this caused a shakeup.

I filed a writ petition in the High Court in 2002, mentioning that police officers in Pune have managed to stay in the city for more than 20 to 30 years, and they should be transferred. I also brought to the notice of the Court that since these officers are selected by the Maharashtra Public Service Commission to serve the entire state of Maharashtra, and yet they cancel their transfers to places in Vidaraba and Marathwada.

This year, the election commission announced the poll code of conduct in February 11, 2004 prior to the Lok Sabha elections. Following this, the state government must have transferred police officers who stayed in a district for more than 4 years. I used the MRTI and got the complete list of police officers serving in the city and rural police force since 1975 till 2003. I sent the Election Commission this list.

On March 19 this year, selective police officers were transferred, but majority were left out. Upset by this attitude of the police chiefs, I approached the Bombay High Court and filed a petition on April 13, 2004, citing how the state government was making a mockery of the EC directives and again exhibiting the list of officers that were left untouched and the comments of a city police chief to the media, that the government on his request has cancelled the transfers of 19 inspectors.

Before the matter could come up for hearing, a panicked bureaucracy immediately transferred the remaining lot, but still managed to hold them back within the same districts. With the assembly elections due soon, and the transferred cops still not being sent out of the district, I wrote to the Chief Election Commissioner on July 20, bringing to his notice how the bureaucracy was making a mockery of its directives.

On July 21, Deputy Election Commissioner Mr. A.N.Jha phoned me from Delhi, referred to my email and heard me at length. He assured me that the EC would take strong action in this regard. The rest is history now. The EC even before announcing its poll conduct for the assembly elections, have directed the government to implement its last directives and transfer the cops out immediately. The action in this respect has been initiated by the government.

I have also used the MRTI law to obtain the list of revenue officials (election/returning officers during poll time) who have stayed in Pune district for more than four years. They also must be transferred since the state elections are approaching. A list of 12 such officials was released in response to my MRTI request and I have filed a letter with the CEC T.S. Krishnamurthy on August 20.

Tell us a little bit about the Pune IAS officers land scam case. Were you satisfied with the responses of the government to your RTI requests? What did you then do with the information? Were there any consequences in the process?

The scam is termed now as "mother of all scams”. Documents showed that more than 27 senior IAS officers in Pune had conspired together quietly to illegally grab the land belonging to a government institute for a housing society the officers had formed. There more than 30 questions to which I had to refer to several departments from Revenue to Finance, Technical Education, Municipal Corporation etc. Responses are still coming and collection of documents is not over.

All departments so far have fully cooperated and provided documentary evidences to the information I asked, so I can say, yes, the responses have been satisfactory. Earlier in August, I had visited the office of the Collector, and the officials there provided me the entire file related to the Gayatri Cooperative Housing Society – the housing society formed by the officers. I was asked to mark the papers from the file which I wanted and I did so, about 40 pages. It was perhaps for the first time in Maharashtra, that the bureaucracy threw open the files for reading under the MRTI.

On going through the file on the above subject, I found that not only were the present 27 IAS officers interested in becoming the society's members, but there were quite a few others, including the former Collector Madhukar Kokate and present PMC Commissioner Dr.Nitin Kareer who initially joined the society and later withdrew.

Once I have all the documents, I will approach the judiciary and expose how the officers have misused their positions and tried to siphon off the land. I will request the judiciary to set up a enquiry by a sitting judge of the High Court and decide on penal action against these officers.

How many Right-to-information applications have you filed and in general how many meaningful responses did you get? What do you when you get a response?

70 applications have been filed by me so far. For ninety percent of them, I have received positive responses. Getting responses takes a lot of time, minimum 30 days; some do not respond at all, and hence you cannot move further. There are also delayed replies which I get after four to six months. In majority of the cases I demand action against the guilty as per the law. For cases that are in form of scams, I prefer to take the cases to the judiciary.

What you do you think of the usability of MRTI law? Do you think the procedures are simple enough for a lay but active citizen or does it require a savvy activist to figure things out? How do the appellate authorities work? Have you had to appeal often?

MRTI law works positively, if the law is studied thoroughly. If you have not studied the law well, then procedures become difficult. It is not necessary that you have to be a savvy activist to figure things out. You just have to know the law and its interpretations well.

As far as the Appellate Authorities, they would hesitate to punish their immediate subordinates who work as the public information officers (PIOs). They would rather defend rather than take action against the PIO's. That's my opinion. Even the Lokayukta may have a soft corner for the Appellate authorities or the PIO's. We have hardly seen the Lokayukta giving a favourable decision in case of the appellant. Yes, I had to appeal sometimes.

Do you ever fear for that the authorities will come after you? If yes, tell us what runs through your mind. If you don't think much damage can be done to active citizens using RTI, tell us why not?

No, I have never feared anyone ever, except God. I have taken the most dreaded department - the police head on right from the time I put my foot in journalism. This is because of my strong faith in people's power. The authorities may create terror in the minds of those who are weak and corrupt, not in the minds of strong and honest people, who do not compromise with their principles and do their duty to the people sincerely.

I know that there are quite a few MRTI activists, who cannot be silenced by any authority or made submissive. These activists, like me, know the constraints of the authorities and their level of power to cause damage. I would here mention the names of Prakash Kardaley, Shailesh Gandhi, Arvind Kejriwal, Yogesh Pratap Singh and Geeta Raybagar. Only the "meek" and the "weak" activist can fear for his life and property. That’s the bottom line.

The National Advisory Council has finalized changes to amend and bring about a reformed national right-to-information law. If passed in Parliament, it will be a very progressive law. There is now Central.vs.State law confusion because some states are indicating they will repeal the state law when the Central law comes into force. What are your hopes on that front?

The Central law if it comes with the suggested amendments would be welcomed. Minus the amendments, it would be full of flaws and pit falls, and all hopes of the activists for a better and people friendly national Freedom of Information Act will vanish into thin air. I do not think an amended FOIA will be enacted before 2004 but perhaps later; or may not be at all and it may be dropped.

At the moment, from my experiences, I can only state that the present MRTI is the best RTI law in the country.

In many countries, the media is a major user of freedom of information laws for regular news and detailed reports on government and government matters. In India, you seem to be amongst a rare breed of journalists willing to use the RTI Act. Chetan Chauhan of the Hindustan Times in Delhi has also used Delhi's RTI law. What do you think holds back reporters and journalists from systematically using the law?

There is a lack of interest in young journalists on issues of human interest, and also a lack of knowledge in them on the subject. In the West, a main focus of journalists is on this -- issues which effect the human life i.e. people struggling and fighting for their rights, issues that effect the tribals in rural areas, human fighting against all odds, and issues that effect the human life in day to day affairs, from unemployment to development. As far as I know, journalists in the USA rank number one in making queries under the Freedom of Information laws. While in India, the RTI laws are last on the list of the journalists.

What do you think accounts for the success you and other activists have had with the MRTI? After all, you yourself say that sometimes replies don't come on time, and other times you have to follow up. Is there a specific method you follow that brings greater success?

I attribute the success to persistently pursuing the matter till the end. From my experience, one does get results in the final analysis.