Section 4(1)(b) of RTI Act and Janta Soochna Kendra (JSK) in focus

[हिन्दी] Shailendra Kumar, a Masters student at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, and Mudit Shukla, a volunteer with Lucknow-based organisation Asha Parivar, addressed a press conference at Lohia Mazdoor Bhawan on status of implementation of Section 4(1)(b) of the Right to Information Act, 2005, in Uttar Pradesh; and on the functioning of Janta Soochna Kendra (JSK or public information centres) respectively.

Mudit Shukla said that Asha Parivar had helped set up the Janta Soochna Kendra (JSK) in various locations, mostly in rural Uttar Pradesh, to help ordinary people use the Right to Information Act to demand greater administrative accountability. Presently, there are JSK centres in Amethi, Sandila, Barabanki, Unnao, Kanpur, Varanasi, Patna and Lucknow. These centres are equipped with computers and internet connections and run by experienced social activists. The volunteers running the centres help local people formulate RTI applications regarding any grievance they may have with government authorities especially in accessing public services, such as those provided under various public welfare schemes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MNREGS) and the Public Distribution System. If needed, they also take up the people's grievances with local authorities on their behalf. In addition, they act as a platform to impart useful information about various government schemes and programmes.

Mudit Shukla said that in the past one year, 24 foreign and Indian university students have come to visit these centres, where they have worked with the centre coordinator and the local community. The centres also provide services such as photocopy, typing, print out, document scanning and email. The charges for these services are kept at a minimum. Mudit gave examples of how the JSK at Unnao helped local farmers claim their entitlement to an unemployment compensation under the NREGA; how in Sandila people are also able to access low-cost services such a photocopying and printing, which has also helped the centre become self-sustaining; and how regular RTI awareness camps are held at the centre in Kanpur.

According to Shailendra Kumar, the RTI Act was brought into force in India to ensure that the government functions transparently, and is accountable to the people. Section 4(1)(b) of the RTI Act directs all public authorities to pro-actively disclose certain information about their functioning, such as their powers and duties, budget allocations and expenditure, rules and regulations and manner and status of execution of their programmes. The information is required to be published in a form which is easily accessible to all citizens, and which facilitates the right to information. The survey involved visiting various government offices in the city and asking the respective Public Information Officers (PIOs) for information on all 17 points of Section 4(1)(b). Along with this, websites of the departments were also surveyed to determine how much of the required information had been made available on the internet. Some of the public authorities visited were the Rural Development Department, the Lucknow Development Authority, the Board of Revenue, the Public Works Department, Office of the District Magistrate, among several others.

Shailendra expressed his disappointment with what he discovered in the course of his survey. He found that many Public Information Officers were ignorant about the requirements of section 4(1)(b), and were often rude and uncooperative. Some, such as the PIO at the LDA, complained that the RTI Act had done more harm than good, and was being misused. In some offices, like that of the Registrar, the PIO was nowhere to be found, or there was no name-plate or board by which the officer designated as the PIO could be identified. Very few could provide satisfactory information on any of the points. On checking for information on the departmental websites, it was found that most of the information available was outdated and incomplete. Some departments have no website at all, or the 'RTI' link on the site does not work. 

Citizen  News Service - CNS
June 2013