Right to information left to rot!

Right to information left to rot!

Aweapon in the hands of people. That was how the Right to Information (RTI) Act was envisaged, almost six years back. But the bureaucracy, in connivance with the wily political class, has managed to thwart the law, and frustrate its users.

At the time of its introduction, the RTI was described by lawmakers as an important milestone in efforts to bring in transparency in the system and a powerful weapon to fight corruption. But with people with vested interests ganging up to throttle the law, that dream appears, well, just a dream.

While the Information Commissioners harp on the success stories, there are cases wherein the Public Information Officers (PIO) deliberately sit on the RTI applications, not just for months, but years together.

That the PIOs deny information offering lame excuses is no longer news. But, there is a greater danger than just stonewalling information. In many cases, they are alleged to have passed on information about RTI queries to parties involved in corruption, thus placing the lives of the RTI applicants at grave risk.

In April 2009, an RTI activist Venkatesh was murdered and the assailants tried to pass it off as a road accident. When other activists raised a hue and cry, police swung into action. The investigation revealed that the ‘road accident’ was actually a murder. The killers were arrested. In another case, RTI activist S Channabasappa Patil was attacked grievously by two motorcycle-borne men in the busy Gandhinagar area of Bangalore. The most worrying case involved a PIO who was penalised for not furnishing information sought by Civic Bangalore, an NGO taking up RTI cases, attacking a member of the NGO just outside the Karnataka Information Commission (KIC) office.

There are many such incidents, and they keep on mounting. Ironically, RTI activists are
not covered by the Whistleblower Act, as it has provisions to protect only the government servants.

Vikram Simha, an RTI activist, puts the present status of the RTI Act this way: "It (RTI Act) is having a 'dieback disease'. The problem is, people responsible for the successful implementation of this Act have either not gone through the Act thoroughly, or are intentionally ignoring the idea and ideals of the Act."

There are many cases, wherein RTI queries have not been answered. This reporter had sought information from the Bruhat Bangalore Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) about the funds spent on painting on City walls, and the criteria for awarding the contract. Even after a year and half, the information has not been provided. Similar is the fate of another query to the Bangalore Urban DC Office on the status of the Narasimha Shastry Lake.

Increasing backlog in KIC

It is apparent that the KIC and the State Government should take equal blame for the poor implementation of the Act. The KIC often takes a very lenient stand towards PIOs who wilfully withhold information. The Act allows levying of penalty on lackadaisical PIOs up to Rs 25,000, but not too many PIOs have been fined. As the fear factor vanished, the PIOs started denying information and people began landing up at the Information Commission for redress.

As for the government, it is has not shown keenness to fill the posts of Information Commissioners for months on end, resulting in a huge backlog of RTI appeals. Applicants, who had appealed to the KIC a year ago, are receiving summons only now. The latest example is of former mayor P R Ramesh whose application, filed exactly a year ago, came up for hearing only on April 21 this year.

Officials shy away from suo motu declaration

Ever since its introduction, many bureaucrats who are supposed to make suo motu declarations about their work and their assets, have tried to kill the Act.

"Had the officers disclosed details of projects, schemes and even their assets and liabilities, there wouldn’t have been the need for people to apply under RTI Act," social activist Kathyayini Chamaraj of Civic Bangalore, says. Her organisation focuses mainly on bringing systemic changes through RTI and encourages officers to make voluntary disclosures.

Misuse of RTI

While the RTI Act was introduced to bring in transparency in the functioning of the government, there have been complaints that people are indulging in blackmailing officers.

There was even a strange case where a North Karnataka-based NGO involved in encouraging suo motu declaration, reportedly made around Rs 8-10 lakh.

Vikram Simha says the NGO in question used to file applications under RTI Act in the Grama Panchayats seeking to know if they had filed voluntary disclosures. Unaware of the Act at the initial phase, the panchayat secretaries would not furnish any details.
Warning them that they could be penalised, the activists would then offer a training programme at Rs 1,200 to Rs 2,500. "The NGO trained some 1,200 Grama Panchayat secretaries, and made a huge sum of money in the bargain," says Simha.

Success stories too

Despite all the odds, there have been many success stories under the Act. One recent case is of a widow who did not get her husband’s pension for seven long years, with the State Bank of India (SBI) sitting on it. Tulasimala Shanmukham approached the RTI Study Centre, of which Vikram Simha is a member. On his advice, they filed an RTI query on March 11, 2011. On March 15, the SBI credited the entire amount, around Rs 12.4 lakh, in her account.

In another case, a pregnant woman, Nagamma, was admitted to the Palike Maternity Hospital at KR Puram. She was asked to undergo two scans at a private hospital, paying Rs 700 each time. Further, she was referred to a private hospital to undergo a caesarean and was charged Rs 400 for ambulance expenses.

Civic Bangalore complained on her behalf about the deficient service. When no reply was forthcoming, an RTI application was filed to know the status of the complaint. That led to an inquiry and the woman got benefits of various state and Central government schemes available for pregnant women. The hospital authorities were forced to display a board outside the building, declaring the various schemes available for pregnant women from economically weaker sections.

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