Monday, February 25, 2008

A sad monday

The beginning
On Monday (25th Feb) I went to the commission because I knew that the CIC is having its hearings at the SIC. I went there at 10. There I met a person who was obviously a lawyer, since he asked the clerk there whether he had to wear a court gown. He was there to represent Mr.Easwaran who was part of an organisation called "People's Watch for Banks' accountability". I was surprised that there was such an organisation at all. He told me how they filed RTIs asking for account details of the unions of Indian Overseas Bank. Then I told him that I was an RTI activist and showed him the card I had printed for publicising the helpline I was running. He went on to tell me how the unions are corrupt. First he said that the unions were not supposed to take donations from clients but that they take huge amounts of money that way. And then went on to say that clients can pay an amount to the unions and get their loans written off. It seems that even bank employees use unions to get transfers etc after paying some amount to the union or the union leader. While our discussion was going on the hearings started at about 11. He did not go in. I asked him why he didnt go in. He told me that he himself was an employee of IOB, and that even from inside he started creating a lot of trouble, and then cases were foisted on him, which he fought for many years and then took voluntary retirement. He said that if anybody has any problems with these public sector banks they can be contacted. Their address is

Peoples' Watch for Banks' accountability
No.3 Model House Lane,
CIT Nagar,
Phone: 044-24329078

I didnt attend the first hearing but from the second hearing I was inside. I dont know what decision was given in the his hearing, which was the first, but by the end of the day, I got an idea how it would have went. I sat through about 7-8 cases but since I could not take down notes, I remember the details of only a few cases. (Because, for the SIC hearings I was told that it was ok for me to sit at hearings as long as I did not take notes :-)).

What I saw today has made me write such a long blog. It was bad. I have always heard about bad commissioners, but when I saw what happened today, I was stunned. It is as much in the technical issues of cases as much as in the manner of conducting hearings that really enraged me. In this report I intend to capture the details of two cases as much as possible, so that the readers get an idea of the way hearings went on today. All the cases today were related to banks. The first 5 cases I saw was with the Indian bank. The commissioner was Smt.Padma Balasubramanian.

Case 1
In one case, there was a lady, a lawyer who was representing the appellant who had come from a village saying that the appellant had applied for a loan and that she had not got any replies and that they later said that she had to apply at a different branch, since the area she was in was not covered by the branch at which she had applied. But for this she wanted to know why the delay in giving information. She also wanted to know the date on which this new branch was taking care of the area in point. This information was already available in one of the letters from the bank. The lady wanted to know whether there were any people who were given loans in the same area after the new branch came up. The bank's representative said no. And different things were discussed. Finally when the hearing was about the be completed, the appellant's representative again asked the commissioner whether she could compile a list of people in her area who did receive loans from the branch, after the given date when the jurisdiction has been, according to the bank, moved to a new branch. At this, the commissioner said "Neenga ethukku kutham kandu pidikkarthuleye irukkeenga. Kutham kandu pidikkanumna kandu pidichikitte irukkalam. Ungalukku vendiyathu Loan thaane, athu kedaikka muyarchi pannunga" (Why do you want to insist on finding mistakes? If you want to find mistakes, you can keep doing them, go and make efforts to get your loan). At this the hearing was closed, and the lady left. I couldnt believe that I was hearing this from a commissioner. Isnt it one of the goals of the RTI that there is absolute transparency and isnt making sure that no mistakes happen part of the goals of the RTI act. How could she say, that the appellant should not insist on finding mistakes. If mistakes happened, they ought to be brought out. Why should the commissioner say that? But wait. There is more to come.

Case 2
There was this advocate, Mr.Suresh Kumar, who had come to represent his father. He had filed a long list of questions to the PIO of the bank. For which there were some really funny answers from the bank. But this case also showed how the officers go about creating documents that are not there. Though I could not get much details of the case while the hearing on, I talked to him during lunch and learnt a lot of details in his case. During the hearing, the appellant said that he was not given any information even after 4 reminders from the commission (which in itself shows how much the commission's word is respected). The representative of the bank seemed to know well that nothing would happen to him, and he was not worried in the least. The representative pointed out that though there was communication from the commission, there were no enclosures to it, which would be first appeals, which would have anyway been sent to him by the appellant. But even worse is that when the commission did not attach the enclosures, why did the PIO not talk to them and get the enclosures and waited till just 2 or 3 days before the hearing. The PIO then contended that he has brought the information today and that he will hand it over to the appellant now. The commissioner asked the PIO to explain in writing why there was so much delay. The appellant pointed out, that if only the PIO had already sent this information to the appellant before itself, there would not have been any need for the hearing now and that he had to spend 1000 rupees just for this. For this again, the commissioner asked the PIO to explain. I was wondering what this "explaining" meant. It amounts to nothing. The appellant asked for compensation and she said she will consider it next time. What was she doing? As if doling out some sort of alms. The appellant was very right in claiming compensation, since the only outcome of the whole hearing was that he got a set of papers from the PIO. But his story for the day did not end there.

The next appellant walked in. Mr.Suresh Kumar was sitting in a chair in the enquiry room itself wanting to go through the documents given to him. The PIO objected to his being there when the next case was going on. This showed how antagonistic the PIO was towards appellants. On hearing this, the commissioner also asked him to leave the room. But Mr.Suresh Kumar rightly pointed out that there is every right for public to watch enquiries and that as a member of the public he had every right to be there. When he and the PA's representative started arguing, the commissioner said that she did not want to waste her time and hence was getting on with the next case. This was not fair to Mr.Suresh Kumar, since if the commissioner felt that Mr.Suresh Kumar should not be there, she should have insisted on leaving. Or if she felt that the PA's representative was wrong in asking him to leave, she should have suitably chastised the PIO. She did neither. Probably she didnt want to commit to either side, which is not becoming of a commissioner. So Mr.Suresh sat through the next hearing, and at the end of it, wanted to tell the commissioner that he already had objections to the documents given to him. But the commissioner was not willing to hear anything from him since his hearing was already over. She wanted him to go through the route of sending a letter to the appellate authority and then to the commission. This I thought was extremely bad. The appellant is here, the PA's representative is also here, and he has some objections (which I later learnt were very valid), then what stops her from looking at the objections. The PA's representative was fully aware that things could be kept postponing, till the appellant is worn down using these delaying tactics. But the commissioner should atleast realise it and act based on that. After all, does not the act envisage information within 30 days? And this paticular case has gone on for more than 300 days. And even now the commissioner did not try to speeden up proceedings when possible. She just was not concerned about whether the appellant was given Information or not. She seemd to be only worried about closing this hearing and moving on to the next one. The spirit was absent. Totally.

Some interesting "information"
During Lunch Suresh and I were discussing his case. (Mr.Suresh can be reached on his mobile number: 9345902978). He had filed a complaint with the Indian bank about 2 years back (in 2005) and wanted to get information as to what action was taken on it. He showed me a reply to a specific question regarding complaint registers. He had sought a copy of the complaint register and had also asked why the complaint register was not kept in a public place in the bank. And the reply to this was "Copies of the complaint register are personal information and hence cannot be given. The branch has been isntructed to keep the complaint register in a public place in the bank". How much more absurd can things get? If it is indeed personal information, which in itself is so obviously wrong, how can it be kept in a public place. How can something be both personal enough that copies cannot be given, but also be public enough to be kept in the bank at a place where everybody can access. And now comes the biggest fraud. When filing the RTI, the appellant asked the PIO to furnish copies of acknowledgment of his complaint, and also copies of the communication that happened regarding the complaint. Here the fact, was that the bank had lost the complaint. But they did not want to admit it. So they created documents as if they have acknowledged the complaint. And how did they do it? And how did he find out that it was a cooked up document. Here is an interesting story.

When the RTI application the complaint attached a copy of the original complaint he filed in 2005. Now this copy of the complaint filed (let us call it A1) was a one page letter which had From address on the top left. It did not have any heading. When the appellant filed a copy of that complaint, what he did was he took a xerox and wrote on top of it "Copy of the complaint filed - Enclosure 3". Let us call this copy A2. Now the bank should have had the copy of A1 which was sent to them. But they did not have it. So they just took a copy of this A2 put a seal on it as if it was received on that day in 2005 (by just adjusting the date on the seal) and gave that as acknowledgment. Obviously, how the appellant found it was, beacuse this acknowledgment had the heading "Copy of the complaint filed - Enclosure 3" on top. This clearly showed that they have taken a copy of the complaint that the appellant had attached in his RTI application and then cooked up documents. This clearly exposed the PIO. And he did not know that there was a flaw in his cooking up the documents. But all this could have been replied to on this day itself at the commission, but since the commissioner did not permit him to speak, he could not get it redressed here. And he naturally lost hope. It almost happened like in courts. Where it is only adjournment that is the goal of a hearing.

The representative of the Indian Bank was very rude and knew very well how to dither. And whenever the appellants pointed out that there was some wrong info, the only option the commissioner gave was to go and ask the appellant to look at the files, without seeing why the appellant said that it was wrong information. That could have helped resolve cases then and there. Throughout the hearings, the commissioner was not ready to go into the details of the objections raised by the appellant in an exhaustive way. Neither did she let appellants finish their representations. Though it will be right on her part to ask them to be specific with their queries, she must give them time for a proper hearing, because after all not every appellant is a lawyer. She should stand firmly on the side of justice and ensure all information asked for comes out. She seemed to look at appellants more as irritant and less as people who were wronged and wanted justice (technically, information). There were more such instances which I havent reported here on the day.

If information takes for ever come, will appellants believe in RTI. RTI is a wonderful tool. People are using it. The government authorities dont want it. The problem with the government authorities can be solved only if the commissioners are good. But what I saw on monday doesnt augur well for transparency. I realise that this is not the first time they are conducting enquiries. Nobody really knows how many people have already been affected and demotivated by such commissioners. Monday was a sad day. But for all I know it was just one among many such days.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Accountability in Government hospitals - Update saying "No updates"

A small note on our work in Government hospitals. As for the corruption complaint enquiry at GOSHA hospital, we have not yet been called for another round of enquiry. We are waiting for that.

As far as the GH is concerned, we met the superintendent to give us permission to implement a waiting list system at in the Cardio Thoracic department, but he was not very co-operative. He told that many students come and ask for permission to do work, they work only on one day but ask for certificates indicating that they worked for 2 monhts. So we told them that we are not students and so dont need any certificates. Then he looked at the letter that the CT dept HOD forwarded to the dean and said that the details are not sufficient and asked us to give him more details.

So went back to him with a brief background about us and AID India and about the system we are intending to implement. In that we had said taht we wont need any funds from the GH for the funds since we will raise it ourselves. He again objected to this saying, how can you raise fund yourself, the government gives us lots of money and that he will not let us go and ask for funds for GH, as that would bring a bad name to the GH. Moreover he also said, that NGOs do this all the time, they raise money and do not do anything. We tried to explain to him, that if the GH itself gives us money we are more than happy. But he was not at all convinced. He anyway asked us to meet the Dean.

The problem is exactly that. The Dean has been given the additional responsibility as the director of DoME. So he is not in office. That is why we had to meet the superintendent. Now he asks us to meet the Dean. Since that day we are daily calling up the GH to find out if the dean is present. We call up -3 times everyday, but we are not able to meet him. Let us see when we are going to get a chance to meet him. Till then there will be very little update on that. :-)

RTI Project Updates - 11

Working with the Information Commission
It has been a week spent mostly at the commission. On Tuesday, I continued the analysis work with Archana and so far we have looked at close to 50 decisions. This work will continue and the idea is to finish it in the next week.

The next day, I along with Prabha, went to look at hearings. They started at about 11.15. The first case was from a person, who looked a simpleton, but had loads of documents. He had filed applications with the co-operative societies department, asking for various details like the number of societies registered whether they are profitable or not and many more such details. Though I could not know all the details I had asked, it was clear that he suspected that something was wrong in the management of societies but he could not figure out what it was. He generally went on talking very generally without much point. He said when he asked for the number of societies registered and he received the answer as 6. Later elsewhere he got the answer 10, and when he asked for expenses (or profit, I am not sure) he got the number as 11. He said this was proof that he was given false information. But one examination, it was found that, the number 6 was given for a smaller area, and that the dept for which he asked next question gave the number as 10 for a larger division. And when he asked for expenses, the department had added an extra head of expense indicating office expense and hence the serial number went on to 11. So it was pointed out to him that nothing was really wrong. He was not convinced. Then he went on to say that the certificate he got after his training in handloom was not authentic. When asked why he thinks it was not authentic, he said that it did not look like another certificate that was given to an friend. It was again later seen that his friend had the training from the central government and he had it from the state government and hence certificates did indeed look different. It went on that way for some more time. The Chief commissioner told me that this was the fourth time his case was coming up for enquiry. There were two other cases which were straight forward and one more which again had a person who wanted to prove a point but was beating about the bush. I couldnt get the gist, as I left in the middle of this enquiry. But got the impression that the decisions were generally fair, but fines are not being imposed.

The next day I met the commissioner and we discussed for about an hour and half on various issues. Starting from imposition of fines, how PAs go to courts, on training to PIOs, staff and funds shortage at the commission, on whether more commissioners are needed etc. During that discussion I asked the commissioner to give me the list of cases where the PAs have gone to courts. I thought that once I get this, we can publish a newspaper report on how PIOs go to the courts if the decisions are not favourable to them. The next effort would be to ferret out cases where penalty was imposed and see the recovery percentage.

There was an awareness session in Thiruvallur for Thiruvallur district full timers of AID India. Only 15 people turned up (out of a targeted 30). The session went off well, and I have asked them to organise similar sessions in their villages, where I will come and do the training. Let us see how it goes.

On saturday afternoon, I went back to the saidapet slum, to do a follow-up of the RTI applications we filed during the awareness session. My contact point there, a girl called Kotiswari, who is a full timer with AID India was not present on that day, and hence it was difficult to trace out people. So we decided to return next wednesday to do the follow-up.

Monday, February 11, 2008

RTI Project Updates - 10

Awareness sessions


This week the first awareness session in village was held in Thiruppachetti village in Sivagangai district (The village is about 25 kms from Madurai city). Raj Sundar who was part of TN RTI campaign in 2006, came with me to conduct the awareness session. This was organised by Ms.Sevi a ward member in the village panchayat. She is the sister of a colleague, Jyoti, in AID India. The moment Ms.Selvi was told that I can come and conduct the session, she was very enthusiastic. She said she can get together ladies from different SHGs. When I talked to her over phone, I asked her how many people would turn up for the session, and she said around 50 people could come. At that moment, I thought this was slightly over optimistic. Obviously, the memories of my first awareness session were fresh in my memory :-). But Raj Sundar and I went to the village on 5th. We arrived 5th morning. The venue was the village SHG building, where usually SHG members meet. We reached the place and saw that there were about 10 members and that more were coming. We waited for about half an hour. People slowly came in. To my surprise, at about 11.30, we had about 40 women. When the session started some more people walked in, and there were close to 50 people for the session. It was heartening to see the group. They seemed pretty interested. Some ladies told us, that a considerable number of women had been away on some work, else there could have been more members. I realised that I was wrong when I thought Ms.Selvi was being over optimistic over the phone. She more than kept her word.

So I started off enthusiastically. Raj Sundar and I had decided before hand that I would handle the history of the act, importance of information and how it can solve problems. Then he would discuss the procedure of getting information under RTI act. I started off with a kadi joke (PJ) just to enliven the proceedings. Then I told them a story. The story of how some villages in Rajasthan had demanded copies of muster rolls for a job scheme. How information becomes power. How RTI brings power to the people. A few instances where RTI has been successful were discussed. I told them what all kinds of information they could possible get, and what all they could do with the information acquired. The group was pretty responsive. The ladies were very vocal and it made the session all the more interesting. Rajsundar then came and explained the procedure of getting information. It was 1.30 when we finished. We distributed pamphlets. Then we told them that those interested in filing applications can do it and we will help them. Ms.Selvi and another lady wanted to get the information on a list of government lands lying unused (poramboke lands). Their idea was that, a hospital was due to them but was kept in abeyance since land could not be found which met the requirements for a hospital. There were other such needs to which needed land. So they decided to file an RTI application to get that info. There were two other appplications that we filed.

After the session was over, we had lunch at Ms.Selvi's house and then left for Madurai to board a train from there. Looking back at the session, it was almost the perfect session. 50 people arrived. They were all pretty interested. The session went off without any goofups from my side. Wish every session were like this.

SRM college
Nity and Rupesh (from CAD), were invited to talk about RTI at SRM college. Rupesh asked me if I could also join them. So we went there. This was on 6th Feb. There were about 200 students there. Nity gave a history of the act and why it was important. Then I gave an overview of important sections like, definition of information, barred info, voluntary disclosure requirements etc. Then Rupesh explained the procedure of filing an RTI applicaiton. Then we ended with a Q&A session.


This week after about 40 days, we started work on analysing their decisions. Raj Sundar and I went to their office on Thursday. We were told that Mr.Dhandapani was on leave, and that the files containing the decisions were in a locked bureau, and that only he had the keys. So we returned. Somehow, the whole comission (which has only a staff of about 10 -12 people) knew that we were going to analyse the decisions. We went back on friday. Then we were given the decisions starting October 25th. On Friday afternoon, we started at about 3.00 and went on till 5.30 and we were able to look at about 30 decisions.

Some immediate problems were, that in a few decisions, the actual information sought is not known. The decisions seemed to be ok so far, in that for most cases where there was a fault with the PA, a Show cause notice asking why penalty should not be imposed was issued. But there is no info in the decisions file whether penalty has been indeed imposed or not. For this the individual case files have to be explored. This week, I intend to focus on this. Previously I had the idea that, once I have all the decisions as soft copies (or as hard copies which could be later scanned), I can upload it to the internet and get it analysed by a lot of volunteers. But now since I have to personally sit in their office and analyse their decisions, I am considering whether I should prepare a report based on just their last 3 months' decisions and going forward analyse all their decisions as and when they are given.

When I met the commissioner before starting the analysing work, he asked me if I had seen an enquiry. When I said no, he suggested that I have a look at one such session, which is scheduled on 13th. That will give me a better understanding of how enquiries are held.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

RTI Project updates - 9

RTI Awareness

An awareness session happened on Monday (28-Jan-2008) at Kallukkuttai a slum near TIDEL Park. This was organised by AIDWA. About 30 people turned up for the session. I explained about the act for some time. After that we discussed problems they had. Many people told us about the common issues that they all faced. One of them was that there was not drinking water supply for them. They also talked about other basic amenities that they lack. There were also the usual problems of people not getting their ration cards on time. Unlike the previous awareness session, here people were more attentive and hence they could understand what I was talking about. Here are some snaps.

We filed two RTI applications here. One to their panchayat regarding their water problem and the other one to slum clearance board asking which parts of the slum come under the board's purview. For individual applications, I gave them a sample application and asked them to file applications themselves. And to contact us over the helpline for any help. I did this since the group seemed to be a reasonably active group who take initiatives.

Working with the Commission

At last, the deadlock with the commission broke. I met Mr.Dhandapani again on Friday (Feb 1st) and told him that I had come with a camera and wanted copies of the decisions. That is how began the conversation. I did not do it the usual way I do by asking when I will be allowed to take a copy of the decisions. Probably he sensed my irritation and also the determination and asked me to meet the chief commissioner. I met the commissioner and told him that it has been a month since he gave me permission, but that Mr.Dhandapani was not letting me access them. The commissioner immediately called Mr.Dhandapani and asked him why I was not allowed to access the decisions. He as usual said that there were still come corrections that need to be done. There have been cases where they have sent the decision to the wrong applicant, who has responded saying there was a mistake. He said that since there were such problems, if such copies go to the media then it would be an embarrassment. They also said that the media does not highlight good work as much as it highlights mistakes. Then I asked if I would at least be allowed to look at the decisions sitting in their office to which the commissioner agreed. To this Mr.Dhandapani also agreed. They told me that I can look at all their decisions in their office. If there are decisions of which I want a copy, they said they will correct them if there are any mistakes then and there and give them to me immediately. I said I was ok with such an arrangement, and so we all came to a compromise. So an analysis of their decisions will start next week

RTI Helpline

Now-a-days there are 1 or 2 calls daily on the helpline and it is heartening. This week I talked to ananda vikatan (a widely read weekly) and requested them to put in a couple of lines about the helpline. Let us see whether they do it.