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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 08 Dated 25 Feb 2012
    CURRENT AFFAIRS  
    RTI HURDLES

    Has curiosity killed the RTI cat?

    The obstacles faced by RTI activists illustrate how a good law is being subverted by opaque institutions, says Janani Ganesan

    Click to Zoom

    Illustration: Rishabh Arora


    SHWETA NARAYAN blinked twice when she saw the replies. “Show us proof of your Indian identity,” read two letters that landed in the Chennai-based environmental activist’s mailbox. They were neither from the CBI nor from a right-wing outfit. They were from IIT Madras and IIT Patna. No, she had not applied for a seat in the institutes. All she had sought was information under the RTI Act.

    Narayan, 32, had wanted to know whether Dow Chemicals, the parent company of Union Carbide, which was responsible for the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, was sending recruiters to IITs for campus placements. The IITs, in turn, wanted to know if she was Indian.

    Passed in 2005, the RTI Act was, and still is, hailed as a path-breaking law that will ensure transparency in governance. But more and more applicants are finding out the hard way that the law alone will not ensure that they get the desired information from bureaucrats.

    “We are realising that the government is incapable of functioning,” laments Central Information Commissioner (CIC) Shailesh Gandhi. The slew of banal responses that accompany rejection letters from various levels of the bureaucracy to RTI applications illustrates his point.

    “Asking for proof of Indian identity is one of the usual responses to RTI applications. In fact, we make sure that we send in a copy of our identity proof so that the RTI request is not rejected, at least on that account,” says Sugandh Juneja, 27, who works with the Centre for Science and Environment, a research and advocacy organisation in New Delhi. “The State, of course, will not want to give out information to foreigners,” she says, attempting to find an explanation.

    Information deemed public should ideally be made available on the website of the departments concerned, which would eventually be open to access by foreigners as well.

    But even sending in the identity proof in advance does not stop the Public Information Officers (PIO) in charge of RTI requests from refusing information.

    Juneja reels out some of the most bizarre experiences while trying to get information. “Sometimes, the demand draft of a nominal fee of Rs 10 needs to be addressed to another official and not the PIO. But this information is not provided on the website,” she says.

    Even when the PIOS write back stating this reason, they often don’t mention whom the DD is to be addressed to.

    The Rs 10 fee proved to be detrimental to TEHELKA while trying to obtain information from the TERM (Telecom Enforcement, Resource and Monitoring) cell of the Department of Telecommunication (DOT). “We are a research wing. We don’t have an accounts department and hence will not be able to issue a challan for the fee. You will have to file the RTI with the DOT or another department,” was the reason offered by the officer in charge for not accepting the RTI application.

    However, a cursory glance at the TERM website shows a list of PIOs who could be contacted for information.

    ‘To intimidate me, police constables were sent home with the RTI information,’ says Rao, an RTI activist

    Even filing the request for information to the right PIO, carefully picked from a long list of undecipherable designations such as Dy Dir LM or DDG (MIS-II), can throw the applicant off-track with a trail of responses directing him/her to another department instead.

    MUMBAI-BASED RTI activist Sanjay Shirodkar’s attempt to extract information from Mumbai International Airport Pvt Ltd, which has been under scrutiny for its public-private partnership deals, illustrates the pillar-to-post treatment faced by RTI applicants. Shirodkar, 42, was redirected to file RTIs with 55 PIOs, including ones in the departments of animal husbandry and water supply and sanitation, to get details about just one venture.

    In his experience as an RTI activist, Shirodkar claims that Section 6(3) of the Act is used extensively to deny information. Section 6(3) lays down the provision for transfer of RTIs if the information asked for is “more closely connected with the functions of another public authority”. Even the framers of the Act were aware of the grey areas in delineation of functions in the bureaucracy.

    While some departments are still genuinely clueless about either the RTI Act or the kind of information that may or may not be with them, others deliberately find ways to deny information. Like the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board. One of the standard responses of the officials to Narayan’s applications has been, “Your question is not specific.” This, in spite of her asking for specific data for a particular time period.

    The experience of appellate trials reveal a little about this psychology of denying information. Krishnaraj Rao, an RTI activist from Mumbai who has been helping people draft applications since 2008, says, “At the hearing, the applicant gets overwhelmed and addresses the appellate authority as ‘Your Honour’. The officer behaves like an important babu and the information is never to be had.”

    “Once, two Railway Police officers marched to my house with the information,” recalls Rao. “They spoke gently to me, but a household still gets worked up if cops come home. The police never give information in the first instance. Sometimes they send the information through a constable instead of mailing it, just to intimidate you. Every government department has its own character and it responds to RTIs accordingly.”

    Rao also claims that Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) officials have been trained to deny information. “Their standard response is: ‘Giving you this information would amount to disproportionate use of resources.’ Sometimes, in spite of agreeing to pay the amount it would cost the BMC to photocopy and send the material, they insist on inspection of documents,” he says.

    Inspection would require information seekers to go to the department and personally look through the files. And one can never guess how harrowing the experience can be. “They will hand over a bunch of files and you will never know where to find the specific information,” says Rao. “Sometimes, they ask you mocking questions like ‘Don’t you have anything better to do in life?”

    Juneja has faced similar responses. “I can’t go from Delhi to, say, Goa just to inspect a document,” she says.

    Aren’t there checks on PIOs to ensure they don’t play a never-ending game of passing the parcel? Even the CIC is wary of the checks in place, “There are. But in an inefficient system, the checks will also be inefficient,” says Gandhi. “The PIO gives a record of his own work. How can that be accurate? In the absence of computers, we have to take their word at face value.”

    However, the RTI is certainly not a failed story. For instance, Narayan’s efforts did not reach a dead end. IIT Indore mailed her the necessary information, making the process a lot quicker and all the IITs, except Madras, replied stating that Dow wouldn’t be coming for campus placements. But, there are still loopholes and as these applicants recount from their experiences, it will take guile and patience to beat the bureaucrats at their own game.

    Janani Ganesan is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
    janani@tehelka.com


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    From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 9, Issue 08, Dated 25 Feb 2012
 
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