Why Inspecting Files under Section 4 of the RTI Act Is So Frustrating at Mantralaya
The multi-crore contract for the procurement of ambulances and related equipment scam is making waves in Maharashtra with allegations of puffing up of the contract amount between two government resolutions (GR) – one dated 8 August 2023 and the other dated 13 March 2024.
On 15 March 2024, the state government approved a work order to a consortium of three private companies and the decision was uploaded on its website. The decision stated it was approved at the Cabinet meeting on 13th March. However, the document that was uploaded did not mention the GR of 13th March. This discrepancy suggests either the GR was not approved or it was approved but not documented at that time.
Pune-based activist Vijay Kumbhar discovered the omission of the 13th March GR in the work order and suspected that the tender was designed to benefit certain contractors by bypassing rules and involving a large amount of money. Mr Kumbhar filed an application under Section 6 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, requesting a copy of the GR-E (resolutions put up in the 11th hour) of 13th March.
States Mr Kumbhar, “Traditionally, information about the topics discussed and decisions made during Cabinet meetings are shared with journalists immediately after the meetings. Additionally, under section 4 of the RTI Act, details of these decisions are supposed to be made available on the government's website. However, while the regular GRs are put up promptly on the website, the 11th-hour resolutions remain conspicuously absent from public records.”
The public information officer (PIO) of the chief secretary’s office, where he had filed his RTI application, replied that the information was too vast and, hence, he should come for the inspection of the files on any working day between 9am and 6pm.
Accordingly, Mr Kumbhar travelled from Pune to Mumbai on one of the working days last fortnight. Before that, he had sent an email, informing PIO Sachin Joshi of his scheduled visit. 
When he arrived at the chief secretary’s office, the PIO reprimanded him saying that he could not come unexpectedly. To which Mr Kumbhar reminded him of the email he had sent. To this, Mr Joshi stated that he hadn’t seen the email as the person who goes through emails was on leave (imagine, this government office has special personnel to go through emails).
Finally, after much argument, the PIO showed him the file pertaining to 11th hour GRs which comprised 212 pages. These have over 200 numbers of 11th hour GRs which were not uploaded in the past few years and remain hidden from the public who has a right to know. 
Mr Kumbhar states, “I thought I would be shown a heap of files. But I was given a bunch of 212 pages. How can this be called ‘vast information’? Applicants are often told that the information is too extensive to be provided easily and are instead invited to review the records in person. This response not only makes it difficult for individuals to access the information but also raises the question of whether all citizens of Maharashtra must physically visit the public authority to procure information.”
Lamenting that he had to spend Rs4,000 for the journey to Mumbai and back to Pune, besides the waste of his precious time, he was given another shock. The PIO said that he was unable to make the photostat copies that day and so he would have to come some other day. Mr Kumbhar requested that he be given the same 212 pages that were shown to him by making them certified and that he was ready to immediately pay the Rs424, the cost of getting the copies. He reiterated that he had come all the way from Pune.
However, PIO Joshi told Mr Kumbhar that it does not work like that. He would have to send Mr Kumbhar a letter stating the amount he had to pay and thereafter he should immediately come to the office to collect his documents.
The letter reached Mr Kumbhar after three days. He then sent his person to the chief secretary’s office. Again, the PIO created a hurdle. He told him about the unavailability of the person who handles the fees. Mr Kumbhar then telephonically admonished him for the harassment and mental agony caused to him. It was only then that the PIO accepted the fees and provided the information comprising 212 pages.
Mr Kumbhar rues that “There is always resistance from the Mantralaya for dissemination of information. Is it feasible for any ordinary citizen to be able to spend so much time and money to travel to Mantralaya from all corners of the state? This is a sheer mockery of RTI and of a government that boasts of being digitally and electronically smart. When we can file RTI applications by paying the Rs10 fees online, why can’t we pay fees online for copies of documents?
"The responsibility for uploading information under section 4 disclosures lies with the head of the public authority, in this case, the chief secretary of Maharashtra. Will he please pay heed to this?”
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the 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".)
3 weeks ago
I trust the Chief Secretary remembers his oath of duty to the Constitution of India and takes all necessary steps to ensure total compliance with the provisions of RTI by Uploading complete and proper information. Moreover if need be he can send this PIO for reorientation training so that he realises his duty rather than the authority.
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