BASIC MECHANISM FOR IMPLEMENTING RIGHT TO INFORMATION ACT NOT IN PLACE IN BIHAR
If you needed to file an application under the Right to Information Act, 2005, you would have to submit your application to the Public Information Officer of the relevant department with a fee of Rs. 10 as prescribed under the Act. However, if you were living in any of the districts of Bihar and went to any particular department to find out who their PIO is, chances are that you will get blank faces, because the PIOs have not even been nominated in most departments. Somebody may even ask you to go to the Information Department of the government, which has nothing to do with the implementation of the RTI Act, as certain citizens recounted their experiences in Vaishali and Khagaria districts.
A state-wide RTI campaign was organized recently in 30 districts of Bihar simultaneously. Voulnteers, including mostly activists of local NGOs, public spirited citizens and retired government servants, had set up camps all over the state to make people aware of the Act, help them draft their applications under the RTI Act and also help them in filing their applications. Curious citizens, with some skepticism, flocked to the camps to learn about this new instrument which has been placed into their hands by the national legislature on 13th October, 2005 .
After a visit to Vaishali, Muzaffarpur, Madhubani, Samastipur, Begusarai, Khagaria, Munger, Chappra, Siwan and Gopalganj it is apparent that the basic minimum system to implement the Act is missing. When one does not even know who the PIO is in any particular department how is one supposed to even get started with using the RTI Act? Applicants are being turned away from the offices either on the pretext of sheer ignorance of the Act or absence of any mechanism to accept the application or the fees along with it. It is a pity that a Block Development Officer in Banka district was not even aware of the fact that applicants belonging to the Below Poverty Line category are exempt from paying the Rs. 10 fee with their applications. Some of the officials use more crude ways of turning away their applicants. The BDO of Shambhuganj in Banka district got his bodyguard to pull out a gun to threaten one of the applicant who had come to file an application under the RTI Act with him.
On 29th January, a telephone line was launched with much fanfare by the Chief Minister himself so that people could file their applications as well as appeals, in the case of information not being provided within stipulated time, over telephone. Much publicity was given to the fact that Bihar was the first state in the country to have initiated such a service. In a country where most of the citizens still cannot write an application on their own this seemed like a wonderful idea. However, not a single citizen from the abovementioned ten districts visited during the campaign has been able to get through the designated telephone number – 155311, to file their application. Hence the telephone service too fails to provide any relief to the harassed citizens who are made to run by the government offices umpteen number of times even to perform the most simple things. In Muzaffarpur it was learnt that the government offices do not have the normal practice of providing proof of receiving any applications. The situation in rest of the Bihar would not be much different. However, if the officials don’t change their method of working, how will a RTI applicant file an appeal to the first appeal authority or the information commission if she will not receive a proof of having submitted an application under the Act in the first place?
The people’s campaign also witnessed some success stories. In Begusari where close to a hundred applications were submitted under the Act during the campaign, a primary school teacher Ranjan Kumar had filed an application under the RTI Act to the District Superintendent of Education on 31st January asking him why his enhanced salary after he had undergone the required training was not being given to him for the last 19 months, even though he had submitted all the necessary documents to the DSE’s office. On 9th February, Ranjan got a reply that his enhanced salary had been sanctioned and he could come to the office of DSE and collect the order for payment. Four other teachers also benefited along with Ranjan in this matter. Ranjan, who is also a spirited RTI activist was obviously overjoyed. He has now taken a vow along with his fifteen young friends to file an application under the RTI Act every month. It is such initiatives by citizens’ groups which will ensure that the RTI Act is implemented in proper spirit.
In Khagaria district one applicant is now going to file an appeal with the information commission because he has not got a proper reply from a bank manager. He had applied for a loan to set up a sattu-besan industry. The bank manager wanted a 10% commission. The applicant refused to pay the bribe. The manager rejected his application on the ground of his project not being viable. Hence the applicant asked the manager under the RTI Act which industry according to him is viable? The manager is now in a dilemma and he had to reply that he is not a competent authority in this matter. The applicant is now going to appeal to information commission and question the manager’s decision to reject his application. The bank manager is trying to prove that the applicant is mentally unfit. This is a good example of how officials have been taking decisions arbitrarily or because of vested interests, which will become increasingly difficult if more and more people decided to use RTI Act to question their decisions.
It is just the beginning of the movement in the area of RTI. People are getting ready for a long drawn struggle with officials which could see the relationship between the citizens and bureaucracy undergo dramatic changes.
Dr Sandeep Pandey
(About the author: Dr Pandey was awarded Ramon Magsaysay Award for emergent leadership (2002), did his PhD in Mechanical Engineering, U.C., Berkeley, 1992 before heading back to India to become a social activist. Took out a 1500 km Global Peace March for nuclear disarmament from the Indian nuclear testing site Pokaran to Sarnath, a place where Gautam Buddha delivered his first sermon after attaining enlightenment, beginning 11th May and ending on 6th August, 1999. Presently with Program on Science & Global Security, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University for 5 weeks. He can be contacted at: email@example.com)
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