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.


Raghu said...

hi madhav, very good work, these incidents gives us real ground level practicality. And focusses to the root of the problem.. good work madhav,. keep going ..

latelearner said...

Well done Madhav.Keep it up.As usual your article is very informative and descriptive.The lady commissioner, it seems, cares more about the number of cases she handles in a day, than about the aggrieved appellants.The very purpose of the ACT will be made meaningless by such attitudes of such commissioners.Let us hope things will improve soon.Indeed we are really reaping the benefits of the Act(Of course with such defects).The commissioners are also burdoned with unmanageable number of cases.It cannot be avoided.RTI is the only hope for many people with grievances.Only now some of the corrupt officials are aware of the 'Damocles' sword' that is hanging above their heads. If the commissioners make up their minds without any fear for the politicians(Corrupt officials are less dangerous than the corrupt politicians)corruption can be completely eradicated.Let us hope for the best and be prepared for the worst.
Best wishes.

Rakesh Agarwal said...

Padma B.'s style of functioning:

1. Treat every appeal as a grievance rather than as a quest for information.

2. Side with the P.A.

3. She is in love with her own voice. Would not let anyone speak. She can speak, not hear.

4. She never deals with the grounds of appeal/complaint.

5. Her understanding of RTI Act is rudimentary.