The recently published book, The RTI Story: Power to the People, by Aruna Roy with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan collective, is a reminder of the struggle of civil society groups for the ordinary citizen’s right to basic information. Their 15-year-long tussle with state governments and the Centre culminated in the RTI Act of 2005.
And yet, when it comes to easy and quick access to Right To Information (RTI) in the hands of common citizens, the journey is still incomplete. Despite more than 10 years of the Act coming into being, the citizens of the “model” state Gujarat are struggling to ensure their right is not diluted by the several challenges presented by the state administration.
As per section 27 of the RTI, 2005 Act, state governments are given powers to frame rules for the implementation of the Act. Though Gujarat was one of the few states that had framed the rules and implemented the RTI Act early on, it has been lagging behind in its proper implementation. There are several roadblocks in the proper implementation and use of this law.
In an interview to TheWire, Harinesh Pandya, who runs Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP, a voluntary organisation that conducts awareness outreach programmes on RTI and provides training on RTI at public institutions and to citizens), disclosed that that the office of information commissioners is “highly understaffed in the state. There are only three information commissioners in the state. As per section 15(2)(b), a state government can appoint maximum of 10 information commissioners in state. The highest administrative post of the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) is also lying vacant since January 2018. Former Information Commissioner V.S. Gadhvi retired in January 2018, and no follow-up appointment to the office has been made. This has resulted in increasing backlog and slow disposal of RTI applications in the state.”
The Gujarat high court, in response to a public interest litigation (PIL) filed by advocate Chandravadan Dhruv, has sought a reply from the state government on April 18, 2018 on why the post of CIC has been lying vacant since four months. As reported by DNA newspaper, in spite of repeated pleas by the litigant, no appointment had been made, which had compelled him to file a PIL.
There is also a lack of pro-active disclosure initiatives in Gujarat government offices, which the RTI Act mandates under section 4. “Despite repeated requests to Gujarat Information Commission and state’s General Administration Department (GAD) for pro-active disclosure, many government departments and offices have not fully disclosed information falling under Section 4 (1) (b) of the Act,” Pandya said.
In 2010, the state government made additions in the RTI rules and made provisions for submitting RTI enquiries through e-mails to the public information officers (PIO) of the respective departments — but the fees for the same cannot be sent through e-payment. If the information seeker fails to send the application fee to the PIO within seven days of seeking the information through e-mail, the application will be considered withdrawn. This loophole needs to be plugged by creating an online payment gateway for RTI applications.
Moreover, the Gujarat government has done little to bring the RTI system online despite the central government’s advisory to all states five years ago to do the same. There is a facility for online appeals in the Gujarat Information Commission (GIC), but RTI applications are not accepted online by any office of the state government.
During the 10th annual convention of the RTI law in 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had said that the Digital India Initiative of his government was “complementary to RTI, because putting information online brings transparency, which in turn builds trust.” However, Shailendrasinh Jadeja, an RTI activist from Rajkot, has made several requests to the PMO, chief minister, governor, GIC and members of the legislative assembly in 2016-17 to initiate an online portal for RTI applications, in line with Modi’s emphasis on “Digital India”, but in vain. When asked about the status of his requests made in early 2017, Jadeja said he hadn’t received any time-bound or detailed response to all his letters except for a generic reply saying that his request had been sent to the department concerned.
He had also written to Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) in December 2016 requesting an online RTI portal in the state, to which the response was: “An advisory has already been issued in December 2013 to all State Governments to explore the feasibility of online RTI Portal in their State.” No further action was taken on his request and the case was closed by the department.
Jadeja told TheWire that despite the presence of a supporting framework in place, the Gujarat government neither accepts RTI applications nor payments online, adding that “the National Informatics Centre is willing to provide technical support to the state governments who wish to replicate the national web portal for RTI application online. The payment gateway for RTI web portal is provided by the State Bank of India.”
Further, there is an absolute lack of any RTI awareness outreach programs conducted by the Gujarat government. In an RTI application filed by Jadeja in September 2017, seeking information on the funds released to the government and utilised by them under the “centrally sponsored scheme on Improving Transparency and Accountability in Government through effective implementation of RTI Act” launched in 2010, he received the following data:
Under this Centrally Sponsored Plan Scheme, the Central Government provides funds every year to various State Administrative Training Institutes (ATIs) for promoting various awareness generation activities like mass media campaigns, publishing of handbooks, pamphlets, banners etc. on RTI and for its distribution among public etc. In the last three years, Gujarat government has not received and therefore not utilised a single Rupee under this scheme to improve the RTI implementation in the state.
Civil society organisations, however, have been instrumental in creating RTI awareness in the state. MAGP, for one, runs an “RTI-on-Wheels” programme with the objective of taking RTI to last-mile areas. They use a multimedia van equipped with loudspeakers, LCD projector, screen, WiFi USB modem, printer, scanner, copier etc to conduct outreach programmes including screening of films/RTI success stories and help citizens file applications. They also show videos on how a common man can use RTI to enquire about public documents, benefits from schemes, etc.
Pandya said application queries during their RTI-on-Wheels programmes are mostly around “how to file applications for their entitlement of welfare schemes that they haven’t received or not enrolled, corruption/information on work order, how to seek data on fund allocation by panchayat, land-related, revenue -related, police corruption-related issues etc.”
Incidentally, there is no government helpline to address these queries in Gujarat. The only RTI helplines present are run by volunteer organisations or independent RTI activists. Pandya said, “It is very important for the state administration to hand-hold citizens when there are obstacles in filing RTI applications to ensure that the long fight for RTI is not undermined in procedural obstacles.” To fill this administrative lacuna, MAGP started an RTI helpline, and receive an average of 70-80 calls/day. The sheer number of enquiries received by a single helpline centre should be a signal enough for the state government to take a serious look at establishing an RTI helpline, he added.
The organisation also runs a whistle-blower helpline. Pandya said they “often receive calls from citizens who feel threatened for their safety. Such calls are recorded after permission from the caller, and the MP3 file is e-mailed to Chief Information Commissioner of GIC, the Gujarat secretary, the police authorities and the district collector. Meanwhile, the caller is also advised and helped to file a complaint at the police station concrned. We ensure that the caller has been given protection.”
RTI activists feel that the state government is either deliberately ignoring several requests made by citizen groups for removing roadblocks in the way of RTI implementation, or is inefficient in implementing the same. Perhaps, the state government can look at alternate and efficient models used by other states to improve implementation and accessibility of the RTI law.
For instance, the Bihar government has sought help from BSNL to create a telephonic RTI helpline system Jaankari. Bihar was the first state to create an RTI call centre. The applicant has to dial 155311 for filing an RTI application. She has to provide her name and address for communication. The call centre executive drafts the application on the basis of the taped phone call. The onus of identifying the right public authority and sending the application is on the call centre. An application fee of Rs 10 is credited in the telephone bill. Once the application has been filed and entered into the system, a copy is sent to the applicant and another to the PIO concerned. The information can be obtained in Hindi, English, Maithili or Bhojpuri, and is sent directly to the applicant. This is a brilliant initiative as it helps even the ones who can’t write or type out their applications.
In Andhra Pradesh, citizens who have pending appeals or complaints with the Andhra Pradesh Information Commission (APIC) can find out the status of such appeals/complaints by sending an SMS to APIC on a mobile phone number, citing the appeal number and the year, after which a reply SMS indicating the status of the appeal/complaint is sent.
The state has also undertaken other initiatives to create awareness on RTI by incorporating lessons in school education. Gujarat can follow suit.
RTI is an important instrument of holding the government accountable and ensuring transparency in governance. It allows for a tremendous power shift from government to citizens. It is important that citizen groups and individuals keep fighting to ensure that their right to information is not diluted.
Nidhi Tambi is a public policy enthusiast and a former LAMP fellow.