ONE YEAR OF RTI ACT - TAKING STOCK IN U.P.
Before the people could even grasp the full implications of the Right to Information Act, 2005, the officials are already busy trying to find ways to scuttle the Act. The present Parliament must be congratulated for having passed such a path-breaking Act, which is going to define new standards for our democracy and will check some of the anomalies of the system. However, the bureaucracy is in no mood to give up what has hitherto been their prerogative of keeping important information to themselves and do not want people to question their unaccountable ways of decision taking. Most of the departments have still not nominated a Public Information Officer, who accepts the application to begin the process under the Act. Even if the PIOs are nominated there is no way for people to know who he/she is? In most cases the PIOs want to remain anonymous lest they are flooded with applications from people. And when people have come to know who the PIO is the final hurdle is how to submit the fee of Rs. 10 with every application under this Act? The rules provide for cash payment of this fee. However, only a few departments are accepting fees in cash and issuing proper receipts. Most departments are asking people to submit the fees through Chalan in the Treasury, something which is not provided for in the rules. People are resorting to sending their applications by registered post since the officials are not accepting their application on one pretext or the other in person.
The lucky few who are able to submit their RTI applications – at most places it is only the government employees or members of political, social organizations who have been successfully able to do so – do not know what to do when they do not receive their desired information within the prescribed one month period. The identification of First Appeal Authority is even harder. Applications sent by registered post are being returned. Only a very few are finally able to approach the Information Commission.
The information being provided is turning out to be incomplete, misleading and unclear. The Information Commissioners are soft on the government departments, taking too much time in disposing off cases and not giving sufficient opportunity to hear out the common people, as a result of which less than 50% of the complainants feel that justice has been done to them. Since the Act has not been publicized very well by the Government a number of people are wrongly sending their applications seeking information directly to the Information Commission. The government departments are not complying with the orders of the Information Commission in all cases. While the Commissioners dismiss the case if the complainant doesn’t show up or is late for some reason, the government departments from whom the information is being sought are given a number of chances to appear and not penalized if they fail to provide the desired information. As a result of this an impression is being created that the government departments needn’t take this Act very seriously. For example, an applicant had sought information about Prime Minister Gramin Sadak Yojna from the Rural Engineering Services department. The Information Commission gave three chances to RES on 4th July, 7th August and 31st August and when nobody turned up even on the 3rd date it merely passed an order for them to update their website in ten days. Nothing has happened and neither has the Information Commision thought it fit to take any action against the department. The applicant has now approached the Governor questioning the performance of the Commissioner himself. The Information Commission is also not fulfilling its role of overseeing the proper implementation of the Act or preparing the PIOs to fulfill their duty in accordance with the Act.
At the State headquarters in Lucknow people are finding it difficult to enter the Secretariat to submit their RTI applications as one requires a pass approved by the official one wishes to meet for entry into the premises. The applications being sent with fee in the form of Postal Orders are being returned and to make a Bank Draft of Rs. 10 one has to pay a commission of Rs. 35. Although, some people are directly attaching a Rs. 10 note with their application and sending their applications by post. Such applications are being accepted. The list of PIOs mentioned on the website is incomplete and outdated and people are at a loss to know who the First Appeal Authorities are in case they do not receive information within the stipulated period of one month and have to file an appeal. At the District Magistrate’s office a form is being given out for Rs. 2, in violation of the Act, and people are being told to deposit the fees in a nearby bank.
In Rae Bareli out of thousands of applications filed under RTI only about 65% people have received information within the stipulated period. About 200 people are at the stage of appeal with state departments and 75 with central departments. Santosh Bahadur Singh, an advocate playing crucial role in fighting to get the Act implemented in his District says that he has sent 7 letters by registered post to the Chief Information Commissioner in Lucknow without having received a reply to single one of them even after 2 months have passed. Santosh Bahadur Singh was successfully able to get an illegal construction on the Collectorate campus demolished using RTI. He filed an application on 31st January to the DM. Receiving no reply he filed a PIL on 20th March on the basis of which the court ordered the Government to appoint a Chief Information Commissioner. CIC was appointed on 24th March and on the night previous to his fourth hearing on 17th July, the illegal construction was demolished.
In Sultanpur the police department refuses to accept any applications under RTI and letters sent by registered post are being returned. They have been acting very rudely with people. Finally, when they accepted two applications with great difficulty, the original copy of the enclosed treasury chalan was removed and the application returned to the applicant saying that original chalan was missing. In most other departments PIOs have been nominated and the fees is being accepted by chalan. The only silver lining is that the chalan is being accepted without requiring the approval of officials, as is being required in other districts, easily by the banks. Information has been obtained only in about 25% cases and that too is incomplete and flawed. Nobody knows who the First Appeal Authorities are in various departments. The administration is trying its best to make the law ineffective.
In Gorakhpur no list of PIOs has been made public as yet. Gorakhpur Development Authority and Nagar Nigam are accepting applications with cash fees. However, information is being provided in merely 20% of the cases. At the Gorakhpur University many applications are being filed but here again very little information is being provided. The Univeristy has decided its own norm in charging fees under the RTI Act. For every question that an applicant asks she is required to pay Rs. 10, as opposed to Rs. 10 for every application as is the general norm everywhere. Most other departments are not entertaining the RTI applications. Some officers do not seem to be aware of the Act. Clerks would not accept any application without officials approving them. People are being made to run from one office to another. Electricity department is not cooperating at all. People do not know who the First Appeal Authorities are. At the tehsil and block levels the situation is even worse. The performance of central government departments, both in terms of accepting applications as well as providing information, is significantly better.
In Deoria district the Social Welfare Officer is willing to share information but in other departments the officials and clerks are in no mood to receive application from common citizens. Here 86 PIOs have been nominated but most of them do not wish to identify themselves. In the neighbouring Kushinagar district except for the District Development Officer, Ravi Kumar, who was one of the first officers in State to begin accepting applications under RTI with cash fee of Rs. 10 and has been issuing receipts on Treasury Form No. 385 to individual applicants, no other official is willing to receive applications.
In Varanasi, Nagar Nigam, Jal Sansthan and Varanasi Development Authority are accepting RTI applications with cash fees and in 80% of the cases they are also providing information within the stipulated time. About 80 PIOs and 30 First Appeal Authorities have been identified in different departments. A detailed list was made public by the administration. However, departments like the Electricity and Education continue to he hostile. Both the Basic Shiksha Adhikari and District Inspector Of Schools are playing hard and turning down applications on one pretext or the other. The only recourse people have is to send applications by registered post. Out of the 9 blocks in Varanasi district, except for Chirai Gaon and Cholapur, fees in cash is not being accepted anywhere along with RTI applications. Inspite of a promise by the DM Rajiv Agarwal that he will make arrangements for cash to be accepted everywhere most departments are asking people to deposit the fee in the Treasury through Chalan. Among the success stories in Varanasi about 35 people have managed to get their passports made using RTI on applications which were pending for a long time.
In the neighbouring Chandauli district applications are being accepted only under the social pressure created by activists and media. Most departments are not willing to accept fees in cash and the information being provided is not correct in general. The District Magistrate refuses to be the First Appeal Authority even in cases where he should be and his office is turning down applications for first appeal. Four officers have been summoned so far by the State Information Commission for failing to provide information within stipulated time period. In Ghazipur, even though names of 42 PIOs are known their offices are not accepting applications in person. People are forced to send their applications with fees in the form of Bank Drafts by registered post. In Mau district the list of PIOs has been made public by the administration through local newspapers, however some officials are still not recognizing the existence of such a law! Fees is being accepted only by submitting Chalans in the Treasury.
In Faizabad, where a proactive DM Amod Kumar had ensured that every single application during the 1st to 15th July, ‘Don’t Pay Bribe: Use RTI’ national campaign run by people’s organizations and media together, was accepted at the camp site itself, which in itself was a big wonder in a state like U.P., action has been taken on very few applications. The process is very much dependent on the DM. Only his intervention moves things, otherwise the clerks in the offices do not even care to inform their officers that applications have been received which require time bound action. Names of 34 PIOs are known but most departments do not accept the application along with the fees.
In Jaunpur names of 45 PIOs are known. Cash fees is being accepted with RTI applications only in one department, otherwise people have to submit the fees through Chalans in the Treasury. As most offices are not very cooperative, people prefer to send their applications by registered post. In Azamgarh, the ADM returned an application seeking information about the nomination of PIOs stating that the applicant has no right to ask a question like that! No list of PIOs has been made public in this district. In Pratapgarh district the list of PIOs has been made public by the DM but the DIOS has refused to provide information to one applicant saying that the applicant did not have a right to ask question.
In Hardoi district PIOs have been nominated in almost all departments and cash fees is being accepted. The applications are being received on a form, format of which was suggested by the activists to the DM, and the lower portion of this form is being returned to the applicant as receipt after mentioning acceptance of Rs. 10 fees on it. However, the departments are not prompt in providing information. In the neighboring Sitapur district, the District Development Officer Makhan Lal Gupta is the only officer readily accepting applications under RTI and promptly providing information as well. In Unnao, even though the ADM office has a form available which can be used to ask information under RTI Act, but nobody knows about it. The officials are avoiding receiving applications under the Act.
In Moradabad there is very little awareness about the Act. Some people confuse it with the ‘Lokvani’- a computer based grievance redressal mechanism – which also requires a fee of Rs. 10 to be submitted with every complaint. The departments try to evade their responsibility of providing information under the Act. An activist was able to obtain information about a Community Health Centre only after two months and several protest demonstrations. A list of about 40 PIOs has been made public by the administration recently. However, the fees with the application is being accepted only through Treasury Chalan.
Overall, the scenario in U.P. is not very bright. Activists and motivated individuals have brought pressure on the officers to receive applications under the RTI Act by showing them copy of the Act and the gazette issued by the U.P. government. The common citizen is still being turned away and finding it very difficult to exercise her legal right. The officials are ignorant, evasive and in some cases even hostile. With a meek Information Commission, they have no fear of being pulled up. So, it appears that the high handed ways of bureaucracy will continue to be the norm in U.P. for some more time to come and corruption will go on as usual. The common person, like before, will have to stand on the margins and watch the game of democracy being played in her name with very little role for herself to intervene. The only positive aspect of the Act is that it has awakened some democratic consciousness among the people and activated some individuals and groups to play the role of watchdog. It is going to be a long tough battle to make the system transparent and accountable to the people.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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