Sunday, December 30, 2007

RTI Project updates - 4

Meeting with the State Chief Information Commissioner
Our meeting with the Tamil Nadu Chief Information Commissioner (will be referred to as CICr hereafter) went pretty well. He was very co-operative. He explained a few things about how they handle applications, petitions etc. I will try to mention a few things here.

1. He said that there were people who did not understand that RTI is an act to get information. So they just send in a letter mentioning a grievance. There is not much the SIC can do on such things, though the CICr said that he normally sends a letter to the department concerned, requesting action on the grievance. Sometimes, the grievance does get resolved.
2. He talked about how the focus is on getting the information asked for. So when somebody files an appeal with the SIC immediately after the 30 days expiry of filing RTI application (without going in for appeal with the AA), such appeals are not ignored, but the SIC asks the PIO concerned to give the information.
3. He also told us that in most cases of appeal, where the facts are obvious from the letters, then an order is passed without calling for an enquiry or personal appearances.

When asked about getting copies of orders passed, he told us that they have passed many orders without calling for enquiries, in which case, though the orders can be obtained, the background papers like the initial RTI application or the replies from the PIO wont be available immediately. The reason is that the background papers are filed separately from the orders and hence a mapping will be tough. (e.g) suppose you pick up a decision and you want the initial RTI application. The RTI application is definitely present in the mounds of paper in the office, but there is no way you can directly pick up the RTI application after looking at the order order. Hence it will be tough for getting details of all the orders passed. But he said that in cases of enquiries held, the order contains a brief summary of the case and the arguments by both the arguments. It will then contain the judgment given. Usually this order is given in 2 pages. He said we can get the copies of all the orders passed where enquiries have been held. Hence this is what we intend to scan and then analyse.

RTI Applications filing

I filed two applications this week, one in which I had asked for details of public toilets and urinals in Chennai. The other one is the expenses incurred for celebrating Mr.Karunanidhi's 50 years as MLA in the secretariat.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Corruption complaint against a government hospital

This post started off as a reply to the comment posted by Suneel for my post (can be seen here). But then the comment was getting bigger and bigger and hence I decided to have it as a separate post.

The comment was about the cause of the problem. I think the public is also part of the problem. But I really wonder what makes systems work, what makes systems fail. Take public transport of Chennai for example. From a user point of view there is no corruption. Suppose for the next bus stop the fare is 5 Rupees (which is the case in deluxe buses), the conductors can collect just 3 rupees, not issue any ticket, in which case he can pocket all the 3 rupees. Which will be much less than the incentive on a Rs 5 ticket, he would have got if he had been honest. The passenger will be happy since he will be paying 2 rupees less. But I dont see this happening. The conductors always give the tickets. I am explaining this just to see why this system is working without corruption. If suddenly some checking inspectors come, why cant they also be bribed. This is not happening. By the way, when I travel in private buses in villages, there are many times, the conductor is ready to take just 5 rupees instead of the actual 7 rupees fare, if I am ok with not getting a ticket. Looking at these private buses there are various possibilities as to why there is no corruption in MTC buses.
1. There is something in the ticket system of MTC, that makes it work without corruption.
2. It is just the culture that has been built over the years.
3. It might be again because the public would never accept not having a ticket, in which case again the buck stops with us, when it comes to corruption at other places.
4. It can also be that devising a corruption proof system is easier for ticket collection in buses but mot so easy in other places.
5. It could also be that whether a system is corrupt or not corrupt depends on th people at the top (Here I am talking not just about their intention but also their ability)

When it comes to these hospitals, I somehow feel change can come in, if there is the will in the highest authority. Probably nobody wants to ruffle a few feathers. Here again the public also need to be blamed. Once they are out of the hospital, they should write complaints to DVAC, or call them up. Their numbers are displayed everywhere in the hospital saying bribes should not be given and that if any staff member asks for money, the can complain to this number. But in a hospital it will be dangerous if you complain while the patient is still in the hospital, since they might do the patient harm. What I suggest is that they keep a note of all the bribes they pay, date and time wise. Once they are completely out of the hospital they can launch a complaint.

Which is what i did with "Kasturba Gandhi Hospital For Women & Children" at Triplicane in Chennai. Bharathi is our office accountant. Her friend was admitted there for delivery. And my friend was helping her with getting admitted and other formalities. After delivery the baby had jaundice and hence there were problems. So my colleague eventually moved her and the baby to a private hospital. But during those three days she had to pay close to a couple of thousands as bribes to various people in the hospital. Hence she talked to me, and we together drafted the complaint and filed it. The complaint can be seen here. We are waiting for a reply.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

RTI Project updates - 3

RTI Awareness session in Saidapet slum

A lot of this week was spent on preparing for this RTI awareness session in a Saidapet slum that happened on Saturday (22nd Dec 2007). This slum was chosen because AID was already running an area learning centre there, and hence we had a contact person there called, Koteeswari.

Preparations for the awareness session included, preparing handouts, talking to a street play troupe (a group of students who were inteterested in doing a kit or a street play for RTI), getting some posters used by TN RTI campaign in 2006, getting a few display charts ready to be used for the session. We (ChennaiRTI & I) had also prepared templates could be used while drafting RTI applications in the slum. We got this ready in Tamil so that we can copy from it while drafting applications. And we had prepared a list of PIOs and AAs for issues that we thought are the most likely to arise in a slum.

The day before the session, the street play troupe backed out saying their members have left for their native places for Christmas holidays. I didn’t expect this. I knew that the street play troupe was very important for the success of the session, since it is very difficult to gather people together otherwise. I had this experience before while doing awareness sessions in villages. But I couldn’t do much if they say they cannot come. But I decided to go ahead with the session anyway. I had taken printouts of posters, handouts, display charts etc. In the evening around 6, Prabha and I went to the slum. There along with Koteeswari, we distributed handouts about the session the following day. I had 75 handouts ready and we distributed almost all of them. We would have informed about a hundred families. This took about an hour. There were a couple of people who said that drainage was the biggest problem they had. They did not have a drainage connection for the slum. I said all these issues can be handled using RTI and hence asked them to come to the session tomorrow. One lady in particular was very excited and said that she will definitely come tomorrow to discuss the drainage issue. But she was the only one who gave such a positive response. Otherwise there was not much response. So I was not expecting a lot of people the next morning. But I had thought that at least 20 people will be there. Little did I know the shock that was in store.

The next day (Saturday) morning, I reached the place at 9 along with Varath. Prabha and Bharathi, a full timer with AID TN, were already there with the stationery and all the other stuff I had left in the office the previous day. And there was not a single soul at the place we had announced. Though this in itself was not surprising, when I went around telling all the people to whom I had distributed handouts etc, and everybody was like “Yeah, we are coming. You go on and we will follow you”. This went on for about 20 mins. But after all the effort, there was just one lady who had come. This was a bit frustrating. Almost 1 week of effort for the session, all for just one lady?? I was asking myself this. By then, a few other ladies turned up. Lokesh had also joined us by then. There was a small hotel nearby where some young people were having their breakfast. We tried to call them. A couple of them came. We somehow managed a group of 10 people. Supported by others who were with me, I started off the session. I knew that the group had very little attention span, and so I didn’t go into any of the details. I just told them that a new act had been passed, wherein applications had to be replied in 30 days and if not, the officer could be fined up to Rs. 25,000. I tried also to explain that the new act is about “Information”. But I felt that none of this went across well. I missed the street play troupe. I spoke only for about 10 minutes. While I was talking some more people had gathered. We had around 20 people mid way through the talking. And after 10 mins I stopped. I told them that we would help them in filing RTI applications if they had any issues with any department of the government. I could see the whole session winding up in another half an hour. This time again, I was proved wrong. But this time I was happy I was wrong.

Once we started addressing individual issues, one lady there came to us saying she had applied for a ration card about a year back, but nothing had happened since then. We took this up and Prabha started drafting an RTI application for her. Soon, another lady came up to us saying that she had not got her father’s job after he passed away. Varath handled this case. Then a couple of others came. Soon all of us were busy. And to our utter surprise there were people waiting for us to handle each of their cases. And many of them were people who were people who were not part of that initial 20 who heard my 10 minutes talk. I knew what word of mouth publicity meant. After a few applications, Prabha and Bharathi left. Varath, Lokesh and I were drafting applications for sometime. After some time Lokesh left. Varath and I were still there. Soon it was hot outside on the road and hence we moved to the temple. There we sat down and continued drafting applications. When Varath and I ended this at 1, we had drafted 16 RTI applications by then. Not a bad number considering that we started with only one woman who was ready to listen to us.In the end the awareness session was more an application filing drive and less an awareness session. In the future, I intend to talk to NGOs who work in slums and use their base to do the awareness sessions. I should also use SHG network which is very widespread in Tamil Nadu to take forward this awareness. While we were distributing handouts on a door to door basis, Prabha was surprised to find an AIDWA member who recognized her. We should be using more such contacts so that we actually do awareness sessions in the future.

After the volunteer training last week, I had hoped one of them would take up responsibility of follow-up work for this awareness session. But nothing of that sort happened. None of the volunteers attended the session. Hence follow-up work for this slum, rests on my shoulders. I must think of ways to find volunteers who can do this.

Email and phone helplines:

Also, this week saw the start of email and phone helplines for RTI. The number is 9789819014. The email ID is For now am planning to spread the word about these helplines through email forwarding. We also distribute this number to people in the slums where we conduct awareness sessions.

Working with the commission

Nothing much happened this week with respect to the state information commission. We had wanted to meet the Chief Information Commissioner this week to discuss how we can get copies of their decisions. Hence I went to the SIC to get an appointment with the Chief Information Commissioner. He said he can give me time on next Wednesday (26th December). So I said ok.

So we will meet him the coming week to place before him our demands.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

RTI Project updates - 2

The volunteers training that was initially scheduled for saturday(yesterday) was shifted to sunday(today). On Saturday, I conducted an RTI training for AID Chennai Full timers. About 15 people attended the training. Then there was a training for volunteers on Sunday (5 of the 7 people who initially agreed attended the meeting).

Training for AID Chennai Full timers
This training happened on saturday (15th December) went on for 2 hours. There were a lot of questions about where RTI can be used. I did this before the training for volunteers, since I thought that it can be some practice for me. Overall, the training went off pretty well. Many told me that the training was very useful and informative. One particular person said that it was very useful, though when she walked she did not have much interest. I think a good amount of that credit should go to the fact that RTI is such a wonderful tool which can have an impact on many day to day issues that individuals face, and hence when they see that such issues can be handled using RTI they are very impressed. The audience in this training was very varied. At one end there were people who had only completed 12th standard, and at the other end, there were people who had completed Masters in Social Work with a few years of experience in the development sector.
The agenda was that, for the initial 45 minutes, the basics of RTI act was explained using the presentation(that can be seen here, though I dont know how anybody can see those tamil fonts on the net. Anybody who needs a copy can mail me.). As the name suggests, this PPT is in both English and Tamil simultaneously. After the basics were discussed, I discussed with them a few RTI success stories, for them to get an idea of what kind of cases can be handled, and what kind of information can be accessed, and what is the scope of impact that the RTI can have. This went go on for about half an hour. This was a pretty interesting one, where in many questions were asked like "Can RTI help if buses are not coming on time?", "What can we do if one person who is married has ditched his wife and married somebody else. The police intervened and asked the man to pay alimony, but the man is not paying up." One person asked "Can we use RTI to speed up processing of cases with the courts". There was a lot of discussion on various issues, but public transport was a dominant theme. The final session was a mock application drafting session, wherein, I ask them to think of some issue, and then draft an RTI application to address the issue. Once the applications were ready, we asked each individual to read out their application, and then discuss what could have been done better, etc.

Training for Volunteers
On 16th December, there was a training at AID office for volunteers. 5 volunteers attended the training. The training went on for about the 2 hours. With similar agenda as the previous day. But one learning from the previous day was that, starting off with the Presentation is somewhat abrupt. So I initially gave them a quick overview of, application and appeal processes, in about 5 mins, and then started the presentation which contained the details of each of the processes.

Once the training was over, we had a discussion on how publicise our awareness session in the slums. 4 members of the chennai RTI group, who were part of the campaign in 2006 were also present. I had proposed that we should have an awareness session next saturday (22nd Dec) in one slum. So there was a general opinion that we should have a contact point in the slum before we do the awareness, as that will help them trust us. Hence, Sharadha and I decided that we will do that work during the 1st two days of the week and then decide on the slum.

Working with the commission
This week, I went to the commission, and met Mr.Dhandapani, to find out the status of my RTI application asking for the soft copies all the decisions they had made till date. Since they had not replied within 30 days, I had already filed a first appeal too. But still there was no response. So I went and met this person. He was not very keen on talking to me, since he appeared busy. He said that soft copies of the decisions will not be available for the next two months atleast. He showed me three closed cardboard boxes with computers, saying, these were yet to be opened and only after they are opened this work can be done. Today after the volunteers training, the 4 member of the ChennaiRTI group had a small meeting where we discussed what needs to be done about the commission. Then we all decided that during one of the weekdays, we will go and meet the Chief Information Commissioner (Mr.S.Ramakrishnan) and discuss this issue and arrive at a means of getting a copy of their decisions, which can later be analysed.

Email and phone Helplines
We had decided to start an email helpline and a phone helpline. The phone helpline will be open on saturdays. The phone helpline will start from next Saturday. Publicity for this will happen through emails and through the publicity posters and handouts that we will prepare for the awareness sessions. The helpline phone number is 9789819014. The email ID will be The email helpline is, of course, open right away.

Saturday, December 08, 2007

RTI Project updates - 1

I met a group of 3 enthusiastic people today. Varath, Sharada and Lokesh. They had already worked on the TN RTI state wide campaign that happened in 2006. Hence I had called them up to meet them. They readily agreed and came to meet me. Varath, Sharada and I met on saturday, to discuss what we can do for RTI on the awareness front . Lokesh joined in later and left after a while . We discussed on how and where we can conduct awareness sessions, and finally we decided that we will initially do it in 5 slums in Chennai. We discussed on materials that will be needed for the slum awareness session. Sharada said she can talk to HRF and get the publicity materials that were used last time. That we should do a skit in the slum was agreed upon, though the details need to be worked out. I have also called for volunteers for this RTI awareness sessions. The idea is that each volunteer will be assigned a slum, and once the awareness session is over there, that particular volunteer will do the follow-up work by visiting it once in 2-3 weeks. So far I have found about 5-6 volunteers. The training for these volunteers will happen next Saturday (Dec 15th 2007). That will be a 3 hour session.

We also decided that we will run a help line for RTI to provide help over phone. This will essentially be a mobile phone number, to which people can call in with queries about RTI. We plan to have it open for 3-4 hours every saturday with each one of us taking turns at handling the calls every week. This will start soon and we have decided to publicise this number at all the awareness sessions and also through local area newspapers.

About working with the commission, we decided that we will meet again to discuss that separately when Rajesh (who also participated in the 2006 RTI campaign, but could not make it to the meeting) and Lokesh can also join in.

Meanwhile, I am designing a poster, for use in the awareness sessions and also for general publicity of the helpline. That will also be ready by the time the slum awareness sessions start. A ppt has been readied for use in the volunteers training and a set of case studies need to be chosen, which I can use during the training for volunteers.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Court fee stamps

Every RTI application has to be accompanied with a fee (unless you are a BPL person, in which case there is no application fee at all). In Tamil Nadu it is 10 rupees. According to the act, this can be paid as cash, dd, cheque or postal orders. But all of these had problems. Govt departments refused to accept cash. To give a DD or a cheque one needs to find out the name in which the instrument has to be drawn, which would mean a visit to the department (since they dont give much response on the phone), which in turn means you are made to run from this bench to that bench. Then came in a rule saying, court fee stamps can be used to pay the application fee. This made a huge difference (at least to me). Since then filing RTI applications has been a breeze. Just write out a letter. Affix court fee stamps worth Rs.10. And courier it. Governments cant refuse court fee stamps, no need to find out the name of the officer in whose name cheque or DD has to be drawn. Just stick those stamps and send it.

But court fee stamps had to be purchased from vendors. I had initially bought some stamps. I was asked for a commission of 2 Rs for evey 10 rupees stamp. I didnt realise it at that time, though after that it somehow dawned on me that the commission was illegal. After all, while buying a normal postal stamp, we dont pay 6 rupees to get a 5 Rs. stamp. So the next time I visited a taluka office, I tried to find out the place where I can get court fee stamps without commission. They directed me to a person from whom I bought the stamps without commission. After some days, yesterday, I wanted to buy more stamps. I didnt want to go the first vendor again, and so I decided to get it directly from somebody in a court. So I went to the Saidapet court. There again there was a dealer. I asked for stamps but was made to wait. I waited there patiently for a few minutes, all the while, seeing lawyers who came after me, buying what they wanted and going away. I got irritated. I raised my voice and asked her to give me my stamps first since I came in earlier. She asked me how many I wanted. I said, I wanted twenty 10 rupee stamps. She asked me for 220 rupees. I told her I wont give any commission. Instantly she put the stamps back in its compartment in the table and continued selling things to other people who had come. I came out, of that vendor's place. Tried to find out whom to complain to about this. Then started my merry-go-round.

I talked to a couple of people in the administrative office there. I explained to them that I was being asked for commission, where I need not pay any. I was asked to go the area's registrar's office which was a couple of kilo metres away. So I went there. In that building, again when I asked for the officer with whom I can complain about this, I was told that they dont have any authority on court fee stamps and only the treasury issues them. So I was asked to go to the treasury (which was within the court compound). So I had to go back to the court, this time to the treasury office. There they told me, that though they issue court fee stamps, the vendor licenses were issued by the the Registrar's office. I explained that I was just back from the Registrar's office where I was told to go to the treasury. But I was again told, that I had to meet meet the AIG officer (whatever AIG stood for) in the registrar's office. So I went back to the same office where I had previously enquired, and I was told that, that particular officer will be in Chennai only on Mondays. But I asked the next senior officer that I wanted to give a complaint against the vendor in the Saidapet court. She asked me for the name of the vendor. I said I didnt know the name, but isnt the fact that she is the vendor in the Saidapet court, enough to identify her. She told me that licenses are not issued to addresses within saidapet court, so I had to get the name. By this time I had already spent a lot of time, and so decided to get the stamps and leave the place. At least, I had found out the place to complain against vendors who charge commission illegally.

Just outside this Registrar's building there was a vendor. I went to him. I told him that I needed court fee stamps worth Rs. 200. He said he wanted 210 rupees. I told him that I wont pay any commission. He looked at me for a couple of seconds. Then asked me why I needed the stamps. I told him that I dont need to tell him why I needed the stamps. He must have been irritated. He made me wait for 10 mins while he was issuing stamps papers to another customer. After 10 mins, I asked him if he is going to give me the stamps. He gave me the stamps. I gave him 200 rupees. He look at it, and asked if there was anything else. I said no, and left.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

How the Tamil Nadu SIC deals with an RTI application?

I had recently filed an RTI application with the Information commission itself and I received a reply only after 30 days. For the moment, let us forget about the violation of time limit and look at the application itself. The application, which can be viewed here, was filed to get details on

1. Compliance of the commission with the reporting requirements given in Section 25(1) of the RTI Act
2. Status of their website development.
3. Statistics on the number of appeals, complaints, and also details of pending appeals etc.
4. Section 4 disclosure of the commission.

And this is the reply I got. Questions 1 and 4 are completely ignored. Question 2 was answered by giving the link of the website they have got. Question 3 was answered giving the following statistics as on 31.10.2007.

No. of Petitions General Tappals received - 26,317
No. of petitions general tappals on which have been acted upon - 25,737
Under Examination - 364
No. of cases posted for enquiry (Date to be notified) - 216

And these statistics are only for the details of I-VII of Question 3. For section VIII-XIV No information was given. As for the penalties imposed, I got a reply saying that the act specifies that the erring PAs need to be given an opportunity of being heard. And so explanations were sought from the PAs, but decisions are pending on those explanations. It also goes on to say that no analysis of data has been done to give me information in the manner I have sought since there is a shortage of manpower.

The exact reply can be seen here.

1. It is a good thing that their website has come up. Though it is a very half baked one. In fact, most of the links lead to pages which just say "Under Construction". This is not a very bad sign, as we can assume things will happen soon, and so the website will be much better. But they used to have a set of pages on the TN Govt website ( That has data about PIOs, AAs etc. Atleast these should be moved to the new website.

2. One striking thing about the reply is that, out of 4 questions asked, replies were attempted only for 2 questions. 2 questions were completely ignored. Out of that, the 3rd question has been answered only to a very little extent. That is furnishing incomplete information which is clearly in violation of the act (Section 18(1)(e)).

3. In their reply they also say that, they dont differentiate between appeals, complaints and other letters that they get. This is very disturbing since that prevents them giving any kind of report asked for under section 25(1). Moreover, this has been the case for quite sometime. They have never kept track of the number of second appeals and complaints they have received.

4. No information is given regarding section 4 disclosures of the State Information Commission indicating that no such disclosure has been made so far. This is again a clear violation of the act. Section 4(b).

The state information commission is the body which should make sure all PAs implement the act properly. They are the ones bestowed with the power of penalising PAs who dont implement the act. And when you file an RTI applicaiton with the State Information Commission, this is how they reply. Reminds me of the song Chingari koi bhadke...

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Government General Hospital - II (On the day of surgery)

Finally Manjula's surgery happened. It happened on Tuesday, Nov 6 2007. That is more than 2.5 months after she was admitted. Now she is in the ICU. The operation theatre was on the 7th floor. While we were waiting outside the operation theatre (sitting on the steps), and during the surgery we were given Manjula's blood sample and were asked to take it to a testing lab in a different building and get a report. It seems this facility is available in the fifth floor of the same building, but there they told us that this will not be done here and hence we had to go to that different building only. This happened the first time were asked for a blood test, and the second time, the people doing the surgery again asked us to go to the fifth floor. We told them they were not doing the test, and they responded "Tell them the HOD wants it done". This was absolutely stupid. If they themselves dont have any coordination with their colleagues, how will they listen to us. The second time too a blood test was refused in the 5th floor, and we had to go to the different building. The third time we jut directly went to the different building. This was not the case just with us. An other patient was also being operated upon, and their relatives also had to go thrice to get a blood test in that different building. I have a doubt if getting a blood test during the surgery is the responsibility of the helpers during the surgery and they conveniently push it on to the patients' relatives.
And then the question of blood requirement during the surgery. We were not informed about that before the surgery. But in the middle of the surgery a lady comes out of the operation theatre and asks us about the blood, and whether we have the required number of donors. We told her we were not told about this at all. She asked us "How is this possible?", I was swearing within myself. I wanted to say, "Hey that is a question we should be asking". But then she said that it was ok, we just have to donate some blood to the blood bank within a week of the surgery, and they also said that it was not mandatory. So that was not much of a problem, though I wonder why we werent informed about it before hand.

After we got them the xerox copies of the blood donation request forms, the lady came back and asked for 50 rupees saying they had to give this for blood donation. Just imagine this. In the middle of the surgery the helpers to the surgery come out and ask for 50 rupees. How can they think of this fifty rupees when the surgery is going on. We, of course, had to pay this amount.

And now an even more ridiculous thing. For this blood request they had to place a request to the blood bank. And for that request they have a request form. They had two forms in hand, which was sufficient for two patients, but we were given the forms asking us to take copies since they had run out of forms. I thought this was an outrageous thing. Just asking people to take xerox of the forms that they are supposed to print and use within the hospital. I could have even understood it to an extent, if they had asked for just one copy. Both of us (me and the other patient's relative) had to get 20 copies each. Why should we spend money and get copies for their use with some other patients. And the way they do it is really cheap. They understand very well, that if you come out of the operation theatre in the middle of a surgery and ask for something, the relatives will not refuse. They could have even asked for ice creams. We wouldnt have had an option.

After the surgery was done, we shifted her to the ICU. Where four people asked us for money. 50 rupees each. They are people who work in the ICU and hence they were asking us money. I tried to explain them that money was not the concern for me and it was more the principle that was important. I asked them why they were asking money for something that they had to do anyway. They did not have an answer. Then I pointed out only very poor people come to the GH and hence it was not fair on their part to ask money for them. Then they said that they dont ask money from poor people. I was pleasantly surprised, and before I could be a little happy, they followed up. "They themselves give it to us, sir". I was irritated. Prabha who was with me, pointed out that everywhere in the GH it has been written that bribes should not be taken and complaint numbers were given. Then they said, yes sir, but please keep it a secret. We eventually did give them the 200 rupees they asked for, for fear of what they would do (or not do) to Manjula if we refused. There is more, we still have to give money to the people at the ward where Manjula had been staying for the past 2.5 months. They will find us the next time we go to the GH. And when she is moved to the post operative ward, we will again have to shell out some money. But we have some ideas ...

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Government General Hospital - I (Before the surgery)

Manjula is one of our employees. She is a teacher at a school AID India runs in Vembakkam block of Thiruvannamalai district, had to undergo an Open Heart Surgery (OHS). She is from a very poor family.We started enquiring about the charges, we got her cardiogram done,and showed it to Dr.Rex Sargunam, a doctor we knew. He referred us to the HOD of Cardio-Thoracic block of Government General Hospital(attached to Madras Medical College). He told us that it was a simple surgery and asked her to get admitted. At that time, we were told that normally patients have to wait for 2 months to get this surgery done,but since we were referred here by Dr.Rex, the HOD told us that this will be done in one month. We got her admitted around the 17th ofAugust. She was admitted, but once we entered the ward, we saw that many of the patients there did not have beds. They just had to buy a mat on their own and get a place somewhere on the floor. This surprised us. So we went to check when Manjula will get a bed. We were told, that we will get one as soon as one becomes empty. That too,after all those who were already on the floor before us, got the beds.With not much option she settled down on a spot on the floor. Then wewaited and waited. Nothing happened for almost 3 weeks. Forget thesurgery, there was no sign of getting a bed. Then Manjula was asked to take a test. Which she did. After that a couple of more tests. Again waiting. Then again no activity for 1 more week. So we went and met the HOD again around mid September, asking him when the surgery will be done. He said that before the end of october the surgery will definitely be done. We again waited.

All through these 4-5 weeks we kept visiting manjula almost once everyweek. We heard a lot of stories that she picked up from others. We were told that patients were waiting for 6-7 months to get their surgery done. She also once told us, how a single death, resulting from an unsuccessful operation, casts a gloom on the whole ward. We also once heard, that a lady fell off from her bed during the night and hence she died. Since then, the nurses there did not allow patients to sleep on the beds at night. She also told us, that the toilets had to be cleaned by patients themselevs since the ayahs there refused to do it. Apparently, they tell the patients that since they are the ones using the toilets, they should clean it themselves.

Normally a list is prepared for each day on which surgeries for this ward happens. The list is announced the day before the date of the surgery. The first date on which her name came on such a list was 5thSeptember. She was taken to a room outside the operation theatre,where she was asked to wait. We reached there before 8 AM. She was taken to the waiting room outside the theatre at 8.30. We were waiting. There we learnt a thing. Normally the number of patients listed for the surgery will be greater than the actual capacity. This is to ensure that just in case, a surgery cant be done to one patient due to change in their body parameters, then one of the waiting patients can be operated upon. Though this is a pretty good idea, it becomes very tough for patients who are taken to the theatre and brought back without doing the surgery. We can understand if this happens once or twice, but what if it happens 6-7 times. We learnt of a lady who had been to the theatre and back 7 times. Manjula herself had her 4th unsuccessful visit to the operation theatre on 19th October.Out of these 4 visits, on 3 occasions she was asked to get some medicines or some devices needed for the surgery. We are yet to investigate whether it is right on their part to ask us to buy medicines, since it is supposed to be free for the poor. But the doctor doesn’t write the medicines as a formal prescription. He writes them on small bits of paper (which are slightly bigger than stamps) and gives it to Manjula. The first time we spent about 1500 rupees. The second time 75 rupees and 1800 Rs for the third time. What we didn’t understand was, each time they were a different set of medicines or other devices. Assuming the ones that we were asked to buy the second and third time, what would they have done without these if the surgery had happened the first time itself.

Try to imagine this. Everytime she is called for the operation theatre she has to stay on empty stomach from 9 PM the night before (not even water should be consumed). She will be taken to the theatre at 8.30 AM and made to wait for 1.5-3 hours in a white cloth draped around,sitting along with 8-9 other patients. At the end of all this, she is asked to go back to the ward.

It has already been more than 2 months since she was admitted. And this is after, they telling us that it will happen quickly since we have a reference from Dr.Rex. The Madras Medical College claims that the Average Length of Stay was 10 days in 2004, 2005 and then reduced to 9days in 2006. (Source: On that page click on Hospital Statistics tab on the left hand side).

Of course there are other usual complaints of every low level employee asking for bribes at every possible chance. On Oct 17th, when we were waiting, while Manjula was waiting outside the operation theatre, we were talking to a lady whose husband had to undergo a surgery and was presently in the ICU. She expected them to move her husband to the post operative ward soon, but she was telling us, that she has paid Rs 500 to each of the ayahs and attenders there.Her husband has a textile company in Tiruppur. She told us, that they had to wait for 4 months, during which they lost their regular income.More than that, she had to shell out money at every turn. And she had to live in the GH along with her husband for 4 months.

We are mentioning the above meeting with the woman, only to tell you,that the time taken for Manjula is not an isolated case. Talk to anybody in the ward, or to anybody who has had his surgery done, and everybody would say that it would have taken a minimum of 2-3 months.In the face of this, the numbers given on the website is a lie. We understand that the numbers on the website is the average of all the patients in the hospital. But the scenario in this block is entirely different.

The hospital’s maintenance is also generally bad. You can always find waste dumped here and there. There are places which stink of urine, areas where cobwebs have not been cleared for months. And we were shocked to see that there are no dustbins in any of the floors. Those who come to the hospital to visit patients are forced either to leave the garbage (like used paper cups, plastic plates, covers, leftovers etc) in some corner, or throw them out of a window. People generally spit in all the corners and on the stairs. There are no spittoons available. No wash basins for people to wash their hands. But considering the fact that patients don’t get even beds to lie on, expecting all this is probably too much from the Government Hospital.

Friday, September 28, 2007

RTI on awareness sessions conducted by Personnel dept

Sec 26(1) of the Right To Information act, 2005 says the following.

26. (1) The appropriate Government may, to the extent of availability of financial and other resources,—
(a) develop and organise educational programmes to advance the understanding of the public, in particular of disadvantaged communities as to how to exercise the rights contemplated under this Act;
(b) encourage public authorities to participate in the development and organisation of programmes referred to in clause (a) and to undertake such programmes themselves;
(c) promote timely and effective dissemination of accurate information by public authorities about their activities; and
(d) train Central Public Information Officers or State Public Information Officers, as the case may be, of public authorities and produce relevant training materials for use by the public authorities themselves.

To see how far this has been done, I filed an RTI application with the PIO of the Personnel and Administrative Reforms Department asking for details of training, awareness camps and the like that they had conducted to fulfil the requirements of this section. The information I received can be viewed here.
One look at the sheet says there have been no awareness programs for the public AT ALL. That means, if not for NGOs or activists working on RTI, people would have had to find their own way around. Even as a formality, the department has not conducted any programs for the public. This shows how much the department wants people to use the act.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Fines imposed for Traffic Violations - RTI application

On July 23rd 2007, I had filed an RTI application with the Home department (Which looks at transport too) asking for details of Fines collected from the public in Chennai for various kinds of traffic violations. There was a prompt response to this, and a traffic constable had come to our apartments on 12-Aug-2007 to personally give me the information. Since none of us were home, he told our watchman that he had come looking for me. This was in the evening. After my mom returned from her evening walk, the watchman told here that a policeman had come looking for me. My mom got worried. The problem was that the watchman didnt tell my mom that it was a traffic policeman. So when I returned home, though she was not upset or anything, she asked me why I was involving myself in such things that leads to a policeman to come looking for me. I told her that there is nothing to worry just because a policeman had come to my house (even I didnt know it was a traffic policeman). So when that guy came at 9.30 PM and gave me the info, only then my mom was happy. :-)

I have published the information received here in this link for anybody who might want to look at it.

My first RTI success

About 6 months back, Chandrika (who used to work with me in AID India) had gone to a village called Vada Iluppai in Vembakkam block of Thiruvannamalai district. There she met a widow who was had to get her widow pension but till then had not, for various reasons. She also told Chandrika that she had already given an application to the VAO (Village Administrative Officer) after giving him some money but nothing has happened yet. Then the second time, I had also gone there with Chandrika and we were discussing what was to be done. We always had RTI at the back of our minds, but we thought let us file a fresh application. So we got a new one purchased, filled up necessary details after consulting with an official in Vembakkam BDO (Block Development Office). We had taken the signature of the Panchayat leader, which was necessary, took a medical certificate and a photo and then went to the Cheyyar Taluka Office (Widow Pension Applications are dealt only at Taluka offices). While we were doing this another woman approached us for the same help and so we decided to help both of them. We filed the applications and we were promised that this application would be looked at in one month and would be acted upon suitably. Then started the repeated trips to the taluka office. After a month, there was no news. The procedure for sanctioning would involve a visit for checking the validity of the application and whether the person deserves it. Even this had not happened in one month. We went back but things did not move. After that Chandrika moved to Rajasthan. I visited them a couple of times. In between the official changed. So this new official blamed the old official and again told me that he would complete the procedure within two weeks. Again nothing happened. I visited again. This time he gave me the contact number of the Revenue Inspector (who actually does the checking) and asked me to contact her. By this time I had decided, that I must use RTI. So I came back to Chennai and sent an RTI application. They refused to accept the courier and it returned. So I went again. I wanted to find out why it was returned. I was told by the person in despatch, that But I had mis-typed Cheyyar as Seiyar and hence it was returned. They told me that this looked like Seiyur (which is another Taluka). But I explained to them that Cheyyar is in Thiruvannamalai district, but Seiyur is in Kanchipuram district. And I had clearly mentioned the district name. If that was not sufficient, I had also given the phone number of the office correctly. The person there couldnt answer much. Then I personally filed the RTI on that day and got an acknowledgment. And this was on 29th Aug 2007. I received a phone call on 26th Sep 2007 from the Tahsildar himself, to tell me that both the people were found deserving and hence Pension has been sanctioned and that they will receive their first pension on Oct 1st 2007. He was very courteous and asked me about what I was doing. And that it was very good that the NGO I was working in is working in Education etc etc. Today I received a letter saying the pensions have been sanctioned. This is within one month of filing the RTI.

As RTI has always been meant to bring about a change, I count this as my first success with RTI. I have received information before from Public Authorities, but this is the first time there is a direct visible benefit of RTI.

In another village, while I was doing an RTI awareness session in a village, I had helped a person file an RTI on his ration card applicatin. It has been 2 months since then. I need to follow up on that next.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

An RTI article

Here is an article I wrote for a magazine. This was written in the first week of July. I am posting it here, more because it serves as a report of what I had done till then on RTI.
Some abbreviations used in the article
RTI - Right To Information
PA - Public Authority
PIO - Public Information Officer
SIC - State Information Commission
AA - Appellate Authority
NREGA - National Rural Employment Guarantee Act

When I started off working on RTI I had an opinion that since the details of the act will take time to percolate to the rural areas, the cities' public authorities will be doing much better that the rural areas. But in my experience the city has been doing worse than the rural areas.

In Thiruvannamalai district, I had filed a few applications. Among them there were a couple of NREGA related applications asking for Muster Rolls. I also filed an application with the collectorate asking for details of Indira Awaas Yojana beneficiaries in 8 panchayats. For all of these I received pretty good response. They were prompt in sending me the replies.

It is only in Chennai that getting information is becoming a problem. Here again I filed 4 applications, one was in the last year and 3 more in recent months. Out of these three, two did not evoke very good response. I have talked about these 2 in detail here.


I had filed an application with the PMO on 18th May 2007 asking for the details of schemes implemented under MPLADS by the 3 MPs of Chennai North, Chennai South and Chennai Central constituencies. The PMO's office forwarded the application to the Ministry of statistics and Program Implementation on 24th May. This ministry sent me a letter saying that the exact details of these MPs' MPLADS scheme is available only with the Chennai Corporation and hence forwarded the Application to the Corporation on 5th June. Today is 11th July. And not a single word has come from the Chennai corporation.

Illegal Hoardings RTI

I had filed an RTI application with the Chennai corporation on 20th Apr 2007. The application was regarding the action taken by the illegal hoardings put up by various political parties on a 3 KM stretch on Arcot Road from Laskshmi Nagar bus stop to Virugambakkam and also some general questions on the procedure and penalty for putting up such illegal hoardings.

30 days passed without and i filed a first appeal with the Corporation commissioner on 21st May 2007. On 30th May, I received a letter saying my application has been forwarded to PIO Zone-VIII. On 11th June 2007, I received a letter from Revenue officer, Chennai corporation, saying that the information I had asked for can only be got from the Chennai Collectorate and so I must contact them for information.

Experience with the State Information commission

Since this was a clear violation of the act I filed a second appeal with the Information Commission. For that I met the registrar of the Information commission. In the second appeal I had appealed for an order to provide the information and to impose suitable penalty. While talking to him, he started telling me that I cannot ask the SIC to impose penalty. I tried to explain to him, that I have every right to "appeal" for a penalty, but it is up to the commission to actually impose it. He then asked me whether my intention was only to get the information. I said my intention is both to get the information and also get the RTI system working smoothly, which will need proper orders by the SIC, so that the corporation doesnt repeat these mistakes.

Then he went on to tell me about how in one or two cases where they had imposed penalties, recovery was a problem. And that those Public Authorities had gone to court against the imposition of penalties. So I generally tried to check with him as to how many appeals come to the SIC daily on an average. He told me that he doesnt count appeals separately but only along with the regular RTI applications that come to him. I wanted to get an idea of the 2nd appeal disposal rate so that we can look at whether there will be backlog of cases pending with the SIC thereby leading to a situation in SIC similar to that of the courts, but I could get no concrete information.

Moreover, 3 months back I talked to the same person about uploading SIC decisions on some website where anybody can look at the decisions. This will help activists to fight against wrong decisions, so that precedents are not set. At that time, I was told that it would take 2 more months. When I checked about that now I was told that it has not yet happened owing to lack of manpower.

And about the second appeal regarding the Illegal Hoardings, I did file a second appeal, and he said suitable orders will be passed. But a week later what I got was a copy of the letter sent to the chennai collectorate asking them to send me the information that i had asked for. But no order has been passed to the chennai corporation for flagrant violation of the RTI act on two counts.

1. Not providing info within 30 days.
2. Failing to forward the application to the PIO concerned.

Neither did the SIC pass an order to chennai corporation to forward the application, or impose a penalty on them. So I went to the Information Commission to ask them why no orders have been passed. He told me that orders would be passed after I receive the information from teh Chennai collectorate. I dont see any reason why they need to wait till the information is received, since the corporation has already violated rules. Moreover, it is not the job of the information commission to forward applications. They should have just ordered the chennai corporation to forward the application. The tussle will continue.

The SIC is the backbone of the act, since their decisions are the only deterrent and the only pushing factor for PAs to give information. If the SIC is seen as lenient, the PAs will happily violate the act knowing fully well, that no action will be taken. But if the SIC acts strictly, PAs will be forced to give answers. Thereby leading to a better implementation of the act. But the process to a transparent and accountable administration wont end there. But one hurdle would have been overcome then.