Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Monthly meeting with the Commissioner - Dec 2008

I have also been feeling that though many people working on RTI give suggestions to the Commissioners in various fora, there is no proper mechanism to do follow-up of these suggestions made to the commissioners and the commitments they make in return. So I have formed a group of people and organisations in Chennai who are keen on RTI and have started a mechanism wherein we meet the Commissioners every month and discuss issues related to the functioning of the commission. Then we try to get the commissioners to commit to some steps and ensure that they take the steps during the month. At the next meeting there will be a review of the commitments made previous month. The first meeting happened on 23rd December 2008. I am of the opinion that this has the potential to bring in changes in the commission quickly.

The first meeting was happened on 23rd Dec 2008 with the Chief Information Commissioner alone. The people who were part of the meeting were

Mr.S.M.Arasu (ACM),
Ms.Rama and Ms.Saroja (CAG),
Somu Kumar (AID US)
Mr.Vijayanand and his colleague (5th pillar),
Mr.Elango (Makkal Sakthi Iyakkam) and me.

the following were the commitments that we could get from the commissioner for the following month of Jan.

1. The commissioner said that hard copies of the SIC decisions and cause lists will be put up in a public place in the reception section so that people who want to look at the copy of the decisions or at the cause lists can just walk in have a look and walk off. This was suggested following the Commissioner's claim that though he was ready to put up the decisions on the internet, the NIC was not responsive.

2. When it was pointed out that the SIC must be more severe towards penalty imposition, he said that the commission is indeed being stricter nowadays. So as evidence we asked for statistics from now and the commissioner promised that starting Jan 1st monthly statistics like number of appeals, complaints, penalties, show cause notices (along with the list of cases where penalty has been imposed) will be made available. This would give us a good idea on how strict the commission really is.

3. That he will consider the idea of having guidelines for passing judgments for the whole commission. He also pointed out he tried a similar thing before but due to non-cooperation from the other commissioners it was becoming tough. He also suggested that we draft a set of guidelines and present it to him over which he will seek comments from the other commissioners.

4. For reducing the delays in appeals, he again repeated that by january he will clear the present backlog, and from then on he will have hearings for cases within a month of the appeal coming to the commission. For this we pointed out that this sounds very unrealistic since even within the group that met the commissioner, appeals from may and jun were pending without any response from the commission. So we suggested to him that if he could give us the status of our appeals from these months to him, that would gives us some indication as to whether really the backlog will be cleared by january.

5. When the issue of the commission itself not meeting the requirements of the RTI act like section 4 and PIO and AA appointment, he said the sub registrar was the PIO and the registrar was the appellate authority. He also said that work was on to put up a board in the office regarding the PIO and AA. But he did not mention anything about section 4 disclosures.

Apart from these, there were also discussions on how the government is trying to stifle the commission by not providing sufficient personnel. This led to lack of follow-up of SIC orders on penalty and information supply. There was the usual story of the the SIC being a sheep dog and not a biting dog, the act being only a sapling right now upon which we cannot yet lean and how we must all have patience etc etc.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Pressure group to monitor the Information Commission

In the last week, I was doing an analysis of the decisions of the Information Commission for the months July, Aug and Sep 2008. I went through 200 decisions (Complete July and August and 50 of Sep). And here are my observations.

With the new commissioners, the number of cases heard per month has gone up. In August there were about 170 hearings and in September it was close to 200. Before the new commissioners were fully functional, the number of hearings was in the range of 70-90 per month. Though the numbers still dont justify the number of commissioners, there has been the expected increase in the number of hearings. Just by doing some simple math it can be seen that even this number is not close to what could be expected from 7 commissioners. If 200 cases are heard by 7 commissioners per month, then the number of cases per commissioner is approximately 30. Assuming there are 20 working days in a month, this comes to about 1.5 cases per day. Now imagine the facilities the commissioners have, and if they look at just 1.5 cases per day, why do we need to pay them so much. The problem is that commissioners sit in groups 99% of the time. There are usually 3 teams. Team 1: Mr.T R Ramasamy & Mr.R.Perumalsamy; Team 2: Mr.T.Srinivasan & Mrs.Sharadha Nambi Arooran; Team 3: Mr.S.Ramakrishnan, Mr.G.Ramakrishnan and Mr.R.Rathinasamy. That means that effectively the work they do is the work of 3 commissioners. I think it is time they split up and work as individual commissioners. That would double the number of cases handled straightaway. But even that would only lead to increasing the average number of cases per commissioner per day to 3. They can easily take around 8-10 cases a day. And if that happens, then the disposal rate would be wonderful.

When I pointed this out to the Chief Commissioner, he said that low number of hearings is not an issue, since backlogs will anyway be cleared by december end. He has told me this "December end" schedule so many times now, that they really meet the deadline, though the fact that 2 of my second appeals from April and June are still pending hearing.

The most important part of the analysis I did was the inconsistency between the judgments of the commissioners. They do not have a set of guidelines to decide when penalty should be issued, when penalty should be levied, what to do when the PA does not turn up. Such cases when coming up before different commissioners yields different results. Here are some observations to substantiate what I just said.

Mr.R.Rathinasamy imposes SCNs in almost all of the cases where there is a delay. This is a good sign. But when the same case comes up before other commissioners they behave differently.

Mr.T.R.Ramasamy issues a lot of threats where SCNs have to be issued. Though he also issues SCNs there is no discernible pattern between the cases where he issues SCN or where he just issues a threat.

Mr.S.Ramakrishnan (the chief commissioner) issues SCNs but in three cases he has issued a penalty straightaway without an SCN. He just asks the PIO whether he has any explanation as to why penaty should not be imposed and if not, he has imposed the penalty then and there. Here again the lack of consistency with other commissioners and within his own judgments is clear. I am not against the penalty imposition, but just that this is not happening all the time.

Mr.T.Srinivasan has a different habit. He imposes disciplinary proceedings alone in many cases. The question would be that when a PIO is liable for disciplinary proceedings under section 20(2) he also becomes liable for penalty under section 20(1). So one cannot be imposed without the other.

I havent seen Ms.Sharada Nambi Arooran handle cases on her own, and hence do not know how she gives her decisions.

Such inconsistencies arise due to the lack of any guidelines, checklist or format for the commissioners when giving decisions. This is crucial to ensure that the fate of our application does not hang on the commissioner sitting on the panel, or in some cases (where there are inconsistencies even within the decisions of a single commissioner) or on the mood of the commissioner that day :-).

This is something I will soon talk to the commissioner and push for it. And in this week I have also been trying to bring some groups together so that we can have a regular meeting with the Chief Commisioner. This could be a monthly meeting. Some groups have expressed interest and we might have our first meeting next week. The reason why this kind of mechanism is useful is that previously different people gave differnt memorandums to the commissioners at different places. But what happend after that was not followed up. I am hoping that by setting up this kind of a monthly meeting mechanism, we can track each particular issue, by getting the commissioner to commit timelines and then questioning him when those timelines are not met. I think if this starts off, we can see improvements quickly in the commission.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Section 4 disclosures of Chennai Corporation

I had filed an RTI application with the Chennai Corporation on 27th February 2008 asking whther they had done section 4 disclosures under RTI and when I did not get a satisfactory reply even after a first appeal I filed an appeal with the State Information Commision. The case came up for hearing on 17th Novermber (a delay of close to 8 months). At the hearing the commissioner (Mr.T.R.Ramasamy) asked me specifically which parts of section 4 were not yet fulfilled. I pointed out the sections and told them that the website should have details of expenses made like the MLA Local Area Development Scheme, or the Councillor's ward development scheme. In the hearing the Commissioner ordered the PIO present to take the issue up with the Corporation Commisioner and to comply with the requirements of section 4. The order also said that there will be a review in 6 weeks. The order reached me a couple of days back.

The order has started having its effect. Though no new information has been added so far, the re-design of the corporation webpage for RTI has begun. It can be seen here. They are trying to match the existing pages in the website to the requirements of the section. Compliance is still very far away, but the process has just begun. I hope the process is comprehensively taken through and not just for the sake of answering the commission. Especially I want reports of all the money spent, available on the website so that very few RTIs will be required to be filed. Let us see what happens. I will keep monitoring.

But there is one irony about the whole thing. The Commission which whose order is bringing about the change has itself not complied with section 4. In fact, when compared with the Information Commission website, the Chennai Corporation website is far better (though that doesnt say much) . The State Information Commission website doesnt have anything. After uploading decisions of 3 months (Apr-Jun), the website has gone back into hibernation :-)

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Govt's lie about DVAC and TSVC Exemption

Today morning I went to the P&AR department for section 4 inspection after sending them an intimation asking them to "keep ready for inspection all relevant facts which formed the basis in the formulating of the decision to exempt DVAC and TSVC from the Right to Information act, vide a Government Order (G.O. Ms. No 158, Dated: 26.8.2008)". I sought this exemption under section 4(c) of the Right to Information act which says "Every Public Authority shall, publish all relevant facts while formulating important policies or announcing the decisions which affect public;". When I went there today, I was told that the files have been sent to the Government Pleader at the High Court since the PIL against the exemption was listed for hearing today. This PIL was filed by one Mr.Sethu. I have not heard about him or met him. When I called him up to find out whether the case had really been listed for hearing, he did not know that it was listed for hearing. He then checked and confirmed that it was indeed listed, but said that the case might not be heard today since it was listed as one of the last cases for the day.

At the time of exempting DVAC and TSVC from the Right to Information act, the government in response to the criticism in the media about the exemption, sent out a press release saying that information regarding closed cases can still be obtained. The press release, which was in tamil, can be seen here. I was still doubtful since a press release does not have any legal sanction. So I filed an RTI application with the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti Corruption, asking for number of cases in which investigation was complete and the number of people convicted in these cases. The information I sought was clearly about cases where investigation was complete. But I received no reply for 30 days. I again filed a first appeal. Again there was no reply for about 15 days. So I called them up last week to know the status. They said that a reply will come and if not, I can come to thier office the following week. So I went to their office today. There I was not even allowed to meet the PIO or any officer. I explained the whole thing to the person at the gate, and gave him a copy of the press release which said that information regarding closed cases can be disclosed. He argued for some time, and then said that he will take this to the officer concerned. He asked me to sit at the gate itself. So I sat there. And after ten minutes he came back saying that the officer told that they received no orders for disclosing information and hence they cannot give information. When I asked him who it was who gave this reply, he told me that it was the admin inspector. When I asked for the name, he refused to give me the name and asked me to send a letter so that I can get a reply on the record. I reminded him that I had come there precisely because my two earlier letters were not replied to. He just was not reasonable and so I walked off. After getting back to office, I called up DVAC and found the admin inspector's name. He was one Mr.Sudhakar. The person at the gate also told me that the admin inspector asked me to go to court or to any other body if I wanted to question his

This only confirmed what I had doubted. They did not give any order saying that information for closed cases alone can be given (whose legality, I doubt anyway) but just gave a press release saying the information regarding closed cases will be made available. The claim, by the P&AR department in the press release, was simply a lie.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Response to MLA Constituency Development Funds Issue

Immediately after the MLA Constituency Development issue came out in the papers, there was a clarification from the Chennai Corporation which can be seen here. Here they have said that they have "updated" the report and that works have been fully recommended in the Chepauk constituency (the CM's constituency) and that many of these works are near completion. What is funny is that, why did they not give me the updated data before? But even apart from that, why did they give the updated report only for the CM's constituency. What about the rest of the MLAs. Makes us think if this was due to some pressure, or did they themselves feel, that the CM might not be happy if he sees that Chennai Corporation has given out the data. I dont know.

Another interesting response that came in today's Hindu is from the AIADMK MLA Ms.Badar Sayeed. She has said many of her recommendations are wantonly rejected because she is from the opposition. This article can be seen here.

Assets Disclosure by MLAs, MLCs and Government Servants

Since October, I have been trying to study the available provisions for transparency in Government and here is what I found. This is just a very basic research I did on how to track the assets of MLAs, Councillors and Government Servants, try to look at available options of improving the quality of people we have elected etc. Before you start reading this piece, I must admit that I did not have any idea on how to look at corruption in Government or Criminialisation of politics etc. I also knew nothing about the rules in place to curb these. This is a learning for me, and my intention in writing this is not only to blog my work but also that this could be a very rough guide to the status of the checks and balances available in the system. Of course, I cannot claim this to be exhaustive or in any way authoritative, but it can be a good starting point.


The first thing I tried to see was assets disclosure by all these people. Even before trying to find out about this, I knew that MLAs have to disclose their assets at the time of filing their nominations with the State Election Commission. These affidavits were available on the state election commission website. So I downloaded the affidavits of about 35 ministers that we have and went through them. One way to use these assets declaration data that I could think of right away was to compare it with previous elections' affidavits. That might give us an idea of the change in financial position if any, and whether the change is justifiable given the person's source of income. But when I tried to do that, I found that this was the only set available on the website. The rules that candidates have to file their assets returns and criminal backgrounds came into force only in 2003. So I have to wait till the next elections to know their assets details. But this led me to think whether there are any rules for MLAs to file their returns at any other place. Going through the Tamil Nadu Assembly website, I found that there indeed was such a rule. It can be seen at http://www.assembly.tn.gov.in/Documents/practice/pp4.htm#Disclosure. So I filed an RTI asking the status of compliance of MLAs with this rule. I asked details of just the present assembly (13th) and the previous assembly (12th). I thought an annual comparison of assets would be a good way to monitor the assets of MLAs because any sudden spike in assets could come under scrutiny. Of course, there is always the scope of their not declaring assets at all, handling which would be far more difficult. To my complete surprise I received a reply saying that not even a single MLA has complied with this requirement in this assembly and the previous one. But this letter stated the resolution to this effect was passed on 27th Aug 1969. The proceedings of that assembly session can be seen here. Page 12 of the pdf file shows that the then CM Mr.M.Karunanidhi (who is also the CM now) moved the motion for assets disclosure. This was passed with retrospective effect from the year 1966-1967. It has also been mentioned that some MLAs and ministers did indeed file their returns after this. But today the practice is probably long forgotten. So I filed an RTI to find out exactly when this procedure died out. I have asked for details of disclosure of all the 42 years starting from 1967 till this year. That should give us an idea of what happened. After this I am planning to try to push the MLAs to follow the procedure, by pressure through the media or by forcing them using the courts.

When looking at affidavits, I also saw that quite a few ministers had criminal cases against them. Considering that they are all ministers, no guesses needed on how the investigations would proceed. There are also corruption complaints against some ministers pending with the DVAC (Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption). With regard to investigations with Police Stations attempts to push can be made using Right to Information, but that will require a good understanding of the Police and Court procedures. I am trying to find a person who can help me with this. As for trying to find the progress of cases with the DVAC, RTI cannot help because DVAC has been recently exempted from the RTI act.

Then I looked at Assets disclosure of Corporation Councillors. According to the Madras City Municipal Corporation (Disclosure of Assets) Rules, 1973 Members of the Legislative Council (MLCs) of the Chennai Corporation should disclose their assets details on March 31st of every year. Here again I have filed an RTI with the Chennai Corporation asking for compliance details. This was done on 23rd October 2008 and am awaiting a reply.

Government Servants
When trying to look at rules for Government Servants (THE TAMIL NADU GOVERNMENT SERVANTS' CONDUCT RULES, 1973), I saw that there were the seemingly strict rules for government servants where there have to get approval for any purchases made, and that they should not take gifts etc. Rules No. 7(3) clearly states that "Every Government servant shall submit a return of his assets and liabilities as on 31st December 1980 in Forms I to V in Schedule I appended to these rules on or before 31st March 1981 and thereafter at an interval of five years on or before the 31st day of March of the year immediately following the year to which the return relates". For this again, I filed an RTI application seeking the status and am awaiting a reply.

Friday, November 07, 2008

MLA Constituency Development Funds

The next time you see some civic problem in your area, ask your MLA to use his/her MLA Constituency Development Scheme (MLACDS) Funds for addressing the problem. Information received under Right to Information act from the Chennai Corporation, which is the implementation agency of the scheme for Chennai MLAs, revealed that about 43% of the funds allocated to 15 Chennai MLAs are lying unutilized. This information pertains to the last 2.5 years starting April 2006. This is the case when there is no end to the problems that the city is facing like bad roads, overflowing drainage and lack of waste management systems. In the last 2.5 years 45 crores have been allocated under this scheme to the 15 MLAs in Chennai. Out of this only about 26 crores have been utilized. The remaining 19 crores are unutilized. A party wise analysis reveals a different picture. Out of the 15 MLAs, 6 are from DMK and 7 are from AIADMK. DMK MLAs have utilized 75% of the funds, while the AIADMK MLAs have utilized only 36% of the funds allocated. The total unutilized funds lying in the account, accumulated since the inception of the scheme is 51 crores.

Individual utilization of MLAs varies from 13% to 100%. Mr.Arcot N.Veerasamy, MLA of Anna Nagar constituency and Mr.K.Anbazhagan, MLA of Harbour Constituency have utilized 100% of their funds, while the Chief Minister Mr.M.Karunanidhi representing Chepauk has utilized only 50% of the funds allocated so far. The complete table can be seen here.

Under this scheme every MLA is allocated a specific amount every year which could be used to implement works in the MLA’s constituency. This amount has been increasing regularly since the time of its inception. In 2006-2007 and 2007-2008 this amount was 1.2 crores per MLA. The amount has gone up to 1.5 crores this financial year. This is a convenient way for an MLA to get work done in his constituency since he only needs to recommend the work to the implementing agency and it gets done. But under utilization of this is a wonderful opportunity lost.

Informed citizenry leads to a better democracy and better functioning of the government. Every MLA needs to be questioned on his work done for his constituency. The utilization of these funds is one of the parameters based on which an MLA could possibly be evaluated. Hence such an exercise should be taken up by people in all over the state. Moreover, people need to find out not just how much of the funds were utilized, but also what works were implemented and how they were implemented, which is what I intend to do next.

This information in the Media.

CM fails to spend half of MLA's fund

"43 per cent of 15 MLAs' funds not used"

Unused Constituency Development Funds in Chennai (Tamil)

Monday, October 06, 2008

CM's Public Relief Fund

Thanks to RTI, the status of the Tamil Nadu CM's Public Relief Fund is now out in the open. I asked for the funds flow statement of the last 6 years of the CM's Public Relief Fund. And this statement is shown below.

All amounts given in crores of rupees.
Financial YearOpening BalanceFunds Received during the yearFunds spent
Any other outgo
Closing balance

This shows that about 157 crores were received during the Tsunami year (2004-2005). But this is greater than the sum of all the amounts spent in the following years for relief work which is 126.5 Cr (88.75+21.97+12.25+3.51). This shows that the funds received during the Tsunami period not yet been fully utlised. The difference is about 30 crores. But the point to note here is that all these 126.5 Cr has not been utilised for Tsunami relief. A lot of it would have gone for Tsunami, but there are amounts in it which have been given for other kind of relief like general medical and education help. This shatters that myth that the money donated to the government will be properly utilised.

In addition to this, I also obtained a list of Fixed Deposits that the CMPRF money has been invested in. This showed that 166 crores have been invested as Fixed Deposits. Thus this sets a lower bound on the amount lying unused in the CM's fund.

I am not claiming that funds have been misused but what I am trying to point out is the following two things.

1. A lot of money is lying unused in the fund. To understand why this is a lot of money. Consider these two facts. The amount is about 7-8 times the average annual spending of the last 6 years. Moreover, if you leave out the Tsunami year and the year following as "exceptionally high outgo" years, the average outgo for a normal financial year is just 6 crores. That would mean the unused amount is more than 25 times the normal average annual outgo, which is unacceptable.

Why is so much money lying unused? When I went for inspection of files of the fund, I saw that donations were made to construction of hospitals too. With that being the case, and assuming that there are not enough people applying for funds (which I really doubt), why cant the relief funds be used to good purposes like improving the Government Hospitals, which are in a terribly bad shape?

2. If funds received 4 years back that too obviously for Tsunami, has not yet been used, then in raises the question whether contributors would be happy with their money (which was donated for Tsunami) being used for other kinds of work (though that is also some kind of relief work).

Indian Express first took this up which was followed by Makkal TV covering it. The Indian Express article can be seen here.

The actual statements received from them and copies of media coverage can be seen here.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

DVAC and TSVC Exempted from the RTI act

Directorate of Vigilance and Anti Corruption (DVAC) and Tamil Nadu State Vigilance Commission (TSVC), have been brought out of the purview of the Right to Information act. The link for the news item can be seen at the end of this mail. The govt has passed a GO in this regard too (attached).

This GO clearly states that this has been done because "in vigilance cases, giving information at the initial stages, investigation stages and even prosecution stages would lead to unnecessary embarrassment and will definitely hamper due process on investigation". This is a pretty strange reason to give exemption because section 8(h) anyway provides exemption to information whose disclosure would hamper investigation. Also, "Unnecessary embarrassment" cannot be a reason for exemption since with RTI embarrassment is bound to happen in almost every Public Authority.

But the fact that both these organisations have been given blanket exemptions means, we cannot get any information from DVAC and TSVC. This makes the government's motives suspect. It seems to be only a ploy to protect people who are being investigated by DVAC, as this will prevent us, the public, from asking details on follow-up or action taken on cases they are investigating, finding out causes of pressure from vested interests etc.

Moreover, allowing such exemptions to be added, unquestioned, would only make the government bolder to add further exemptions.

The G.O can be viewed at http://www.tn.gov.in/gorders/par/par_e_158_2008.pdf

I am talking to other organisations like Catalyst Trust, CAG and 5th Pillar to see what can be done about this. Though some orgns want to fight this legally, I feel we dont have a strong enough case and losing the case would be disastrous since, then it would seem that the high court has upheld the stand of the govt. In my opinion all the orgns should get together and talk to the P&AR secretary and try to convince him. If that does not work we need to get down to the streets. Here again there is a long struggle and more will come on this.

Here are some media links to the exemption.

Vigilance bodies out of RTI Act purview

Taking DVAC out of RTI purview evokes protests

Govt defends exclusion of DVAC from RTI purview

Work with the Commission

I have set two interns to work on analysis of the files of the State Information Commission starting Jan 2007. They are from Loyola College and are doing this work on Wednesdays and Thursdays. There have been many problems with the State Information Commission and the most important of them is that they dont follow up on their orders. In the worst manifestation of this, the penalties they impose too are not followed up on.

I went through all the judgments of the Commission and made a list of penalties imposed by the commission and found that about 24 penalties were imposed by the commission. I passed this info on to Shyam of the Hindu who talked to the Commissioner about this. An article on this came out in the Hindu (http://www.thehindu.com/2008/08/22/stories/2008082253890500.htm). The Commissioner claims that more than 200 penalties have been imposed so far and says that the reason why I could see only 24 penalties was that, many of the penalties imposed have been after replies from Show Cause Notices came in, and they were looked at. I still have not seen any documentary proof for those 200 penalties. In addition to this, a staff of the Commission told me that not a single reply to the Show Cause Notices has been looked at so far.

Recently the State Information Commission gave a bad order against an RTI applicant, Mr.Gunasekaran. A copy of the decision can be seen here, but the gist was that the applicant had applied for a post of a driver in the State Transport Corporation. But he did not get the job. He told me that there is always corruption in such appointments and the money would be in the filed an RTI application under RTI application asking for Merit List and the marks list of candidates who appeared for an interview for the post of a driver for a State Transport corporation. Since he could not get those, he filed an RTI again asking for panel members who decide the merit list. This time the transport corporation gave the names of the panel members (which in the commission's opinion need not have been disclosed). The applicant then filed an RTI with one of the panel members with a view to get the mark list for which he was told that RTIs cannot be filed with panel members. When the first RTI (asking for merit list and marks for merit list) came up for hearing, the commission ruled that normally they order the mark list have to be disclosed, but in this case since the applicant has asked for panel members' names and has got them, the commission decided that disclosing the marks list could lead to personal harm of the panel members and hence ordered that information need not be disclosed. I was also along with him, at the hearing. My repeated appeals, saying that just because the names of the panel member were known, it does not mean we would do them any harm. The commissioner Mr.T.R.Ramaswamy said that we should come with our hands clean. He also asked us why we were so impatient that we filed a second RTI application when the first was still pending and why could we no wait. Such questions were unnecessary as it does not matter how many RTIs we file. But he refused to listen to any of our arguments and ordered that information need not be disclosed.

I have decided that this decision should be challenged in the High court. Gunasekaran is also ok with it. So through Arvind Kejriwal I got a lawyer contact in Chennai. She is Ms.Gita working in Human Rights Law Network (HRLN). Over phone she agreed to help us out. So Gunasekaran and I will meet Ms.Gita the coming monday (6th October). I feel this will go on for some time. So, as they say, keep watching this space :-)

TN Awareness Campaign

A state wide RTI campaign was launched from Oct 13th - Oct 21st on Sep 13th. On this day many organisations from across the state met and decided to do this campaign. I initiated the campaign, and it moves forward with lots of suport from Ossie of HRF (Human Rights Foundation) and Nity of CAD (Corporate Accountability Desk). The photos of the meeting can be seen here. Following this on 23rd Sep Nity, Rupesh, Dharmesh and Ossie met to discuss what we could do in Chennai. It was decided that we do the campaing for 6 days. On 2 days we will run mobile camps by going around the city in a van. On 2 other days we will post ourselves outside Taluka Offices and run clinics. It was also decided that we call the Appellate Authorities and HoDs of some important Public Authorities including the P&AR and have a discussion on RTI implementation. This discussion will happen, if a similar meeting that is being planned by Catalyst trust around the same time does not happen.

We had also discussed that a bigger meeting of Chennai organisations could be called and after talking to Organisations like Transparency International, 5th Pillar, Anti Corruption movement this meeting has been scheduled for Saturday, 4th October at Transparency International.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

RTI Project Updates - 29,30 (July 21 - Aug 3)

State Information Commission
I have been thinking for sometime on the reality the fines imposed. So I wanted to see if the fines imposed were actually recovered from the Public Information Officers. Moreover, the commissioners have also said in a couple of places that they have imposed around 200 fines. But of what I have seen of the decisions so far, I am not able to believe that so many fines have been imposed. I had looked at decisions from Jul-Dec 2007, out of the 210 cases, in only 1 case was a penalty imposed. So I planned to look at ALL the decisions of the SIC and find out really how many fines have been imposed and how many have been recovered. With this in mind I tried to talk to Mr.Dhandapani, the registrar to give me copies of decisions of this year (2008). He said that since some office expansion work (like new cabins, new shelves etc) was going on, they have put all files together. After some persuasion I finally was able to inspect the files of Jan-Mar 2007. In these 3 months I found one more judgment where penalty has been imposed. This was against the Registrar of Madras University. The following week I looked at the decisions of about 6 months of 2006 and I found 2 penalties imposed. So the tally now stands at 4 penalties in 15 months. This is pathetic to say the least. Of course in many decisions Show Cause Notices were issued. So I met the Chief Commissioner and asked him if any follow-up had happened on SCNs, and he, to my pleasant surprise, said that some of them have been looked at and penalties imposed. When I asked him whether I can access them, he said I cannot, since they are not separately maintained. But later when I was talking to a section officer this topic of SCNs came up and he told me that SCNs have not been followed up at all. When I specifically asked him whether none of the SCNs have been looked at, he said no. I need to pursue this again with the Chief Commissioner.

RTI with Government Departments
On 22nd June I went for inspection at the Anna Institute of Management, where there were no hassles. They showed me the lists of attendees of all the trainings they have conducted so far. They also showed me the training materials used and told me how they try to cover all departments possible.

On 23rd June, I went to the Finance department at the secretariat for inspection of files related to the Chief Minister's Public Relief Fund (CMPRF). There I was shown the files related to the FY 2006-2007 and 2007-2008. Here I was told that files related to older years than were shown have been destroyed, since all of these are letters which can be destroyed after 1 year. So I asked them how they will look back for any information related to older years, for which they said that they maintain a register wherein all these payments are noted. And so I asked them to show me those registers which they maintain, for keeping track of payments made. This the PIO Mr.Kesavan, refused saying that those are internal records and hence cannot be disclosed. My repeated asking of what is so secret about the register, did not elicit a satisfactory explanation, and I had to return without getting access to that register. Then I filed a first appeal against the refusal of the officials to show me the registers. Moreover, they could not give me an idea of how much money flows in every year, how much is spent and what is the balance. Hence I filed a separate RTI application asking for copies of their bank account statements.

Delhi RTI meeting
On 28th and 29th, I was in Delhi to attend an RTI activists meeting. This was organised by Arvind Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia. Here we discussed the workings of the commissions of various states, and at the end of the meeting we decided that we will all spend the next one year working on improving the commissions. We also decided that we should collect data with respect to various aspects of the commission's working like Disposal rate, penalising rate, quality of decisions.

Friday, July 18, 2008

RTI Project updates - 28 (7th July - 20th July 2008)

Implementation by the Government
The last two weeks I spent most of my time running around government offices. I visited the Chennai collectorate to find out what happened to the letter I sent them detailing my visits to the Mylapore and Nungambakkam taluka offices where no section 4 disclosures were done. I was told to meet the Enforcement tahsildar, who was on leave that day. So again the following week I went and met the Tahsildar, he just told me that Anna Institute of Management will call for training and then the training will be given. I pointed out that it is they who have to ask AIM for training. He said, that it was AIM who will cal for training and hence I thought there was no point arguing without knowing the data. Hence I thought I can talk to AIM first and then talk to him. Anyway, I have sought an RTI inspection with AIM next week. So I can get answers to my queries there.

There was no progress on the attempt to look at files with the Health & Family Welfare department. It was covered in The Hindu, thanks to Shyam, which can be seen at this link. http://www.hindu.com/2008/07/17/stories/2008071754000500.htm

Sometime back, I filed an RTI with the Southern Railways (http://adropinanocean.blogspot.com/2008/06/rti-project-updates-2324.html). That was recently covered in the Times of India here. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/Cities/Chennai/Rly_asks_man_to_pay_for_RTI_information/articleshow/3216494.cms

I had sought time for inspection of files related to the Tamil Nadu State Information Commission at the P&AR department. I was given the time as 3.30 PM on 7th July. So I went there and was shown the files. I looked at the files relating to the appointment of 4 new Information Commissioners, but there did not seem to be any basis for the appointment. The GO says that since there is more workload, they are appointing new commissioners. But funnily, no new staff are appointed along with the commissioners. And it is close to 3 months since the new commissioners were sworn in. Wonder how the department thought, how appointing just new commissioners, will solve problems without apponting the support staff. Then I started looking at any requests that have come from the TN Information Commission. They said that there was a request and that the files was with the CM's office. It was already 5.30 by then, and hence I told them, that my inspection was not yet complete and that they have to be give another day. The Section Officer there said, that she will call back within a day and so I left.

For the next 2-3 days I tried calling up the number gave me, but nobody answered the phone,
so on Thursday I went back and asked her what happened. She again said she will call back in a day after getting permission. My repeated arguments that permission is not needed since this is just a continuation of the inspection I started doing, fell on deaf ears. I said ok and came back. Again nothing happened. So I called back. This time the section officer answered and told me that she will call back in 1 hour. Again nothing happened. So on the following monday I called up and told them that I was on their way to office to inspect the files. The person who answered, Suresh, said ok. So I went there. But when I went there he told me that the Under Secretary was in some training and will come out only by 2.30 and that only then can the permission be had. So I strongly told them that they were not responding properly, and were making me run around like this. Suresh promised me that he would call back. And finally they did call me back and asked me to come on Thursday evening at 3.00.

This time Shyam also accompanied me. So we both went for the inspection. There we asked for any pending requests with the P&AR department, to which the Under Secretary(US) Mr.Chandrasekaran replied that he would not show us any pending files. When I pointed out that no such thing is present in the act, he said that though the act does not say anything, there have been many cases in which it has been held that open files will not be shown. And one by one he started taking out book after book, journal after journal and started saying that he should not think that only we have read the act. He brought out even real fat books as if to imply that he has read all of those books. But he still did not show us any decision. Then Shyam felt that right now we will see what he is showing and then later discuss the open files issue. We tried to bring up the issue of the Registrar of the Information Commission, whose post the government has not yet sanctioned. After looking at the records, we learnt that there was a post of under secretary which was vacant, and the posts of 3 Asst. Section Officers. The SIC wants the government to consider Mr.Dhandapani as the person for the post. But the department does not agree to this. And this post has been vacant for the past two years. The govt has not appointed anybody. When asked why he said, there is staff shortage. So here is the P&AR department, which neither accepts the existing officer for its under secretary post, nor does it appoint its own person citing people shortage. It might be argued that the commissioner should not have appointed people on his own, but then all the other staff in the SIC were also appointed by the commissioner, but those decisions have been agreed upon, except for that of Mr.Dhandapani. Surely there is more than what meets our eye. At 5'o clock, Shyam had to leave. After he left, I asked the US to give me in writing that he will not disclose open files. At this he flared up. He asked me how I can ask for anything in writing. I told him, that in my request I had asked for ALL files related to the TNSIC, but he has refused to show me the open files, and hence I asked him to give it to me in writing. He asked me how I knew that there were open files. I said I dont know it, and that he was the one who told me that he will not show any open files. But I said that in that case, let him write and give me that there are no other files, other than what he has shown to me. This too he refused. After this exchange, he got really angry and told me that I was only trying to aggravate him. I calmly pointed out that I had no such intention, but was only asking him to give it to me in writing whatever he was telling me verbally. Moreover, he also knew that I had some media contacts, since as soon as I entered his room, he told his subordinates, that I was some popular figure and that he read about me in Times of India regarding the Southern Railways issue. I didnt bother to reply to that comment, but I wonder whether it was that, which put him on the defensive. Moreover, throughout our inspection, he felt that we were sent here by the commission. His animosity with the Information Commission was very evident. He felt that since both were part of the government, the SIC should not have gone to the media on the staffing issue. He was possibly referring to an article in the Indian Express in Jan 2008 (http://www.newindpress.com/NewsItems.asp?ID=IE920080127011603). He also kept averring that whatever the SIC had asked they have given.

Finally when he refused to give it in writing, I told him that as PIO it was his responsibility. Then he said that he was not the PIO. Till then I thought he was the PIO. So I told him that I wanted to meet the PIO. So I met the PIO, Mr.T.Chelladurai, and told him that I wanted in writing that the open files cannot be disclosed. He said that he was not saying that they wont be disclosed, but that it needs to be discussed with other officials and hence wanted me to give a request and that he will consider it. I tried arguing with him, but he too refused to give me anything in writing. Finally, I gave him a written request, saying I want to look at open files and walked away.

Last week I gave a presentation on RTI at IFMR, where about 30 students had turned up. They seemed pretty interested. Many had heard about RTI and were eager to know its details. Hope at least some of them go on to use RTI and spread its usage.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

RTI Project Updates - 27

Section 4 inspections
My wife, Prabha, and I went to the Health & Family welfare department at the Secretariat again on Monday. This time along with a reporter from The Hindu, Shyam. When he had contacted me some time back for my opinion on the SIC's functioning for a report in the newspaper (http://www.thehindu.com/2008/06/30/stories/2008063059470800.htm) I told him about the section 4 inspections that I am doing, and he wanted to accompany me on one of them. So I called him for the H&FW dept inspection on Monday. We went to the PIO's room Mr.Shanmuga Sundaram and asked him why there was no communication from him, as he promised the previous week. He could not give any good explanation. And so I told him that we wanted to look at the files. He tried to locate where my application was, and later where the file I asked for was. Then he called a lady who said the file has been sent to another officer, Mr.Thangamani. And from the conversation between the PIO and the lady, it looked like there was some retirement function on. The lady who had come in said that since the file has been sent to the other officer, it cannot be seen. Then I told her that I was ready to go to his place and see the file. She said she was not sure where the file would be now. Now, I pointed out to her, that there would be a register in which file movements are tracked and that can be used to find where the file is. Then she sheepishly admitted that it can be done. So the PIO asked the lady to take us to the other officer's place. She went out of the room and we followed her. By the time we came out of the room, the lady disappeared. This, when she was asked to guide us to the other officer's room. But we let that go, and went to that person's room. He said that he was busily going for a meeting and asked me to send a letter and then they would specify a date and time. I tried to reason it out with him, that section 4 doesnt require any such notice, he was not ready to listen. He was in a hurry to attend the same retirement farewell function. When we told him that we had already sent a notice 2 weeks back, and that the PIO asked us to come to him, he told us to bring the PIO along. When I asked him to call the PIO up on the phone, he refused to do so. In the meanwhile another person who was in the office, rudely told me that there was no where in the act, that we can come and inspect the files whenever we want. I offered to show him the act. He asked me to read it and started walking away. I asked him where he was going, when he asked me to read the act. And asked him to wait and listen to me reading the relevant part of the act. And I read it aloud to him section 4(1)(c) of the act which says "Every public authority shall publish all relevant facts while formulating important policies or announcing the decisions which affect public". At this he asked us if it was feasible to publish these things on the web so frequently. So, Shyam, politely explained that we did not ask them to publish it on the internet, but merely to show it to us. But then he again went back to his argument that as per his instructions we cannot walk in at any time and ask for disclosure of files. Saying that he walked off. We again went back to the PIO's room. By then he too had left for the function. And so we waited.

After close to an hour, the PIO came back to his room. Since Shyam had left to meet the secretary of the IT department, Prabha and I again went into the PIO's room. He asked me to wait for 2 days and that meanwhile I will get a communication as to when I can come and inspect the files. I pointed out to him, that this access was something due to us, but still we are forced to run around. While this was happening, the office assistant, who sits outside the PIO's room entered, and told the PIO "Sir, you have sent the file to the other officer and so you send these people also there, why do they keep asking you this". At this, I got wild and asked him, that he need not interfere when the PIO and I were talking. To this he replied, that he cannot stand us talking disrespectfully to his officer. I told him that we were not being disrespectful but were only asking for our rights. At this there were two other staff in the room, who also said that we cannot talk that way. I again told them back that they need not interfere. This started getting a lot of attention and outside our room close to 10-15 office assistants started gathering. Since the PIO realised that things were taking a bad turn he requested us to leave and that we will get a communication within 2 days about inspection. At this Prabha asked him why the OA was interfering, to which he did not reply and just requested us to leave. We were fed up and started walking out, when one of them asked us to leave in a disrespectful way. So I went back to the PIO's room and told him that I wanted to file a complaint against the OA who talked that way. The PIO again requested that we do not make the issue big and asked us to leave. So we left. The whole incident was so distressing. It just shows how the whole government set up is against anybody who comes asking for rights. Right from the PIO, to the other officer, to the person who asked us to read the act till the Office Assistants. They consider themselves kings and as if we all are there seeking alms.

Working with the commmission
I went to the commission on tuesday to meet the commissioner where I also met Nity and Rupesh who had come there for some hearing. Nity was informed that the hearing was in the afternoon, but the hearing had already taken place in the morning. So Nity wanted to meet the commissioner about this. We waited for close to 1.5 hours and then met him. The commissioner conducted a hearing in his room itself, since the PA was still present in the Commission. After that I raised the issue of uploading the decisions of the SIC to the website, which he promised quite a few times before. Nity even offered that some volunteers can be brought in to help with any work that needs to be done. The commissioner started explaining that there were some problems with teh connectivity and sending emails also was a problem. But he later said that he will do it quickly. But I wanted a date and so asked him if he could give us a date by which this will start and he committed to July 15th. Mr.Dhandapani was also there who also agreed to this, and so I hope to see some work done by July 15th.

I learnt about another success story this week. Senthil Manian was one of the first callers to the RTI helpline and he called up again this week to consult with me on another issue. When he called me now, he said that he had called sometime back regarding getting his ration card which he could not get for 2 years and that he got it after filing an RTI application.

Recently I talked to IFMR, to know if they would be interested in an RTI presentation so that it can help in spreading the word about RTI. They have a unit called CDF (Centre for Development Finance) which works on evaluating government schemes, creating databases on government schemes etc. So they thought it would be useful for them and hence we met and decided that the seminar will happen in the third week of July.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

RTI Project Updates - 26

About two weeks back, a caller, MuthuLakshmi, from Madurai, called up on a sunday saying that she had applied for passport a year back and had not yet got her passport. This was the situtation even after a lot of appeals from her. She learnt that her application was lost there. At one point she met some grievance redressal officer on some day and he promised that she will get her passport in 2 days. Even that did not happen. So she called me up. She told me that she wanted her passport within a week and hence contacted me. I asked her to file an RTI application and I dictated the application to her. I asked her to take a blank postal order and go meet the Public Information Officer (PIO). Since she wanted a passport within a week, I told her to be assertive with the PIO. I told her that the PIO will most probably refuse to take the application saying the problem will be resolved quickly. So I asked her not to agree to such arguments. She should either get her passport or the PIO should take the application. I asked her not to settle for anything less. She called me up on tuesday to tell me that she got her passport. It seems that when they had gone to file an RTI, they requested her to wait and gave her the passport the same day.

This is another case where just an RTI threat did the trick. Sometime back I had conducted an awareness session in Tiruthani, where there was a volunteer Nagaraj. He was having trouble getting his ration card. So I asked him to file an RTI application. I asked him what happened. He said that when he went with the RTI application they said that there was no need for any RTI application and that his application will be processed soon. So he returned. And within days there were officials at his place to do an inspection (as part of the procedure to give him his ration card).

In April I conducted an awareness session in Koovathur for staff of Grassroots foundation. It was a very enthusiastic group. I called up the director of the NGO to find out what happened after the session. He said that at least 10 applications were filed by various people in the group.

Section 4 Implementation by the government
In my earlier post I had mentioned that I visited the secretariat to meet the PIO of CM's Public Relief Fund. After all the explaining I did to the PIO, Mr.J.Venkatesan, I received a letter from another lady Ms.Susheela, saying I had to affix court fee stamps with the application. So I decided to go and meet her personally. I tried explaining to her that she should disclose these items as part of their section 4 disclosures but she did not agree. She insisted that I had to send her court fee stamps. I tried showing her the act but she did not budge. She started going through some other file while I was talking. I told her that if she reads something else when I am talking then she wont be able to listen to me. She agreed that she was not ready to even listen to me. I told her that in that case, I have no option but to complain to the State Information Commission. To that she said ok, you can do that. So later I came back to office and filed a complaint with the TN SIC.

I also went to the health department, to meet the PIO. I had earlier sent them a letter on 17th June intimating that I would be coming to inspect the section 4 disclosures of the department. Here again he had no idea of section 4 and hence I showed him the act. He asked me how I can expect to come and look at the files in just 5 mins, to which I replied that I was ready to wait for 2 hours. Then he asked me to wait for some days and that he would call me by the end of this week and give me a time when I can inspect the files. He said ok and so I left.

On wednesday I went to the SIC along with Rupesh to attend a hearing on behalf of Nity. Nity had asked for some information from the TNPCB as part of section 4, which related to the environmental clearances given to various companies all over Tamil Nadu. For this TNPCB replied saying that, it will require huge amounts of efforts. So Nity replied saying that let him start the process with uploading information of just one district, the Nilgiris. This was done about 6 months back. Since there was no reply from TNPCB, NIty filed a complaint with the Commission. On the day of the commission the PIO failed to turn up and hence the case was psotponed.

All this shows a serious lack of training on RTI to the PIOs and AAs. There is no way that the implementation can improve by just passing GOs. A complete training plan is needed for section 4 to become a reality.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

RTI Project Updates - 23,24 & 25

I am back after a 3 week break for my marriage. And in the last three weeks (June 2nd to Jun 22), there have been a lot of happenings. So this is going to be a long blog.

RTI Implementation in the government
The first couple of days were spent on sorting out the replies received from various districts regarding the RTI implementation. There has been a very poor response from the districts. Probably because the questions are the kind for which they have to answer in the negative for many of them. Some of them have asked for more time, while others have forwarded it to lower level departments. Some have given some details and asked for money for some copies. None of them have an idea about Section 4 of the act. This shows a complete lack of training. Looks like, the information about RTI has trickled down through the hierarchies only through GOs.

I also tried looking at the section 4 availability in a secretariat level department, by asking the finance department to show me the list of beneficiaries of the CM's public relif fund, to which lots of contributions from the public flows in. I had gone to the Finance department at the Secretariat to look at the section 4 disclosures regarding Chief Minister’s public Relief Fund on June 13, 2008 at 11.30 AM. I had also sent a letter on 9th June 2008 informing him of the visit. There I met Mr. J. Venkatesan, Joint Secretary to the Government, of the Finance department, who is in charge of the Chief Minister’s Public Relief Fund asking him to show me the list of beneficiaries of the fund. He is also the appellate authority under the Right to Information act. He refused to show me the records saying he needs to get permission from the Secretary. When I told him the Section 4(1)(b) of the act mandates that such information must be proactively disclosed and should be available for inspection by any member of the public without prior application, he said that though the act might say it he still needs to get the opinion of the legal department.
He also mentioned that the letter did not specify the duration for which the beneficiaries list needs to be disclosed and that hence he will send a reply to my letter to which I again need to send a reply specifying the period after which they will consult the secretary and then fix up a date. Though specifying the period is not necessary, since the disclosures are mandated by the act, I offered to give him a letter then and there, specifying the period, so that I can cut short the time delay in to and fro correspondence. He refused to take even this letter, which clearly showed that his intention was to deny information. This is clearly a violation of the act on the following counts
1. Section 4 disclosures were not done
2. I was refused to see the documents that should have been voluntarily disclosed even after giving 3 days notice and appearing in person
3. The Joint Secretary was clearly trying to prevent me from having the information by trying to delay the whole procedure by refusing to take a letter from me.
This was the level of awareness of section 4 even at the Secretariat level. How can we expect village level offices to implement the act well.

Moreover, the letter I sent did not reach his table. He saw a copy in my hand and started finding faults like, this is not even signed. When I pointed out that this was just a copy and that I had already sent the original through a courier 3 days back, he checked with the appropriate section whether such a letter had come. The person at the other end replied that there had been such a letter but had been ignored since there was no court fee stamp on it (Which is actually not necessary, since I am not making an application but only informing him that I am coming for section 4 inspection). But since I was sitting there confidently, he checked again with that person whether the requirement of a court fee stamp has been done away with. Then I pointed out, that court fee stamp requirement was indeed there, but only that this was not an application. He was not clear about the whole thing. He was also pretty unhappy that I was coming and asking for files like this.

I did a similar inspection with Two taluka offices in Chennai on 17th June 2008. Egmore - Nungambakkam Taluka office in the morning and Mylapore - Triplicane taluka office in the afternoon. At the first place, they had no idea what sectio 4 was. The deputy tahsildar, asked me what section 4 was. I told her that these are a list of documents that need to be kept ready for inspection by any member of the public at any point. I showed her a copy of the act. She said that a lot of things will be said in acts and it is not possible to follow all of them. At one point she noted "with all the acts, it is as if you are governing us, instead of the other way round". Though not intentionally, she expressed the spirit behind the act:-).

On Monday, 16th June, I attended a meeting at the CAG office wherein representatives from various organisations had come together to discuss ways of talking to the government to push some recommendations regarding the SIC and the government. Section 4 was discussed frequently in this meeting. Representatives from Transparency Internation, Makkal Sakthi Iyakkam, Anti corruption movement and a couple of other organisations participated. Here it was decided that we will first meet the PIOs, AAs and heads of departments of 10 important and frequently RTIed public authorities and try to push them to implement some recommendations. Seeing their reaction future course of action can be considered.

More bad news on the CIC front. Sometime back I wrote about my observation on how Ms.Padma Subramaniam conducted enquiries (A Sad Monday). Recently I filed an RTI with the southern railways on the allocation of tickets to various quotas like Tatkal, Emergency etc for Pandian Express during a particular period of 10 days which was festival season. For this they asked me to pay about 900 rupees. So I went in appeal to the first appellate authority, who upheld the PIO's decision. So I filed a second appeal with the Central Information Commission. So I drafted a letter and enclosed the copy of my RTI application, the reply from the PIO, my first appeal and a reply of the first appellate authority. To my surprise my second appeal was sent back to me saying that the copy of my RTI application was missing, whereas it was very much a part of the set that they sent back. The letter also said, that there was a format for filing the second appeal, which included an index, a list of dates etc. And that I have to submit two copies of the entire set. But the worst part was yet to come. The letter also stated that I must send a copy of the entire set of second appeal documents to both the PIO and FAA get an acknowledgment and then file the second appeal with the commission along with the acknowledgments from the PIO and FAA. This stunned me. Why should I send a copy of the second appeal to the PIO and FAA. It was weird. Then I contacted Nity on what to do. He said that he also faced a lot of problems in filing second appeal and asked me to get in touch with Divyajyoti of Parivartan. She sent me detailed suggestions on filing a second appeal with the commission. Then I prepared the second appeal set, which itself took me 2-3 hours. Then made copies. Sent them to the PIO and FAA, got the postal receipts, then made two more copies now including the postal receipts and sent it to the CIC. I spent almost 1.5 days doing this. It was such a laborious process. The process is such a complicated one that it seems to be a strategy by the CIC to dissuade people from filing second appeals. It was hopeless. I cant imagine how I am going to go through this process for future appeals :-)

There was a positive step ahead in talking to Doordarshan. I had talked to her sometime back when she asked me to contact her after a month's time. I went and met Ms.Hemalatha again. She asked me what kind of a program we can do. I suggested that we can do episodes based on the experiences of citizens who have benefitted from the RTI act. That would give an idea of the different ways the RTI can be used. I also gave her the option of doing a call in program, which she was not interested in since it has already been done lots of times. Moreover, if a call-in program has to be done, she said that she cannot have activists like me doing it, but only the Commissioners should be the guests on such shows. She asked me to bring a note about what exactly I want to do. Hence I am talking to other organisations who have had experiences with RTI so that I can then send a note to her about the program. Let us see how it goes.

The RTI helpline received its hundredth call this week :-)

Saturday, May 03, 2008

RTI Project Updates (21,22)

Working with the Commission

The last two weeks I spent quite some time at the commission. On two days I was observing the hearings of the commission. There were one or two interesting cases. In one, a group of MLAs and an MP had asked for some information. And they had affixed 2 court fee stamps, worth Rs.5 each. But they got a reply saying that only one court fee stamp has been affixed, and hence the PIO asked them to file an RTI again. At the commission, when a copy of the letter was shown to the commissioner, it was obvious that somebody in the public authority had torn that Court fee stamp away. And in all probability it could have been the PIO, since this MLA (who attended the hearing that day) said that he has been trying to get the information for the past 6 months. Moreover, they also lied saying that they have sent the information by speed post, 2 weeks ago. This never reached the MLA. It was discovered that it was a lie, because the MLA pointed out, that when the appellate authority came to meet the MLA a week before the hearing (after seeing the summons from the commission) at the Secretariat, he did not mention anything about the information sent through the speed post. They said speed post because that would mean there is no way of checking if the post has been really sent or not. Wanted to mention this case to explain another method of trying to deny information.

There is some good news with respect to the commission. The Chief commissioner told me that 4 new commissioners are going to be appointed to the Tamil Nadu State Information Commission. They probably take office from May 5th. The Chief still insists that it is not more commissioners that he wants, but more clerical staff. He also told me that during the first year the Commission received about 8000 cases. During the second year, it received about 32000 cases (quadrupled) and in the third year that is presently on by current projections, the number will touch 1,20,000 (again 4 times the previous year's number). He said that such a geometric progression in the number of cases every year is not manageable at all given the staff that he has. But it is mandatory that for every commissioner there must be 2 stenographers, and hence 4 new commissioners would mean 8 new stenographers and that might ease matters a bit. While discussing this we again came back to the discussion of the lack of staff when he mentioned that the Registrar has not yet been paid for 9 months. If you remember sometime back there was an article in the Indian Express saying that the registrar had not been paid for 6 months. When I tried to find out why he alone was left out, the commissioner told me that the post of Registrar was a temporary one, and the government is not extending the appointment even after the Commissioner has conveyed to them that they need, in fact, not one but three registrars. I have filed an RTI with the P&AR department asking them to let me inspect all the files related to the Tamil Nadu State Information Commission. In that inspection I will try to bring out all the requests by the TNSIC and the response the P&AR department has given.

As for uploading the decisions on the website, the commissioner reiterated twice that from May 1st decisions will definitely go online. Since the first hearing in month of May is on 9th, those decisions will be the first to go up on the website. Let us wait and see.

Last Saturday (26th May) I attended a discussion on "Experiences of RTI in Tamil Nadu" organised by the American Consulate together with CAG (Citizen, Consumer and Civic Action Group) where an American lawyer, Mr.Thomas M. Susman, with expertise on Freedom of Information act had come to share his experiences. He pointed out that the Indian law was stronger in respects like coverage, where the Indian Law covers all the government bodies whereas the Judiciary is left out in the American Freedom of Information act. The TN Chief Information Commissioner also participated in the discussion.

There were three awareness sessions in the last two weeks. There was one in Jolarpet in Vellore district for staff of an NGO called SODEWS (SOciety for DEvelopment of Economically Weaker Sections). This NGO is a close partner of AID India, and its founder is Mr.Ramamurthy, who is an energetic and enthusiastic person wanting to bring about change. This awareness session happened on 28th April.

The second one was for the staff of Grassroots foundation with office at Tambaram. This was on 3rd May. The awareness session was at Koovathur a village on ECR in Kanchipuram district. This group was a very enthusiastic set of people who came up with lots of issues that they have in their village and they told me that they will all file an RTI application each within a week from now and the director Mr.Vidyadharan took 20 court fee stamps from me for his staff to use.

After this we went to a village called Kadapakkam again on ECR where in the village people numbering to about 20 had come for an RTI awareness session. This group also involved some social workers working in Organisations like Exnora. Here again, Mr.Vidyadharan distributed 23 court fee stamps asking them to them. I also found a volunteer here. His name was Karthik and his number is 9787138067. He said he will collect details of the RTI applications filed there and let me know. He also told me that he will help people there to file RTI applications.

To spread the word about the RTI helpline, I have sent a letter to about 10 media publications asking to them to publish information about the helpline. The addresses were given to me by Mr.Zaheer Raja who works with me in AID India. Soon a personal follow-up will be done in the those publications where we have personal contacts.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Interesting RTI Applications (RTI Project Updates - 20)

RTI Applications
The last week has essentially been one of filing RTI applications. These are RTIs on RTI. I filed 30 RTI applications one with each of the district in Tamil Nadu. In this application I had asked questions on
1. Display boards of PIOs and AAs and upload of these details to the district website
2. Section 4 disclosures and upload of those documents to the district website
3. Trainings conducted for PIOs and AAs on RTI, budgets allocated and expense statements of funds for this purpose.
4. No. of RTI applications received, replied, no. that went to first appeal and no. that went to second appeal.

I filed an RTI application with the treasury as to how much amount it has received as RTI penalties so far. The Chief Commissioner in an article published in "The Hindu" has said that so far penalty has been imposed on around 100 officers. This information should give us a good idea of how much penalty has so far been recovered.

During a recent discussion with the commissioner, I learnt from him that a lot of his files are being stalled by the government. An example was a request for producing a video on RTI, wherein he said that the government sat on it for about 4 months and then approved it just a few days before the Financial year came to an end, when the funds sanctioned will lapse. I was wondering if I should check it up with the government using RTI and if it there is evidence, then we can highlight the issues and help the SIC work more freely. Though initially I was not for doing this myself since that might make the Commissioner unhappy and close the channel of communication that is now there with him, but then I realised that such things should not come in the way, since if this is not done, it will be real trouble if the government keeps getting away with stalling the commission's work, it will get even more bold and do worse things. So I filed an RTI with P&AR department wanting to inspect all the files related to the TNSIC that are available with them.

Also recently I came across this link where I saw that the P&AR department has proposed for 5 Lakhs in the FY 2008-09 for spreading awareness about the RTI act. So I filed an RTI application how much money it had received in the past years in the same manner and how they spent it.

The link is http://www.tn.gov.in/policynotes/personnel_administrative_reforms.htm. At the end of this page is the information regarding Right to Information Act.

The radio program happened this week too where we took two interesting callers. One was a person who lost his bike about 4 years ago, and had filed a complaing with the Police. But he got no information about it from the police on action taken etc. So I asked him to file an RTI asking about the action taken. Another caller had problems opening an account with State Bank of India. They took a long time to give him an account application form. But now that he has got the form and wanted to submit it back, they were generally dilly dallying, in receiving the application form. Since it was a government bank, I asked him to file an RTI application on the rules for acceptance of forms, reasons for not taking his form. Why these were interesting is that this will send the message across that even institutions like the Police and Government banks come under the ambit of the RTI act, which might not have been readily thought of by public.

When I went to the Radio office, I met a few people from TVS Infotech who had come there for another program. I talked to them and asked them if they could arrange for awareness sessions in their company. One girl said that they definitely can and also that she had previously worked in Xansa and that she will arrange for such a session there too.

Monday, April 14, 2008

RTI Project Updates - 19

No awareness sessions happened this week. There was a success case this week. There was one person Mr.Parthasarathy who had called up on our phone helpline. He was mentioned in "RTI Project Updates 15,16". Hehad moved from Jammu to Chennai a year and a half back and applied for a ration card. He had not got it. He had gone to the office many times, tried filing a complaint with the office, tried petitioning the CM's cell and nothing had any effect. Then he filed an RTI application. Within fifteen days they had come for inspection. Last week he called up saying that his ration card was ready and thanked me for the help. This is the first success case, that i know of, on our RTI phone helpline. The Saturday BIG FM program continued and we took two callers this time.

I went to talk to the Commissioner about two things this time. One was about doing awareness programs on Doordarshan. So I checked with him whether the commission has any funds. And then came this incredible happening. He told me that he had written for some money for doing a movie on RTI which can be used for publicity . The government sat on it for 4 months and then days before the the financial year was coming to an end, the funds were sanctioned. No, this is not a happy ending. These funds had to be spent before the end of the financial year and the bills submitted back. With just very few days left, it was an impossible task. Which probably the government knew very well. The commissioner told me that there is a general stone walling by the government when it comes to the commission. He had been told that 4 staff would come to the commission starting April 1st but none of them have turned up yet.

Then I came to the oft discussed topic of uploading SIC decisions on a website. I told him that even forgetting old decisions for the moment, why dont they start uploading the decisions given from now on. For this he asked me why I was so particular that decisions be uploaded on to the website. I told him that the commission's important decisions are left unnoticed and that if there are some good decisions then it would be good to get it publicised in the media so that other PAs look at it and be more sensible in handling RTI applicaitons. Then he said that he was deliberately keeping a low profile. Then he told me about how if the government really wants to strangle the act, it can easily do so with some rules. But then after some more discussion he finally agreed that he will start uploading decisions from May 1st. So now I need to ensure that this happens.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Experiences with an Engineering College

Sometime back a young guy came to meet me through a colleague, Bharathi, in AID India. She had already told me that she had asked that guy to meet me and that he had some problems with an engineering college. This guy came and met me, and this was story.

This guy, whose name is Karthik, did his Diploma in Electronics and Telecommunication from a government college. After finishing this, he saw an ad in a newspaper by Arignar Anna institute of College and Technology. The ad said that poor students who are unable to afford fees for doing an Engineering course, can join their college since they themselves arrange loans for the students which they have to repay only after they finish their course and get a job. So Karthik joined the college in Aug 2005. Since he has finished his diploma, he joined as a lateral (ie, directly in the 2nd year). But soon after joining he was asked to pay Admission fee of Rs.5000, which he paid. When asked for a receipt, they refused to give it. He wrote his first semester exams too, which happened at the end of 2005. For the next semester he got a letter from the college saying that though they have tried to get loans for him, they have not been successful, and that he should try to get a loan from banks in his neighbourhood. The letter also said that he must pay 5000 before sitting for the second semester exams. So Karthik went and told their office that he cannot afford the fees, and that the college had initially promised that they will arrange for the loan. But they didnt budge. And so, with no options left, Karthik quit in Feb 2006.

After he quit, he asked the college to return his original certificates that they had collected at the time of admission. And these were important certificates. They had collected 10 documents of his, including his school marksheet, diploma marksheets and community certificate. At this point, they started their dilly dallying. He went to the college many times, but each time they say something or the other and send him back. The college is in Sriperumbudur (about 40 kms from Chennai) and they have an office near my house. Everytime he went to the college they would ask him to come back again after sometime, or asked him to pay extra fees for him to get back his certificates (which, had he afforded, he wouldnt have quit in the first place). At one point he asked his village panchayat leader to talk to the chairman of the College. The Chairman had said that he will arrange for the certificates to be given. But when Karthik went to their office to collect his certificates, they made him wait the whole day saying no such instructions were received from the Chairman. At the end of day, he returned home empty handed. Then after such attempts he gave up.

When he came to me, I decided to go to their administrative office (near my house) and talk to them. There office was just a big lengthy hall, with a chair at the centre, possibly for the chairman, and then a few other office desks, some of them with computers, and then many plastic chairs for visitors. There were just two people sitting in the whole office. I went in and told them that I had come on behalf of a friend Karthik who wanted his certificates back. They asked me details like, when did he join, when did he quit, fees he has paid so far etc. I called this guy up and gave them the details. Then they asked me who I am. I told them I was his friend. They said that the certificates can be given only to the student. I told them that I was ok with that, but if only they could confirm that they will give the certificates I can bring him. This guy tried to tell me that even to talk about such issues, it has to be either the student or his parents who had to come. I tried to reason with them that this guy stays at about 3 hours' distance from Chennai, and he cant keep coming every now and then and hence he sent me. They were not ready to listen. I was not giving up. At this point a third guy entered. He asked this person what I wanted. I tried to explain to him. But while I was talking he again asked the other person "What does this guy want?". I told him, that that was precisely what I was trying to explain. I started telling him that the college had initially advertised saying they will arrange loans, and after joining they didnt arrange for loan and all that. Before I could proceed, he said that he will not talk to me and the student had to come. I told him to listen to me first. He also told me "Crores are spent to construct this college, and who will pay for it?". I said why should that matter to me. I told him that the student had come many times before with no result and he cannot keep coming and going even to get his own certificates. Hence he has sent me this time. This guy was completely disrespectful from the beginning. He was also mumbling to others as to why they even let me sit and talk. He also started addressing me in singular to himself. I was angry. I asked him why he was disrespectful to me, when I was courteous all along. Then he called in the watchman and asked him to send me out. At this point, I was beyond myself. I told him that this was not the way he should talk to somebody who comes to this office. And that it was after all his certificates that he is asking for, and that already 2 years of his life were wasted. Then he asked me to go away and not to come back and that the college will give the certificates only if the fees for the next two years (when he did not even complete his first year) was also paid. Then he again asked the watchman to send me out. I walked out.

After this, I called Karthik and asked him to come on Friday so that we can go to the office. So when he came on friday we went to the office. But only the first guy I spoke to was there. He told me that since he was a clerk he would not have an idea about anything. So I checked with Karthik if we can go to his college. He told me that this will not work and that he had been made to run around a lot like this. I was wondering what to do next. There was a woman inspector that Prabha knew, to whom I thought I can complain. Then I realised that complaints about these colleges need to be filed with Anna university (since this college was affiliated to Anna University). When I went there they told me that such complaints need to be given to DoTE (Directorate of Technical Education). So went there. We were directed to a person Ms.Radhika who was reasonably responsive. She told us that they have received complaints against the college before too, and asked us to give a written representation. So we did that and gave it to her. She asked us to call back after a week and they will let us know the updates. And so we left.

The worst part is that such injustice is meted out to that section which is the least empowered to counter it. Even families in comparatively better financial position (though even that is not saying much), get away with paying the amount the college is asking, but this guy could not even afford that. Now he does not even have proof of his having done his diploma. And no school marksheet either. He has somehow managed to get some job in Chennai. But there just arent words to describe what the college is doing.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

RTI Project Updates - 18

Last week I conducted awareness sessions in 2 places. One in a village near Minjur and another one in a village in Tiruthani (B.R.Palli). Here are a couple of snaps of the Minjur session

The awareness session at Minjur happened on Monday (31st March) was a part of the local women's group function for Women's day. There would have been about 25 women in the session, and the issues that were at the top of their list was roads. Land ownership and rations were their other problems. No applications were filed on this day. Though I have told them that I will come back to help them file applications for their issues. After coming back I even talked to Richard (he is an AID India full timer, who arranged for this session) telling him to talk to Ms.Valli (the leader of the women's group) to offer help with issues like rations. He is yet to get back to me.

The other session at Tiruthani happened this sunday (6-Apr-2008). This should have happened last sunday but was postponed, since I couldnt go. Hence the Panchayat leader was not very happy. So before starting the session, I apologised to him, and then went on with the session. There were about 15 males in this session and about 5 females. The rest were kids. People listened with interest, and at the end of the session I filed two RTI applications. A volunteer with AID India, Nagaraj, who runs a library and a tuition centre in that village was very enthusiastic and told me that he will help people there with their RTI applications. His number is 9786230310.

The BIG FM program happened this week too and looks like it will go on for some more weeks. We took two callers this time, one had problems with their ration card and another one with their land documents. The time I get on this program is very little. I hardly get 15 seconds to reply to a query. So it is tough to answer the question completely but I do my best. At the end of the program the helpline number is announced so that people can call up during weekdays for any doubts on RTI.

I also went to Doordarshan again this week, to meet Ms.Hemalatha Venkatraman. She told me that DD had already done lots of programs on RTI with the commissioners, but that none happened recently. She said neither yes nor no but told me that the SIC has funds for publicity and if those could be utilised a program can be done on DD. I told her that I will talk to the Commissioner about this and get back in a week.

Working with the Commission

Last week I could find time for looking at only one more month's decisions to find out penalties imposed. When I started looking at these decisions some time ago, I noticed that not all the decisions have all the basic details. Some decisions did not have the date of RTI applications. Some did not have the date of second appeal. Some did not even give an idea of what information was asked for. At that time I was wondering if a format for decisions would help. Nity too suggested this when we were preparing the Implementation report. So I decided to take this up with the commissioner. I told him that a format while giving decisions would ensure that no important details are missed. He told me that he had always felt that the documentation of TNSIC was weak (a point he has told me many times before), and that he wanted to change it. He wanted to change it in such a way that both the parties bring copies of all their communication in a chronological order. I pointed out that though that may take time, a format to be used by the commissioners can be done immediately. He still went back to that point. ThenI again I asked him when the uploading of decisions will start and he said that his request for staff has run into problems. He said that he was expecting around 4 clerical staff, but now it looked like it is gonna take some more time. Meanwhile Mr.Dhandapani also joined us. I told them that I am ready to get a volunteer to do that work (scanning and uploading) for them. They went back to their old argument that they had to correct the orders, and hence needed to get all the orders keyed in again, one by one and then upload them. I suggested that they can scan it and just put it up as it is, but meanwhile the commissioner said that there are line scanners which is a hand held decide that needs to be run over each line in the document and that it will be converted to text on the computer. Mr.Dhandapani again said that all those things were not possible, and that I need to have patience. I pointed out to him that I have been asking this for the past 1 year, and with that the conversation ended.

After coming out, I talked to Raj sundar a volunteer, asking him if there are softwares which convert scanned documents to text. He was not sure and felt that it would be expensive. But after a few minutes he called back saying Microsoft Office Document Imaging has such a feature. Excitedly I tried it out on some document and it worked. I need to try this out on one of the orders of the commission and then show it to the commissioner. Let me see how that goes in the next week.