Wednesday, June 25, 2008

RTI Project Updates - 26

About two weeks back, a caller, MuthuLakshmi, from Madurai, called up on a sunday saying that she had applied for passport a year back and had not yet got her passport. This was the situtation even after a lot of appeals from her. She learnt that her application was lost there. At one point she met some grievance redressal officer on some day and he promised that she will get her passport in 2 days. Even that did not happen. So she called me up. She told me that she wanted her passport within a week and hence contacted me. I asked her to file an RTI application and I dictated the application to her. I asked her to take a blank postal order and go meet the Public Information Officer (PIO). Since she wanted a passport within a week, I told her to be assertive with the PIO. I told her that the PIO will most probably refuse to take the application saying the problem will be resolved quickly. So I asked her not to agree to such arguments. She should either get her passport or the PIO should take the application. I asked her not to settle for anything less. She called me up on tuesday to tell me that she got her passport. It seems that when they had gone to file an RTI, they requested her to wait and gave her the passport the same day.

This is another case where just an RTI threat did the trick. Sometime back I had conducted an awareness session in Tiruthani, where there was a volunteer Nagaraj. He was having trouble getting his ration card. So I asked him to file an RTI application. I asked him what happened. He said that when he went with the RTI application they said that there was no need for any RTI application and that his application will be processed soon. So he returned. And within days there were officials at his place to do an inspection (as part of the procedure to give him his ration card).

In April I conducted an awareness session in Koovathur for staff of Grassroots foundation. It was a very enthusiastic group. I called up the director of the NGO to find out what happened after the session. He said that at least 10 applications were filed by various people in the group.

Section 4 Implementation by the government
In my earlier post I had mentioned that I visited the secretariat to meet the PIO of CM's Public Relief Fund. After all the explaining I did to the PIO, Mr.J.Venkatesan, I received a letter from another lady Ms.Susheela, saying I had to affix court fee stamps with the application. So I decided to go and meet her personally. I tried explaining to her that she should disclose these items as part of their section 4 disclosures but she did not agree. She insisted that I had to send her court fee stamps. I tried showing her the act but she did not budge. She started going through some other file while I was talking. I told her that if she reads something else when I am talking then she wont be able to listen to me. She agreed that she was not ready to even listen to me. I told her that in that case, I have no option but to complain to the State Information Commission. To that she said ok, you can do that. So later I came back to office and filed a complaint with the TN SIC.

I also went to the health department, to meet the PIO. I had earlier sent them a letter on 17th June intimating that I would be coming to inspect the section 4 disclosures of the department. Here again he had no idea of section 4 and hence I showed him the act. He asked me how I can expect to come and look at the files in just 5 mins, to which I replied that I was ready to wait for 2 hours. Then he asked me to wait for some days and that he would call me by the end of this week and give me a time when I can inspect the files. He said ok and so I left.

On wednesday I went to the SIC along with Rupesh to attend a hearing on behalf of Nity. Nity had asked for some information from the TNPCB as part of section 4, which related to the environmental clearances given to various companies all over Tamil Nadu. For this TNPCB replied saying that, it will require huge amounts of efforts. So Nity replied saying that let him start the process with uploading information of just one district, the Nilgiris. This was done about 6 months back. Since there was no reply from TNPCB, NIty filed a complaint with the Commission. On the day of the commission the PIO failed to turn up and hence the case was psotponed.

All this shows a serious lack of training on RTI to the PIOs and AAs. There is no way that the implementation can improve by just passing GOs. A complete training plan is needed for section 4 to become a reality.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

RTI Project Updates - 23,24 & 25

I am back after a 3 week break for my marriage. And in the last three weeks (June 2nd to Jun 22), there have been a lot of happenings. So this is going to be a long blog.

RTI Implementation in the government
The first couple of days were spent on sorting out the replies received from various districts regarding the RTI implementation. There has been a very poor response from the districts. Probably because the questions are the kind for which they have to answer in the negative for many of them. Some of them have asked for more time, while others have forwarded it to lower level departments. Some have given some details and asked for money for some copies. None of them have an idea about Section 4 of the act. This shows a complete lack of training. Looks like, the information about RTI has trickled down through the hierarchies only through GOs.

I also tried looking at the section 4 availability in a secretariat level department, by asking the finance department to show me the list of beneficiaries of the CM's public relif fund, to which lots of contributions from the public flows in. I had gone to the Finance department at the Secretariat to look at the section 4 disclosures regarding Chief Minister’s public Relief Fund on June 13, 2008 at 11.30 AM. I had also sent a letter on 9th June 2008 informing him of the visit. There I met Mr. J. Venkatesan, Joint Secretary to the Government, of the Finance department, who is in charge of the Chief Minister’s Public Relief Fund asking him to show me the list of beneficiaries of the fund. He is also the appellate authority under the Right to Information act. He refused to show me the records saying he needs to get permission from the Secretary. When I told him the Section 4(1)(b) of the act mandates that such information must be proactively disclosed and should be available for inspection by any member of the public without prior application, he said that though the act might say it he still needs to get the opinion of the legal department.
He also mentioned that the letter did not specify the duration for which the beneficiaries list needs to be disclosed and that hence he will send a reply to my letter to which I again need to send a reply specifying the period after which they will consult the secretary and then fix up a date. Though specifying the period is not necessary, since the disclosures are mandated by the act, I offered to give him a letter then and there, specifying the period, so that I can cut short the time delay in to and fro correspondence. He refused to take even this letter, which clearly showed that his intention was to deny information. This is clearly a violation of the act on the following counts
1. Section 4 disclosures were not done
2. I was refused to see the documents that should have been voluntarily disclosed even after giving 3 days notice and appearing in person
3. The Joint Secretary was clearly trying to prevent me from having the information by trying to delay the whole procedure by refusing to take a letter from me.
This was the level of awareness of section 4 even at the Secretariat level. How can we expect village level offices to implement the act well.

Moreover, the letter I sent did not reach his table. He saw a copy in my hand and started finding faults like, this is not even signed. When I pointed out that this was just a copy and that I had already sent the original through a courier 3 days back, he checked with the appropriate section whether such a letter had come. The person at the other end replied that there had been such a letter but had been ignored since there was no court fee stamp on it (Which is actually not necessary, since I am not making an application but only informing him that I am coming for section 4 inspection). But since I was sitting there confidently, he checked again with that person whether the requirement of a court fee stamp has been done away with. Then I pointed out, that court fee stamp requirement was indeed there, but only that this was not an application. He was not clear about the whole thing. He was also pretty unhappy that I was coming and asking for files like this.

I did a similar inspection with Two taluka offices in Chennai on 17th June 2008. Egmore - Nungambakkam Taluka office in the morning and Mylapore - Triplicane taluka office in the afternoon. At the first place, they had no idea what sectio 4 was. The deputy tahsildar, asked me what section 4 was. I told her that these are a list of documents that need to be kept ready for inspection by any member of the public at any point. I showed her a copy of the act. She said that a lot of things will be said in acts and it is not possible to follow all of them. At one point she noted "with all the acts, it is as if you are governing us, instead of the other way round". Though not intentionally, she expressed the spirit behind the act:-).

On Monday, 16th June, I attended a meeting at the CAG office wherein representatives from various organisations had come together to discuss ways of talking to the government to push some recommendations regarding the SIC and the government. Section 4 was discussed frequently in this meeting. Representatives from Transparency Internation, Makkal Sakthi Iyakkam, Anti corruption movement and a couple of other organisations participated. Here it was decided that we will first meet the PIOs, AAs and heads of departments of 10 important and frequently RTIed public authorities and try to push them to implement some recommendations. Seeing their reaction future course of action can be considered.

More bad news on the CIC front. Sometime back I wrote about my observation on how Ms.Padma Subramaniam conducted enquiries (A Sad Monday). Recently I filed an RTI with the southern railways on the allocation of tickets to various quotas like Tatkal, Emergency etc for Pandian Express during a particular period of 10 days which was festival season. For this they asked me to pay about 900 rupees. So I went in appeal to the first appellate authority, who upheld the PIO's decision. So I filed a second appeal with the Central Information Commission. So I drafted a letter and enclosed the copy of my RTI application, the reply from the PIO, my first appeal and a reply of the first appellate authority. To my surprise my second appeal was sent back to me saying that the copy of my RTI application was missing, whereas it was very much a part of the set that they sent back. The letter also said, that there was a format for filing the second appeal, which included an index, a list of dates etc. And that I have to submit two copies of the entire set. But the worst part was yet to come. The letter also stated that I must send a copy of the entire set of second appeal documents to both the PIO and FAA get an acknowledgment and then file the second appeal with the commission along with the acknowledgments from the PIO and FAA. This stunned me. Why should I send a copy of the second appeal to the PIO and FAA. It was weird. Then I contacted Nity on what to do. He said that he also faced a lot of problems in filing second appeal and asked me to get in touch with Divyajyoti of Parivartan. She sent me detailed suggestions on filing a second appeal with the commission. Then I prepared the second appeal set, which itself took me 2-3 hours. Then made copies. Sent them to the PIO and FAA, got the postal receipts, then made two more copies now including the postal receipts and sent it to the CIC. I spent almost 1.5 days doing this. It was such a laborious process. The process is such a complicated one that it seems to be a strategy by the CIC to dissuade people from filing second appeals. It was hopeless. I cant imagine how I am going to go through this process for future appeals :-)

There was a positive step ahead in talking to Doordarshan. I had talked to her sometime back when she asked me to contact her after a month's time. I went and met Ms.Hemalatha again. She asked me what kind of a program we can do. I suggested that we can do episodes based on the experiences of citizens who have benefitted from the RTI act. That would give an idea of the different ways the RTI can be used. I also gave her the option of doing a call in program, which she was not interested in since it has already been done lots of times. Moreover, if a call-in program has to be done, she said that she cannot have activists like me doing it, but only the Commissioners should be the guests on such shows. She asked me to bring a note about what exactly I want to do. Hence I am talking to other organisations who have had experiences with RTI so that I can then send a note to her about the program. Let us see how it goes.

The RTI helpline received its hundredth call this week :-)