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.

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