Friday, July 31, 2009

On oral instructions, MTC loses more than a crore.

This happened before the elections. Metropolitan Transport Corporation (MTC) suddenly dropped fares without any prior intimation. It was evident that this was done with an eye on the elections. This was, of course, widely reported in the newspapers.

This reduced fares were maintained for 4 days, but it was withdrawn, when EC came down heavily on this. As reported in the third article listed above, the MTC lost 35 lakhs on 30th April alone. I filed an RTI to know further information about this. The RTI application can be seen here. The replies I got to this can be seen here. Rough calculations (considering that May 1st was a public holiday, and that May 2nd and 3rd were Saturday and Sunday), MTC lost more than a crore on these 4 days. Considering that a bus costs roughly Rs.15 Lakhs, MTC could have added 6-7 buses to their fleet with this money. And it was wasted. Just because some politician asked MTC reduce fares just to please voters. I think what is more important to do in this case is to try nail down the responsibility of this reduction to one person and extract from him as to who exactly asked him to reduce fares. And then hope that it will serve as a lesson for others who want to interfere in the future. As is obvious from the reply, for questions 2-9 they have given a vague reply. I have filed a first appeal. Let me see if I get proper answers from them. If not, it will again be a long drawn out case, since I will have to approach the State Information Commission. This information was highlighted in The Hindu here. Actually, that I should file an RTI application, was itself suggested by Shyam of The Hindu. I think it will be a worthwhile cause to pursuse it to the end.

Monday, July 13, 2009

What is the shortest time needed for RTI to have effect?

Less than 24 hours is the answer. A colleague, Jayalakshmi told me that she had applied for an "Address Proof Card" which is being issued by the post offices on payment of Rs.240. She had applied for this in February, and she hasnt heard anything about it yet. Her repeated attempts to find out the status of her application at the Post Officer were only answered with "It will come". So she came to me. I told her that we can file an RTI applicaiton. And so I drafted an application, emailed her, asked her to fill in her details like address etc, enclose a copy of the receipt she obtained on payment of Rs.240 and asked her to enclose a Postal Order for Rs.10 as application fee. This she sent by post.

I gave the draft in the morning. She took a printout in the afternoon and sent it by post. The next morning at 10 AM she was at my place smiling. She said that the Post master there had called her and told her that the ID card was ready long time back and that she needs to go to the Mylapore office and collect the card. He also told her that she could have just come and asked him and as to where there was a need to file an RTI. She told him that she tried that many times and that she could not get an reply. He also requested her to come to his office and get back the application. He also offered that he will ask his people to cancel the Postal order and refund the amount of Rs.10.

After meeting me she went to Mylapore post office to collect the card. There too a senior official gave her his mobile number and told her that she can contact him directly over phone if she has any problems. She came back to my office at 11 Am with the card in hand. The card that was eluding her for 5 months, brought to her hand in 24 hours, by the Right to Information act, 2005.

The draft RTI application can be seen here.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Additional Fee - CIC's Important Order

I filed an RTI application with the Southern Railways in February 2008. In that application, I asked for copies of various rules related to different quotas in train tickets booking (like emergency, tatkal) and also asked for the number of tickets booked under each quota. In reply to this I got a letter from Mr.A.Cyril Raj, Asst. Public Information Officer & Dy. Chief Manager/Claims. This communication stated that the information I had asked for comes to 47 pages, and that I have to furnish 94 rupees to get that. In addition to that, I was also asked to pay 750 rupees for the 8 man hours it would take to collect the information.

I filed a first appeal against this and the appeallate authority upheld the order of the PIO saying that the cost of maintenance of MIS applications, CPU and hard disk power etc were considered when 750 rupees were asked. Against this I filed a second appeal with the Central Information Commision on 10th June 2008. Nothing much happened after this and I kept waiting. Another appeal that I filed with the CIC after this appeal was also heard, but I did not hear much about this earlier appeal.
About a month back, there was this notice on the CIC website which I came to know of. This said that a hearing was scheduled for June 8th in which the scope of section 7(3) (additional fee) was going to be heard by a bench of commissioners. So I thought that my case was put on hold till this bench decides on the issue. But to my surprise I received a notice for a hearing of my case on 19th June 2009. I called up the commission and informed them that since I will not be able to come to Delhi for this, I wanted the hearing to be held through video conferencing. To this the official told me that if a video conference has to be scheduled, then the date of hearing has to be changed which cannot be done. So I asked him to hold the hearing through audio conferencing to which he agreed and took down my number.
On 19th June 2009 at 3.30 PM the hearing was held. I joined in on my phone. But by the time they called me, it seemed that the PIO has already put forward his arguemnts. When I joined the commissioner Ms.Annapurna Dixit, asked me put forward my points in the argument. I pointed out that there was inconsistency in the what the PIO and the Appellate Authority said. While the PIO talked only about man hours, the Appellate Authority said that the cost includes maintenance of MIS applications, hard disk, CPU power etc. I said that this clearly shows that the demand of Rs.750 was arbitrary. The more important point was that under RTI there is no scope for charging man power and maintenance costs as "further fee" under RTI.
The commissioner agreed that there was no scope for charging this information under RTI, but advised me not to ask voluminous information in future. I immediately refused saying that the information I had asked was not voluminous in nature, and that I had asked only information related to only 1 train for a continuous period of 10 days. To this the PIO said that running this query will affect the online booking system. Then I pointed out that having done my Masters in Computer Applications, I knew a little bit about databases and that what the PIO claimed was wrong. I also pointed out that when I make a booking online, I run several queries before finalising my trip schedule, and that one more query wont bring the system down.
To this the PIO said that the information I asked cannot be compared to my querying while online booking since online booking contains details only about the last 5 days, and the information I had asked for was from the archived data. This clearly was a contradiction. When the query I had to run was on archived data, how can the PIO claim that this query will bring the online booking system down. This I pointed out to the Commissioner.
At this point, the commissioner said that she did not want to get into a debate about this and so I left it at that. I also requested her to state clearly in her order that there is no scope for man power and maintenance fee costs under RTI.
I was reasonably happy at the way the hearing went, except for the fact that when the PIO claimed that the information I sought was voluminous the Commissioner wanted to advise me, but when I pointed out how the claim of "Voluminous" data, was wrong, she backed out of the debate.
About a week later the decision was put up on the web (can be seen here). The order categorically stated that there was no scope for charging manpower and maintenance costs under section 7(3) of the Right to Information act, 2005. But there was a disappointment for me.
The order says that I agreed that the information I had asked for was voluminous. This is totally untrue. I dont know why the order says so. In fact I spent a considerable part of the hearing bringing out the inconsistencies of the Southern Railways claim that the information I had asked for was voluminous. I wonder how such a statement can be given in the order. I have already filed a complaint with the Commissioner and the Assistant registrar about this sentence in the order. But when I called up the Asst registrar, I was told that the Commissioner was on leave for 1 month and hence nothing can be done right now. Will have to wait for a month for that to see what can be done.
This was covered in Dinamalar, a Tamil Newspaper and Times of India. The link to the Times of India article is given below.
The Dinamalar article can be seen here.