Monday, March 31, 2008

Experiences with TNEB

I some interesting experiences with the Electricity board this week. The ruling party here DMK was conducting all the many sports activities to rope in youth into the party. So what they did was just conduct these events in all the government grounds (like government schools, play grounds etc). There was one such ground in Kodambakkam and another one in Gopalapuram near our office. There they conduct events using lights and the electricity is naturally stolen from the nearby transformers (or whatever they are called). They have absolutely no qualms about it. So I took photographs of these and went to the TNEB office to complain. I showed them the photographs. The Asst. Engineer at the Kodambakkam office was pretty responsive. He told me that he knew this very well, and that all these are also metered and that they will have to pay for it. But only later did I realise that only those that are taken from the street lights (picture 3) were metered and were paid for. But those that were taken directly from the transformer are not accounted for. But even drawing from from the street lights is not justified just because they are paying for it, because going by that argument, even residential houses need not get electrical connections, we can just draw electricity from the nearest street light and pay for it.

Here are some photos

From switching boxes (I think they are called that)

From street light poles

Coming back to the complaints, the Kodambakkam engineer said that it would be really helpful if a written complaint was given, and so I gave him one the next day. But the Gopalapuram officer was evasive. He first sent me off saying that electricity was drawn only from street light poles. I then went took photographs of power being drawn from transformers, and then he asked me for a written complaint. I gave him one. I asked him when these will be disconnected. He said that it will be done the same day. The next day morning I had a look. Nothing was done. I again went to the Gopalapuram office. On enquiry I learnt that the officer I gave the complaint to went on leave. There was somebody else sitting. He told me that he has already talked to those who installed those illegal connections and that they will disconnect it today. I was stunned. Why the hell does he need to talk to them. As though they are respectable people. The wires should have been forcibly removed and action should have been taken on them. Instead of that, they are holding negotiations. But I chose not to talk then. I came off. This was on friday. Friday evening I checked. Again nothing happened. This will be followed up next week only.

RTI Project Updates 17

A friend Kabilan had told me that he had contacts with a person in Doordarshan and that he will talk to that lady and tell me. So once that happens there will be some progress on the DD program. The BIG FM radio program continued and this week too. We took three callers, and all of them had problems with their ration card. The sunday awareness session in Tiruthani was postponed due to my health. A person from a consumer protection group Dilli Babu had called me up saying he wanted training for RTI for his group. Meanwhile he personally wanted to learn RTI and so he came home. I trained him about RTI.

Working with the commission
Keen on going ahead with putting pressure on the Commission, I am looking at decisions of about 6 months (Jul 2007 - Dec 2007). So far I have looked at decisions given in July and Aug 2007. They would be roughly about 210 cases. Out of these, Penalty was obviously due in 84 cases. This does not include cases where information was given after a lot of delay or where information was denied on flimsy grounds. And out of these 84 cases penalty was imposed only in 1 solitary case. Even interpreting the act leniently the penalising percentage is just at 1%. How will the act survive. That too in most of these 84 cases, the commission itself, has issued a Show Cause Notice. But they have simply not followed them up. So the commission feels that fine should be imposed. But have not taken the necessary steps. I really dont think that this percentage would have improved by the end of looking at all the decisions of the 6 months. This process will be over in another 2 days' time. Once that is done, I intend to talk to Nity and Ossie of HRF and go with them to meet the commissioner urging him to impose fines whenever it is due.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

RTI Project Updates 15,16

State Information Commission
This is an update of the last two weeks. THe first week was spent in preparing the report for the Madurai workshop. The report was the compilation of data I had collected over the last three months regarding implementation of RTI in government departments, and the SIC's functioning. The report can be viewed here. This was done in consultation with Nity after which Mr.Ossie of HRF had also had a look. At the last minute I thought of doing the tamil translation and this itself took one whole day :-). I spoke about this report at the Madurai workshop. It was also decided at the workshop that a statewide campaign on RTI awareness has to be conducted (tentatively from Mar 1st to Mar 10th).

During the first week I also went to Doordarshan and gave them a letter saying I wanted to do a program with them on RTI. If this program happens, then awareness would go to even the remotest villages. Last week when I went to the Doordarshan again, I was told that the letter was marked to the Program Executive. I will have to meet him the coming week.

There was a call from one Mr.Parthasarathy, who had called me up on the RTI helpline, saying that he had applied for Ration card and that it had been more than a year and is yet to receive the card. So I told him how to file an RTI application. Within fifteen days people from the government department had come come for inspection. What is even better is that at that time, he was not at home, and so they came back again. Now they have promised him that he will get his ration card soon. He was very excited and called up to tell me this.

As was mentioned in some previous posts, I had been trying to get some publicity for the phone helpline through BIG FM and it happened this saturday. The people at BIG FM were very supportive and we did a one hour program hosted by RJ Dheena which was a kind of Q & A session between him and me wherein he asks questions about this act and I answer them. All this happens between songs that are played. They have also suggested that we do this program for one more week where we can look at more questions and also take some viewers' questions on the radio itself. That would be really interesting. This can be heard on 92.7 FM saturday 10 AM to 11 AM.

Filing RTI Applications
There were also a couple of interesting replies to my RTI applications. I had filed one with the DoME asking about section 4 disclosures made by various government hospitals. They in turn forwarded it to all the hospitals and asked them to reply to me. Only 3 hospitals replied till a week back, but this week I received a reply from the Government General Hospital (opp. Railway station) saying that the information asked for has been enclosed. But the envelope had no enclosures at all. It was just a single page letter. I was shocked. I just hope it was genuine mistake by the GH. I have written back to them with a copy to DoME saying that there were no enclosures and asking them to send me the enclosures immediately.

The second one was regarding the RTI I filed with Railways asking for details of various quotas like Tatkal, Emergency etc. I had also asked for the number of tickets booked under various quotas for a period of 10 days of 1 train. The information was very specific. For this I received a reply saying that the information has been collected and that it comes to 47 pages and so I have to pay 94 rupees. Moreover, they also said that they spent 8 hours collecting the information regarding the specific train and hence I have to pay Rs.750 for the effort. This is rubbish. Since all the data is computerised (to the extent that even online booking is allowed) it is unthinkable that it takes 8 hours to get the data. For somebody who knows the structure of the database, it will take a maximum of 15 mins to come up with the proper query to get the data. And they say that it took them 8 hours. And that I have to pay 750 rupees for that. Naturally, I intend to go in appeal against this, but this is one of the methods that Govt departments use to discourage usage of RTI.

Also I have filed an RTI application to know the applications for licenses of firearms that have been issued by the government. An other application I filed was to know the exact procedure that has to take place for disbursal of application forms for various government pension schemes like Old Age Pension, Widow pension etc. I have also asked for the procedure for a new ration card. I have also asked for the time limit that each official should do his part of the procedure. This will help in filing RTI applications since these are the areas most people have problems in.

Monday, March 10, 2008

RTI Project Updates 14

Working with the Commission
Last week I learnt from Nity that HRF (Human Rights Foundation) was organising an RTI conference in Madurai on 17th. So when I showed Nity the analysis I had done with 83 cases of the commission. He suggested that we can do a report on this at the conference. Another problem for the commission was that, when the SIC imposes fines, the Public authorities go to the high court challenging the decision. The High court grants an interim stay, and once the case enters the cour, it will rest there for ever. Hence I was also thinking of trying to look at the Public Authorities (PAs) who were going to court with Writ Petitions against the SIC's orders. Hence I met Mr.Dhandapani on Monday asking him to give me the files relating to the cases in HC against SIC's orders. He told me that he will instruct Mr.Jayaraman and asked me to come back on wednesday for those files. When I came to the SIC on wednesday, I was told that he had gone on leave and will be back only on Monday. I was irritated. I met the chief commissioner and I told him that it is really tough to get files from Mr.Dhandapani. He thought for a couple of seconds, called MR.Jayaraman and asked him to let me look at the files. So I started looking at th files. I learnt from Mr.Jayaraman there were about 23 cases in all. So starting Wednesday I started looking at those files. By the end of the week I had looked at about 15 of them. The analysis is given here.

In the meanwhile I met Nity and discussed with him if the data I was collecting for High court cases was sufficient and also discussed the format of the report we were going to present in Madurai. We decided to call it "The status of RTI Implementation in Tamilnadu". Having discussed the structure, I have to prepare th report, get some comments from him and get it translated into Tamil (for which Nity has said, that he could be of help in giving me contacts). We hope this will have some impact since there will be good media coverage for this event.

Awareness sessions
This saturday there was an awareness session in Manali a municipality in North Chennai in a church where about 15 women and a few men had come together. The session started pretty late. I got the feeling, that the audience were not sure what they were going to get, and hence it was more of a speech to them rather than something they can practically use.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

RTI Project Updates - 12, 13

It has been two weeks since my last update and hence this is going to be a two week update. The past two weeks have given me new ideas, better understanding of commissions etc.

Working with the commission
One important work that happened this fortnight was that I analysed close to 80 decisions of the State Information Commission. The analysis reveals that decisions were by and large fair and shows that the commissioners are well intentioned in getting information from the petitioner. The major problem is that fines are not imposed in most cases. Out of the 83 cases analysed, 59 cases were fit for penalty. Out of these 59 cases, Show Cause Notices have been issued only in 35 cases. That leaves about 24 cases. Moreover, impositions of a SCN does not mean penalties are imposed, since later when I spoke to the Chief Commissioner, he said that they did not look at the replies to the SCNs since they did not have time. That means no PA gets really fined. Which is pretty bad, since the only reason why a PA might give information is the fear that he may be fined. But there will be a hundred reasons why a PA will NOT want to give information. So if that sole reason to give information is not there, information will not be given. This has always been the argument from my side.
There have been few important cases too. There was this case where the teacher had sought some information from the headmaster and he is suspended for it. The case come to the commission, and the commission strongly condemns disciplinary action just because the teacher had sought information.
Another case is where the PA had repeatedly ignored the orders from the commission, and finally at the hearing he is given a 24 hour deadline. Since the order says this, I got in touch with the appellant (after writing a letter to him) and he says that he has still not got information. It is precisely instances like these, that support the case for stringent penalties on erring PIOs. The analysis excel can be viewed here.
I have taken copies of 4 important decisions and have uploaded them here. 1,2,3,4.

I would like to state here, that analysis has been done based only on the Final orders given at the hearing, since accessing the relevant files for each order was not feasible, since searching for each file would take a really long time.
I also attended a day of hearings of the Central Information Commission. This was handled by Ms.Padma Balasubramanian and I have blogged the details here.

On 19th Feb, Rupesh and I represented Nity at the commission for a hearing wherein Nity had asked for information (like copies of MOU, land acquisition details) regarding TATA's Titanium dioxide project in Tuticorin. The PIO had rejected information saying it was confidential information, but for the hearing Nity had given detailed point by point rebuttal, and at the end of the hearing, the Chief commissioner ordered that information has to be given within 15 days. The PIO then asked for one month, for which the commissioner refused. What was interesting was that, when we were about to leave the room, the PIO asked the commissioner to talk to the secretary. But the commissioner plainly refused to do anything of that sort. The 15 day time period will end on March 5th.

Awareness sessions
In the last two weeks, not much awareness happened. There was a follow-up of the Saidapet slum awareness session. Lokesh, Raj sundar and I went to the saidapet slum on 27th Feb. Filed first appeals for 3 cases, and one more RTI was filed. I have talked to L&T and Infosys to conduct awareness sessions in their companies. I have talked to bothe their HRs. There will be two sessions in Infosys (in their two development centres) and one in L&T. Am also trying to talk to other companies and give their people training. The program in Big FM should also happen in March 1st week. I have talked to Mr.Ramamurthy of an organisation called SODEWS for a session in Yelagiri in Vellore district for SHGs there. This will most probably happen on March 15th. I have also placed the publicity cards at the commission after talking to the Chief Commissioner. There are quite a few people who come to the commission without much idea about the act. Hence I told the despatch clerk there to give these cards to those who want to know about the act.