Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Monthly meeting with the Commissioner - Dec 2008

I have also been feeling that though many people working on RTI give suggestions to the Commissioners in various fora, there is no proper mechanism to do follow-up of these suggestions made to the commissioners and the commitments they make in return. So I have formed a group of people and organisations in Chennai who are keen on RTI and have started a mechanism wherein we meet the Commissioners every month and discuss issues related to the functioning of the commission. Then we try to get the commissioners to commit to some steps and ensure that they take the steps during the month. At the next meeting there will be a review of the commitments made previous month. The first meeting happened on 23rd December 2008. I am of the opinion that this has the potential to bring in changes in the commission quickly.

The first meeting was happened on 23rd Dec 2008 with the Chief Information Commissioner alone. The people who were part of the meeting were

Mr.S.M.Arasu (ACM),
Ms.Rama and Ms.Saroja (CAG),
Somu Kumar (AID US)
Mr.Vijayanand and his colleague (5th pillar),
Mr.Elango (Makkal Sakthi Iyakkam) and me.

the following were the commitments that we could get from the commissioner for the following month of Jan.

1. The commissioner said that hard copies of the SIC decisions and cause lists will be put up in a public place in the reception section so that people who want to look at the copy of the decisions or at the cause lists can just walk in have a look and walk off. This was suggested following the Commissioner's claim that though he was ready to put up the decisions on the internet, the NIC was not responsive.

2. When it was pointed out that the SIC must be more severe towards penalty imposition, he said that the commission is indeed being stricter nowadays. So as evidence we asked for statistics from now and the commissioner promised that starting Jan 1st monthly statistics like number of appeals, complaints, penalties, show cause notices (along with the list of cases where penalty has been imposed) will be made available. This would give us a good idea on how strict the commission really is.

3. That he will consider the idea of having guidelines for passing judgments for the whole commission. He also pointed out he tried a similar thing before but due to non-cooperation from the other commissioners it was becoming tough. He also suggested that we draft a set of guidelines and present it to him over which he will seek comments from the other commissioners.

4. For reducing the delays in appeals, he again repeated that by january he will clear the present backlog, and from then on he will have hearings for cases within a month of the appeal coming to the commission. For this we pointed out that this sounds very unrealistic since even within the group that met the commissioner, appeals from may and jun were pending without any response from the commission. So we suggested to him that if he could give us the status of our appeals from these months to him, that would gives us some indication as to whether really the backlog will be cleared by january.

5. When the issue of the commission itself not meeting the requirements of the RTI act like section 4 and PIO and AA appointment, he said the sub registrar was the PIO and the registrar was the appellate authority. He also said that work was on to put up a board in the office regarding the PIO and AA. But he did not mention anything about section 4 disclosures.

Apart from these, there were also discussions on how the government is trying to stifle the commission by not providing sufficient personnel. This led to lack of follow-up of SIC orders on penalty and information supply. There was the usual story of the the SIC being a sheep dog and not a biting dog, the act being only a sapling right now upon which we cannot yet lean and how we must all have patience etc etc.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Pressure group to monitor the Information Commission

In the last week, I was doing an analysis of the decisions of the Information Commission for the months July, Aug and Sep 2008. I went through 200 decisions (Complete July and August and 50 of Sep). And here are my observations.

With the new commissioners, the number of cases heard per month has gone up. In August there were about 170 hearings and in September it was close to 200. Before the new commissioners were fully functional, the number of hearings was in the range of 70-90 per month. Though the numbers still dont justify the number of commissioners, there has been the expected increase in the number of hearings. Just by doing some simple math it can be seen that even this number is not close to what could be expected from 7 commissioners. If 200 cases are heard by 7 commissioners per month, then the number of cases per commissioner is approximately 30. Assuming there are 20 working days in a month, this comes to about 1.5 cases per day. Now imagine the facilities the commissioners have, and if they look at just 1.5 cases per day, why do we need to pay them so much. The problem is that commissioners sit in groups 99% of the time. There are usually 3 teams. Team 1: Mr.T R Ramasamy & Mr.R.Perumalsamy; Team 2: Mr.T.Srinivasan & Mrs.Sharadha Nambi Arooran; Team 3: Mr.S.Ramakrishnan, Mr.G.Ramakrishnan and Mr.R.Rathinasamy. That means that effectively the work they do is the work of 3 commissioners. I think it is time they split up and work as individual commissioners. That would double the number of cases handled straightaway. But even that would only lead to increasing the average number of cases per commissioner per day to 3. They can easily take around 8-10 cases a day. And if that happens, then the disposal rate would be wonderful.

When I pointed this out to the Chief Commissioner, he said that low number of hearings is not an issue, since backlogs will anyway be cleared by december end. He has told me this "December end" schedule so many times now, that they really meet the deadline, though the fact that 2 of my second appeals from April and June are still pending hearing.

The most important part of the analysis I did was the inconsistency between the judgments of the commissioners. They do not have a set of guidelines to decide when penalty should be issued, when penalty should be levied, what to do when the PA does not turn up. Such cases when coming up before different commissioners yields different results. Here are some observations to substantiate what I just said.

Mr.R.Rathinasamy imposes SCNs in almost all of the cases where there is a delay. This is a good sign. But when the same case comes up before other commissioners they behave differently.

Mr.T.R.Ramasamy issues a lot of threats where SCNs have to be issued. Though he also issues SCNs there is no discernible pattern between the cases where he issues SCN or where he just issues a threat.

Mr.S.Ramakrishnan (the chief commissioner) issues SCNs but in three cases he has issued a penalty straightaway without an SCN. He just asks the PIO whether he has any explanation as to why penaty should not be imposed and if not, he has imposed the penalty then and there. Here again the lack of consistency with other commissioners and within his own judgments is clear. I am not against the penalty imposition, but just that this is not happening all the time.

Mr.T.Srinivasan has a different habit. He imposes disciplinary proceedings alone in many cases. The question would be that when a PIO is liable for disciplinary proceedings under section 20(2) he also becomes liable for penalty under section 20(1). So one cannot be imposed without the other.

I havent seen Ms.Sharada Nambi Arooran handle cases on her own, and hence do not know how she gives her decisions.

Such inconsistencies arise due to the lack of any guidelines, checklist or format for the commissioners when giving decisions. This is crucial to ensure that the fate of our application does not hang on the commissioner sitting on the panel, or in some cases (where there are inconsistencies even within the decisions of a single commissioner) or on the mood of the commissioner that day :-).

This is something I will soon talk to the commissioner and push for it. And in this week I have also been trying to bring some groups together so that we can have a regular meeting with the Chief Commisioner. This could be a monthly meeting. Some groups have expressed interest and we might have our first meeting next week. The reason why this kind of mechanism is useful is that previously different people gave differnt memorandums to the commissioners at different places. But what happend after that was not followed up. I am hoping that by setting up this kind of a monthly meeting mechanism, we can track each particular issue, by getting the commissioner to commit timelines and then questioning him when those timelines are not met. I think if this starts off, we can see improvements quickly in the commission.