Every Monday, the Pune Municipal Corp (PMC) allows citizens to inspect files from any department between 3pm to 5pm. They can visit any department, access files and also get photo copies of the documents under section 4 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
Highly impressed by this initiative, IAS officer Ashok Khemka, who at present is principal secretary in Haryana, wants to have open days for citizens for inspecting files in that state too.
Speaking at the annual RTI awards function organised by Sajag Nagrik Manch in Pune, Mr Khemka stated that such ‘open days’ would drastically reduce the number of RTI applications filed under Section 6 of the RTI Act which is a time-consuming method.
“I will also write to the Haryana government as well as the Central Government, to have such open days at all public authorities across India including Mantralayas of every State,” he said.
According to Mr Khemka, this would reduce the time that it takes when you file RTI application under Section 6 of the RTI Act.
He says, “Democracy shows up once in five years when you cast your vote but RTI demands government accountability every single day. However, information is effective only when you get it immediately and inspection of files under Section 4 is a powerful way to do so.”
He also lamented the role of the Central and state information commissioners who have large pendency, thus denying a citizen his rightful information within a time period. He stated that an inordinate delay in providing information to a citizen makes it irrelevant and frustrating.
Mr Khemka, says, “While the public information officers (PIOs) provide information due to fear of being penalised, the first and second appellate authorities do not feel it binding on themselves to give information as they have not been made accountable through penalty.
"Appellate Authorities are senior officers and they should be more responsible for giving information. In Haryana, the second appeals are disposed in six to nine months but in the central information commissions, the pendency is up to two to three years. Since there is no one to pull them up, the FAAs and ICs have no accountability.’’
He also lamented the tradition of selecting retired government officers to the post of information commissioners, who are conditioned by their bureaucratic experience, which is harming the very soul of RTI.
He said, these days, PIOs and APIOs too are finding ways to reject information in the garb of giving information. Mr Khemka said, “The PIOs and APIOs too audaciously deny information by citing just any section of the RTI, so that they are not accountable for refusal of information. In actuality, it is as good as rejecting information.’’
“The Central Information Commissioners (CICs) too have killed the soul of the RTI Act as they are not doing their work honestly. They also cite arbitrary clauses in their orders, compelling the RTI applicant to go seek judicial intervention. This may take several years, and it then just becomes the determination of the person to get information, come what may,” the IAS officer added.
Criticising the pendency of appeals, Mr Khemka stated “Information commissioners can easily dispose 100 second appeals in a day. There is no need of writing elaborate orders and citing court judgments and making a CIC order, complicated. The appellant wants to know only the operative part and for this the CIC order should be crisp and not more than a page. This would ensure quick disposals.’’
Many a government decision is haphazard and RTI could expose that, but Mr Khemka lamented that it is practically impossible to get information from high government officials, going by his experience. Giving an example of how the government decisions are arbitrary, he cited an example of his use of RTI in the goods and services tax (GST) council. “The government stated that with the implementation of the GST, the cascading effect of taxes would end. I asked information under RTI on any study done as to how the cascading effect of taxes would end after implementation of GST and any study on the stalling of cascading effect of taxes before GST. The GST council replied that no such studies were carried out. Government decisions should be evidence based and not arbitrary,” he added.
Government expenditure can be put to better use to enhance quality of life and human development if it is spent in a methodical and scientific manner. RTI can be used effectively for this purpose, he concluded.
Balasaheb Subhedar, a young and courageous RTI activist from Osmanabad, received the prestigious RTI Award from the Sajag Nagrik Manch, established by RTI activists Vivek Velankar and Jugal Rathi in 2006.
Mr Subhedar’s tryst with RTI began when the Maharashtra State Electricity Distribution Company Ltd (MSECDL) cut off his home electricity for not paying the bill.
Mr Subhedar had not paid the bill since MSEDCL had drastically overcharged him and refused to address his problem. This led to his RTI activism where his information in various government departments led to the exposure of scandals and action against various officials.
Mr Subhedar says, “I could have got back power to my house if I had paid money but since injustice was meted out to me, I thought it my right to fight it and RTI proved to be an effective tool. The RTI Act has empowered me and hence I can use it for my work for the good of the society,” he added.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”