Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Some General Updates

My recent posts have been about specific issues, and so a the regular work I do has been missed out. I will try to cover them here. All through the last 6-8 weeks I have been trying to get the State Information Commission to look at follow-up of Show Cause Notices seriously. In reply to an RTI application I filed with the State Information Commission, I got the following Information.

Month, Year
Number of Appeals & Complaints
Number of cases disposed without hearing
Number of cases disposed after a hearingNumber of Show Cause Notices
Number of Penalties
Jan '09
Feb '09
Mar '09

The discrepancy in the last two columns is because SCNs are not followed up by the commission. I raised this issue with the registrar, and he too said that, that was a weak area. I asked him to begin with follow-up right away and as a start, he can begin with Show Cause Notices of Jan 2009. He said that finding out the cases where a SCN has been issued is difficult. I offered to him, that I can get him the list of cases of Jan 2009 where a Show Cause Notice has been issued, and that he can do a follow-up of them. This list I gave him the very next day and he asked me to give him a week for that. I gave him two weeks. Since the registrar gave me proper details I also tried to find him the details of the backlog of cases. He said that the problem was with the lack of clerical staff. On Jun 19th he told me that appeals/complaints that had come till May 2009 have been seen by the commissioners. But it was typing of these orders that were causing the delays. He also said that if only they worked on saturdays too, could they clear the backlog. I went to meet him again yesterday and he said that last saturday all the staff had come to office and worked and that this will continue this saturday also. That was some good news.

As for the follow-up of Show Cause Notices, he himself had asked the staff to draw up the list of cases from Jan in which show cause notices were issued, and he told me that he would do something about it by the first week of July.

Everytime I meet the registrar, I make it a point to raise the issue of web updates, since that is the only way that that the public can keep a tab on the quality of decisions of the Information Commission. So far decisions till Feb 2009 have been uploaded to the website. This is a huge improvement over what the scenario was, a few months back.

In the meanwhile I have also done an analysis of the January 2009 jugments of the State Information Commission. In a discussion yesterday regarding isuing Show Cause Notices to all cases where it is due, or at least, if the commissioner decides not to issue a Show Cause Notice, an explanation, as to why SCN was not issued, the Chief Commissioner said that similar orders have already been passed both in written and orally, but that the other commissioners were not heeding him. I will take this up with each of the commissioners tomorrow and the following week.

On 17th June I was invited to participate in a discussion on the functioning of the Information Commission in WIN TV. The anchor had based on the statement of the Chief Central Information Commissioner, that the government is trying to stifle the act, by not allocating enough funds. Elango from Makkal Sakthi Iyakkam with whom I worked on the protest, and another lawyer, whom I had not met before, was part of the discussion. I somehow felt, that the whole discussion was not really focussed. It seemed that the anchor was trying to sensationalise the whole thing. The lawyer, who was part of the discussion, did not really have much experience with RTI, but was there just because she was a lawyer. The anchor too kept jumping from one issue to another without discussing the details of one specific issue fully. Discussing the condition of the State Information Commission, would have been a useful topic, and that is what I thought, at the beginning of the session, would be discussed. I somehow, at the end of it all, felt that the discussion was pointless and it would have been much better, if there had been a pre show discussion with the participants on the issues to be discussed and the direction the discussion should take.

The following incident in the programme, will sum up the level of discussion. At the end of the phone call to the State Information Commission, the anchor asked the Registrar, if the Registrar knew that this specific program that has been running on WIN TV, has been espousing the cause of the Right to Information, the registrar said that he didnt. After the phone call, the anchor made a statement that went like "If the Commission does not know about this program on WIN TV, that has trying to spread the word about the Right to Information, that shows the how well the commission was functioning". I wondered how knowledge of the TV program could in anyway be an indicator of the functioning of the commission. In fact, before I was called for the program, I had no idea that such a program was on.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Digital hoardings - How the government maintains an illegal stand, unofficially

Here is a classic case of how a government does what it wants, irrespective of, what the high court tells them and what they tell the high court. This is about the digital hoardings that have become the latest(though it cannot actually be called latest, since it has been ther for a few years now) fad. Everybody wants a digital hoarding for everything. If somebody (actually a nobody) is coming to Chennai or some area of Chennai, and his chamchas want to gain favour with him, they line up the medians and the pavements with hoardings of this guy walking in a suit or talking over cell phone, with a stupid grin on his face. These highly irritating hoardings actually do the trick. They do give them good publicity.

Political parties are the major offenders. They come up with hoardings for everything. I have been so infuriated with this, that I have gone to 3 police stations so far and filed complaints against this. And everywhere I was told that these politicial hoardings are allowed for 3 days before and 2 days after the political event for which these were raised. The misuse is rampant. Nobody really bothers. They just put up hoardings even if there are no events. And even in cases where there are genuinely some events, these hoardings come up much before 3 days and will stay there till long after the 2 days after the event. So whenever I complain to the Police, I had to do it, only if there was no political event, or if the hoardings were there even after the stipulated 2 days.

But I also wondered how such orders can be given by the government, where in the hoardings can be allowed for 3 days before and 2 days after. Illegal hoardings are after all illegal hoardings. The most serious problem with these hoardings are that they pose a safety threat to road users. That being the case, how can the government say that safety can be ignored for 3 days before and 2 days after an event. That could be easily challenged in the court. So I filed an RTI with the Chennai Corporation, asking them to give me copies of the relevant orders wherein it has been specified that hoardings can be allowed before and after an event. The RTI application was sent from one place to another and finally, I received a reply from the office of the Commissioner of sub-urban police citing the GO(MS) No.62, MAWS 16-May-2007. But they told me that they did not have a copy of the GO since their office was newly formed.

When I looked up the GO on the internet (it can be seen here). This GO did not talk about the time stipulations of 3 and 2 days, but only talked about formation of committees to oversee the removal of unauthorised hoardings. Then I had the first inkling, that there probably was no formal order from the government. So I immediately filed an RTI with the MAWS (Municipal Administration and Water Supply department). But not wanting to wait for 30 days I used Section 4(1)(c) of the Right to Information act, which says that the government should voluntarily "publish all relevant facts while formulating important policies or announcing the decisions which affect public;". For this I went for inspection on 10th June 2009. Surprisingly, they did show me the file related to this. When I asked the person there as to the present status, he said that I had asked to go through the files and so I should find the details on my own in the file.

When I went through the file, I understood the whole story. There have been no official orders that Digital Hoardings can be allowed for 3 days before and 2 days afte the event. There were only 2 press releases, which can be seen here (1 & 2). That these were made after discussions with the Chief minister Mr.M.Karunanidhi clearly shows that it was under the CM's oders that such press releases were issued. The first press release says that Political Parties and other Public institutions that erect hoardings for events should do so only 3 days before and 2 days after the event. Other that there has only been a DO letter (whose copy I dont have right now, but will get soon) which said the same thing. A report in the Hindu in this regard, can be seen here.The government was playing it safe as we will soon see.

In this regard Traffic Ramasamy filed a PIL hoardings with the high court (case no 14965/2007). In this case, the high court had asked from the Chief Secretary, the rationale behing the press releases and the DO letter. There the Cheif Secretary made a complete u-turn and said, that the press release only means that licenses for hoardings can only be given for 3-days before and 2 days after the event. He also added that the press release and DO letter does not mean that licenses are not necessary, but only that licenses should be given only for 5 days. This was clearly not what he meant when he issued those two press releases. But now, realising that, the court is asking him for the rationale behind the press releases, he did a u-turn. But, in his affidavit, he did not stop at that . He went on to say that the implementing authorities should not be bogged down with such pres releases and DO letters. What crap! The Chief Secretary and the CM hold a meeting and issue a press release. A year later when the high court hauls them up asking for explanations, they say that their press release ought to be ignored. Does he really mean that what the CM and the Chief Secretary says ought to be ignored. This is so absurd.

But what has now happened is that, the press releases were initially widely publicised. And every police station now says that the government has allowed for hoardings to be set up for 5 days. But nobody knows about the Chief Secretary's volte face. So, though today there is no official order, or even an official stand, that illegal digital hoardings can stay for 5 days, for all practical purposes that is the ground reality.

Am waiting to lay my hands on that affidavit by the Chief Secretary and the DO letter. Once that is in my hands, I will go the press about this, and then use the press articles when I go to police stations.

A small update on Perungattur awareness session

On 21st April 2007, I had organised an awareness session in a village called Perungattur in Cheyyar Taluka of Thiruvannamalai district. At that time after the session I helped 5 people there to file their RTI applications with the Tahsildar offices. One of which was for a ration card follow up, three for old age pension follow up and one house application follow-up. Yesterday I went there again to find out what had happened. Not a single person received any reply to the RTI application. But there was a goof-up from my side too. I forgot to tell them to take copies of their applications before sending. I just dont understand how I missed that. Anyway, so I filed First appeals for 4 of them yesterday. I have also told two of them (I did not meet the other two yesterday), that if after 30 days of the first appeal, they dont get any reply, we need to go to the Tahsildar office and talk to him. They said ok. Let me wait and see.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Inspection at Public (Establishment) and Public (Motor Vehicles)

The next day after the inspection at the Protocol section, I met the PIO of the Establishment department, who promptly sent me to the Joint secretary. This time, the Joint Secretary was irritated at why I was asking lots of information, but he sent me to the PIO, who again refused to show me the records and that he will send me a reply to my letter of inspection.

But the best was reserved for the ext day. On the third day (Wednesday), I went to the PIO of the Motor Vehicles department. He initially told me that the public did not have the right to inspection. To which I showed him the part of the act which said that

"Explanation.—For the purposes of sub-sections (3) and (4), "disseminated" means making known or communicated the information to the public through notice boards, newspapers, public announcements, media broadcasts, the internet or any other means, including inspection of offices of any public authority"

Then, he claimed, that the department was not a public authority,. Here again I showed the relevant part of the act. Then he said that the department has already put up all the infromation that is needed for the public on the web. I told him that he cannot decide what is needed for the public, but he must go by what the act says. He also asked whether I would show him my bank passbook if he asked for it. I told him that I need not because he doesnt fund me, but he has to since the public fund him. When he asked how, I told him that we are all paying taxes. When he asked what tax, I listed out that I pay Income tax, sales tax, road tax etc. He said that Income tax is paid only for the income I earn and hence it is a personal thing. His logic was astounding. When I questioned him that if it was my income, why do I need to pay tax. Is it not that I pay taxes so that a government can be run to ensure us basic services. But he went back to his point of income tax being a personal thing. After arguing this point for sometime, he came up with his greatest reply. He said that since his department did not maintain any records at all, he could not show me any records. I was shocked at this reckless reply. Here is an officer of the secretariat, who claims that his department does not have any records. I was stunned. Not knowing what to do, I asked him to give it to me in writing. Immediately he changed tack and told me that he needs to consult the law department and his seniors before giving me the information. When I pressed him again, he refused to show me anything and asked me to wait for the letter from him.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Inspection at Public(Protocol) Department

I sent an intimation of inspection of records at the Public(Protocol) Department. Last week too I went for inspection at Chennai Corporation, but I guess that will have to wait for another blog, since that story has not yet reached the climax.

I went at about 11.00 AM to the secretariat. But there was a looong queue at the entrance. Normally before entering the gate, one has to give his name, age and address. But you dont need to show any id card. So I really dont understand why there is this procedure at all, since you can always give imaginary addresses and get away with it. But since this procedure is followed, allowing each person in takes about 30 seconds to 1 minute. And this queue had more than 100 people. Not wanting to wait for such a long time, I returned to office and went back at 1.30 in the afternoon.

There I went to the Public(protocol) Department and met the Under secretary. Usually, at the secretariat, Under secretaries are the PIOs of their respective sections, in this case, the protocol section of the Public department. I had asked to inspect records related to Emergency quota release for air and train tickets. I had this vague idea from hearsay, that this quota was for public who had last minute emergencies like health issues. But I really had no idea what the emergency quota was actually for. And like all other powers given to bureaucrats, I was expecting the politicians to use them to their full advantage. Whether that really happened, I am yet to find out. But when I went to his room and showed the PIO a copy of my letter. He went through it, and was not convinced that I had a right to inspect the records. He felt offended at the word "Inspection". He told me that he can inspect the work of people working under him, but did not understand how the public can inspect the records. I told him that I was not trying to be dominating but that I was only using the word that was given in the act.

He also went on to tell me how he worked extremely hard from morning 10 to evening 8 without having time even to go to the toilet or have lunch. And how even all the staff under him worked till 8 PM. Then he showed me two mobile phones, one a personal one and another an official one. He told me that everbody in this country, including the Prime Minister, President, Ministers, have his mobile number and keep calling him up at all the hours of the day.

And then he asked me what the motive of my inspection was. I told him I want to check whether the procedure for release of these emergency train and air tickets was being followed properly. Then he told me that he cannot allow me to sit in his room and insect the records, since that will greatly affect his work. I replied that normally the PIO asks one of the section officers to give me the records for inspection and as I go through the files, the section officer carries on with his work. This he said he cannot allow, since if the records are damaged even a little bit, he will be responsible and action would have to be taken against him. I told him, that I have done inspections at many other departments like Finance, P&AR etc but nobody claimed such things.

Then he went on to explain to me something about the quota. He said that the mere fact that his department has issued an emergency letter does not mean that the person gets the ticket. This was news to me. He also went on to say that it is usually MLAs, MPs and other IAS officers who request for tickets. There are also recommendations from

Anyway, finally he called up one of his section officers. And that is when the fun started.

The way he talked over phone was very comical. He was, as a matter of fact, talking to me, with the pretext of talking over phone to some other officer. This is how the conversation went. I have tried to imagine what the person at the other end would have said, but as you can see, anybody would have guessed that.

PIO: There is this person Madhav, who wants to inspect the records related to emergency quota.
Jun.Officer: ok...
PIO: But we cannot allow him for inspection right?
Jun.Officer: Yeah
PIO: He needs to get the permission of the establishment section to inspect the records, right?
Jun.Officer: Yeah
PIO: I think he has to meet the undersecretary of the establishment section.
Jun.Officer: ok
PIO: Ok, I will tell him that.
Jun.Officer: ok.

So this PIO was looking for an excuse to avoid me from inspecting. So, he asked me to meet the Establishment, under secretary. I wondered, why in the world would an officer of one section give permission for inspection of records in a different section. But I anyway went. That guy, who looked like new to his post, was totally lost. He was not sure why the other officer sent me here. When he tried to call up the PIO, the phone was not answered. So I went back to the PIO's room and he had left for lunch. So I waited for another 20 minutes, and then when the PIO returned to his room, I went back to the Establishment, under secretary and told him that the PIO has returned. He then called the PIO up and they discussed it over phone and decided that the Joint Secretary of the Establishment department, was the person I had to meet. So I went to the Joint Secretary's room. He was clearly laughing at this issued. He got a bit irritated that the PIO was making me run around, and told me as much. He immediately called up the PIO, and told him, in clear terms, that it was upto him to take a decision as to whether to let me inspect the records or not. So I went back to the PIO's room.

Now the PIO's pretence of cordiality began to wither away. He kept telling me that I am disturbing his work greatly, and that I was acting in a childish manner not realising the seriousness of the department. He repeated this 2-3 times. He also told me that he has heard from officers of the other departments that one gentleman was going aroung the secretariat seeking to inspect documents. Then he said that he was not convinced that he had to allow me to inspect the records. Then I showed him the act where it was clearly mentioned that "disseminated includes inspection of offices of the Public Authority". He then called up another person and checked with him whether such inspection has to be allowed. I couldnt, of course, know what the other person told him. But after the phone call, he told me that he has to get permission from his Joint Secretary for the inspection and that he would immediately put up a file to him and once the Joint Secretary gives him the permission, he would allow me access. I tried explaining to him that it is the PIO's authority to take a decision on this, and that there was no point in passing the buck to the higher authority. I also told him that, if that is the case, then the Joint secretary could pass the file to the Secretary of the Public department, who in turn could pass it on to the Chief Secretary and that the whole process would be meaningless. Then he got wild and told me that I cannot talk like that, and that since he wants to be safe, and so he wants the permission of the Joint Secretary. And then came out the truth.

What I did not recollect was, that I had previously filed an RTI application with the Public Department, which came to the same PIO. He refused information on some grounds, and so I had filed an appeal with the appellate authority pointing out how the PIO has erred. All through our conversation, I had no idea that this was that PIO, though I should have known. But all along it hurt him that I had complained to his senior that the PIO's contention was wrong. He then told me that when I had the right to go to the appeallate authority, then he has a right to go too. Only after this I realised the reason for his antagonism towards me. Or at least that was part of the reason.

Then I asked him, by what date would I be allowed to inspect. He did not give me a direct reply and again repeated that he would pass a file to the Joint Secretary and after he takes a decision, he would let me know. So I decided to leave. Tomorrow again, I have an inspection with the Public department (Establishment section). This was the same section to which this PIO sent me to. Let me see what happens tomorrow. But I also intend to meet the Joint Secretary of the Public (Protocol) Department, and complain to him about the PIO. There will be more on this.