Subhashis Mittra,12 June: It has been hailed as a landmark achievement of the UPA government and rightfully so. There has never been an example in Independent India that a single Act has led to so much churning in the bureaucracy and for the benefit of the common man. The Right to Information Act is not an ordinary law, but a law that has ensured openness and transparency much to the detriment of those who had a vested interest in keeping things under wraps.
Going by the success stories, it seems that the Act is a Good Samaritan as it has worked wonders across the country, bringing joy to a large number of people.
Thanks to RTI Act, thousands of Indian Railway pensioners will at last get their outstanding dues. Indian Railway Pensioners Association Bhavnagar Division of Western Railway, over the years, submitted hundreds of representations to GM Western Railway & DRM Bhavnager to get the payment in the above cases. 137 specific cases of non-payment were filed in the pension Adalat held on 15th of December, 2006 but nothing happened. When on 16th of March, 2007, a request under RTI ACT 2005 was submitted to CPIO Western Railway for disclosing the reasons for not implementing the judgment of the Apex court, things started moving. Sh. S.R. Ghosal Dy. General Manager Western Railway through his letter dated 3rd of May, 2007 with reference to request under RTI Act, accepted the liability for making payment and all the Divisions of Western Railway were advised to take immediate steps for making payment.
The Pensioners, in the twilight hours of their lives, can also use RTI Act and get the entire working sheet regarding calculation of pension. This can be verified to point out any error in calculation of pension and gratuity.
Another noteworthy case relates to problems faced by MTNL subscribers in Mumbai. Even after surrendering their phones, they have had to wait for months and years together to get the refund of their deposit. Moreover, MTNL did not pay the interest accrued on the deposit to its subscribers. But the Right to Information Act (RTI) came to their rescue after one such harassed subscriber in Mumbai used the Act to get his interest accrued on the refund within 20 days of filing the RTI query.
Kishore Chitalia, a Santacruz resident, was using MTNL’s Garuda mobile phone till April last year. After he surrendered the phone, he applied for the refund. “In spite of following it up with various MTNL authorities, right up to the general manager level, and sending e-mails, there was no response from them for months together,” said Chitalia. He added that whenever he spoke to an officer in one department, he was asked to speak to another person in yet another department. “I must have made at least 50 calls, but I always got an answer that the matter is under process,” he said. Ultimately, in January this year, Chitalia received the deposit refund cheque of Rs 3,000, but he realised that they had not paid any interest for keeping his amount in their kitty for nine months.
A few weeks later, he filed an RTI query on the issue. He asked about the stipulated time in which the refunds have to be paid and the interest that is to be paid in case of delay. But instead of getting a reply from MTNL, he got a cheque for the accrued interest. Later he also got a reply from MTNL informing him that the stipulated time period was two months and in case of a delay, the deposit attracted an interest of 10%.
Thus, there have been several stories of citizens using the RTI Act to make the administration work according to rule. These stories show how powerful RTI can be in the hands of well meaning citizens who wish to make the system work in favour of the underprivileged. The basic object of the Right to Information Act is to empower the citizens, promote transparency and accountability in the working of the Government, contain corruption, and make our democracy work for the people in real sense. An informed citizenry will be better equipped to keep necessary vigil on the instruments of governance and make the government more accountable to the governed. The Act has created a practical regime through which the citizens of the country may have access to information under the control of public authorities.
A citizen has a right to seek such information from a public authority which is held by itself or which is held under its control. This right includes inspection of work, documents and records; taking notes, extracts or certified copies of documents or records; taking certified samples of material held by the public authority or held under the control of the public authority. Information is any material in any form. It includes records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form. It also includes information relating to any private body which can be accessed by the public authority under any law for the time being in force.
A citizen has a right to obtain information in the form of diskettes, floppies, tapes, video cassettes or in any other electronic mode or through print-outs provided information is already stored in a computer or in any other device from which the information may be transferred to diskettes etc. Further, the information to the applicant shall ordinarily be provided in the form in which it is sought.
It is important to note that the RTI Act gives the right to information only to the citizens of India. It does not make provision for giving information to Corporations, Associations, Companies etc., which are legal entities/persons, but not citizens. However, if an application is made by an employee or office-bearer of any Corporation, Association, Company, NGO etc. who is also a citizen of India, information shall be supplied to him/her, provided the applicant gives his/her full name. In such cases, it will be presumed that a citizen has sought information at the address of the Corporation etc.
Further, the right to seek information from a public authority is not absolute. Sections 8 and 9 of the Act enumerate the categories of information which are exempt from disclosure. At the same time Schedule II of the Act contains the names of the Intelligence and Security Organisations, which are exempt from the purview of the Act. The exemption of the organisations, however, does not cover supply of information relating to allegations of corruption and human rights violations.
How exactly can a citizen seek information? A citizen who desires to obtain any information under the Act, should make an application to the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) of the concerned public authority in writing in English or Hindi or in the official language of the area in which the application is made. All the central government public authorities have designated their Central Public Information Officers and have posted their particulars on their respective web sites. This information is also available on ‘RTI PORTAL’. The applicant can send the application by post or through electronic means or can deliver it personally in the office of the public authority.
The applicant, along with the application, should send a demand draft or a banker’s cheque or an Indian Postal Order of Rs.10/- (Rupees ten), payable to the Accounts Officer of the public authority as fee prescribed for seeking information. The applicant may also be required to pay further fee towards the cost of providing the information. But, if the applicant belongs to below poverty line (BPL) category, he is not required to pay any fee. The CPIO shall render reasonable assistance to the persons seeking information. For instance, if a person is unable to make a request in writing, he may seek the help of the CPIO to write his application. Similarly, where a decision is taken to give access to a sensorily disabled person to any document, the CPIO, shall provide such assistance to enable access to information, including providing such assistance to the person as may be appropriate for the inspection. While the above procedure is true for the authorities under the Central Government there are some differences across States with reference to seeking information from public authorities under the State Governments.
It may be noted that there is no prescribed form of application for seeking information. The application can be made on plain paper. The application should, however, have the name and complete postal address of the applicant. Even in cases where the information is sought electronically, the application should contain name and postal address of the applicant. Further, the information seeker is not required to give reasons for seeking information.
The CPIO is required to provide information to the applicant within thirty days of the receipt of a valid application. If the information sought for concerns the life or liberty of a person, the information shall be provided within forty-eight hours of the receipt of the request. If the CPIO is of the view that the information sought for cannot be supplied under the provisions of the Act, he would reject the application. However, while rejecting the application, he shall inform the applicant the reasons for such rejection and the particulars of the appellate authority.
If any person is unable to submit a request to a CPIO either by reason that such an officer has not been appointed by the concerned public authority; or the Assistant CPIO has refused to accept his or her application or appeal for forwarding the same to the CPIO or the appellate authority, as the case may be; or he has been refused access to any information requested by him under the RTI Act; or he has not been given a response to a request for information within the time limit specified in the Act; or he has been required to pay an amount of fee which he considers unreasonable; or he believes that he has been given incomplete, misleading or false information, he can make a complaint to the Central Information Commission.
The Central Information Commission decides the appeals and complaints and conveys its decision to the appellant/complainant and first appellate authority/CPIO. The Commission may decide an appeal/complaint after hearing the parties to the appeal/complaint or by inspection of documents produced by the appellant/complainant and CPIO or such senior officer of the public authority who decided the first appeal. If the Commission chooses to hear the parties before deciding the appeal or the complaint, the Commission will inform of the date of hearing to the appellant or the complainant at least seven clear days before the date of hearing. The appellant/complainant has the discretion to be present in person or through his authorized representative at the time of hearing or may opt not to be present.
The citizens must make use of the revolutionary RTI Act to make their lives and lives of their fellow citizens better and to make the Government authorities increasingly accountable and effective.