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 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.