When some residents in Pune couldn’t get information about an upcoming commercial complex within their residential neighbourhood, they approached Right To Information (RTI) activist and journalist Vinita Deshmukh for help.
Deshmukh visited the government office with residents. But, the officials refused to share the information, claiming the loss of the requested file. The residents stayed put and insisted on seeing a copy of FIR about the missing file. Lo and behold, the missing file emerged within 15 minutes and the residents acquired the information they needed.
Most RTI activists have their own stories about being denied information and how they worked their way around to wriggle out information from the government officials. RTI Act requires officials to share information and has penalties for not doing so.
In a decade and a half since RTI Act’s inception, the gap between what is promised on paper in law and how it manifests on the ground is sadly widening.
Recently, the refusal to reveal information about the PM Cares Fund drew media spotlight. However, even at the local neighbourhood level, obtaining information is as hard.
As of July 2020 there was a backlog of 2,21,568 second appeals across 20 information commissions in the country, according to a report by the Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS), a citizens group that is working to promote transparency and accountability in government functioning.
About 4 to 6 million RTI applications continue to be filed every year across the country.
A report by SNS found that 58,185 matters were pending before the Maharashtra State Information Commission as on February 29, 2020, the highest in the country. Maharashtra had a 46% response rate, which meant only 46% of respondents were provided with all the information sought and the estimated disposal time was about 13 months.
The SNS report compiled with the help of RTIs filed across the country found that the Maharashtra’s State Information Commission (SIC) functioned with merely five Information Commissioners as against the requisite strength of 11 commissioners, since early 2019.
Between April 2017 and May 2018, the state did not have a Chief Information Commissioner.
Governments against transperancy
Vijay Kumbhar, journalist and RTI activist from Pune says that decisions that strangle RTI and democracy, will continue to be taken by the governments unless citizens keep the RTI movement alive by using it to resolve their local issues. “Successive governments have worked to dilute, scuttle and make the law spineless,” says Deshmukh.
In Pune, the activists had done such amazing groundwork that citizens could just walk into the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) and access documents without even bothering to file applications. Ideally, there should be so much information available in the public domain that there should be no need for anyone to file an RTI for every small issue, says Kumbhar, who has been advising people on RTI every Sunday since the past 350 weeks at Pune’s Chitranjan Park Vatika.
The RTI movement which had begun in Devdungri village in Rajasthan with Aruna Roy in the early 1990s with the slogan of “Hamara Paisa Hamaara Hisaab” saw its dream being translated into one of the best transparency laws in the word.
Successes of an Information Officer
Maharashtra’s first Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) Shailesh Gandhi says that there must be a proper transparent system of appointing CIC’s rather than by political patronage. SIO’s must be trained and it must be ensured that they dispose matters within a stipulated time, he says.
Gandhi’s first tryst with the RTI was when he filed an application demanding to know about how many Parliamentarians and legislators had recommended for police transfers. Though the information was never provided, 142 police officers were reprimanded for soliciting transfers from politicians. “That taught me that a lot is possible. We have one of the best laws in the world, but we fail poorly in implementation,” says Gandhi, who says that the “defective, elective democracy” of India needs RTI to convert it into a truly participative democracy.
Subsequently, Gandhi got a deal of redevelopment of the Crawford Market cancelled after obtaining information that found that Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC)-owned market gained only Rs 62 crore of works from the deal while private builders and licenced stall owners made a profit of over Rs 1000 crores.
The RTI Act was also successful in bringing in the fear of accountability into the government servant’s work. A deputy commissioner of police confessed to RTI activist Vinita Deshmukh that unlike earlier when he would not bother much about his file notings, now he was quite alert while making notings. The fear of accountability is one of the successes of RTI, she says.
In a webinar held on 12 October on RTI Act’s implementation, I heard the story of a ten year old who filed an RTI to seek details about the FIR of his missing cycle. When the police tried to lure the little boy into withdrawing his RTI with an offer to buy him a new bicycle, the kid chose to overlook that temptation insisting on a reply for his RTI query instead.
These are the stories that instill hope.