The Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, enacted in 2005, is an extension of our fundamental Constitutional right to free speech and expression. This legislation is unique, as people’s movements played a key role in its enactment. The provisions of RTI Act are beautifully drafted so that citizens are not deprived of information due the limitation of literacy, remoteness, poverty or physical disability. Thus, the RTI Act is inclusive.
The RTI Act has completed 10 years of its enactment and has been proved to be one of the most popular laws since Independence. In Gujarat over 12 lakh people have used RTI, and the numbers are increasing day by day. This paper is based on Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel’s (MAGP’s) is based on the organization’s active role on propagating RTI in Gujarat. It is based on:
- The data of 3.94 lakh calls that have been responded from the MAGP helpline (09924085000)
- Over 6,000 cases that have been handled at the MAGP’s Saturday Legal Clinic
- Interaction with over lakh people in the field, with the help of MAGP’s RTI on Wheels, a mobile RTI van, during outreach programmes of all the districts.
Gujarat Information Commission
The Gujarat Information Commission has always remained below strength as far as the number of commissioners is concerned. For years it has remained understaffed. Unlike the Gujarat Vigilance Commission, it has not been allotted an independent building. It is now is situated in the Karmayogi Bhavan in Gandhinagar, the state capital. It was earlier functioning from the Bureau of Economics and Statistics building, also in Gandhinagar.
The appointment procedure of the commissioner is not transparent. Currently over 6,000 cases are pending, but the government does not bother to appoint new commissioners.
The commission is situated in the state capital only, unlike other states like Maharashtra, where the commission has five benches at different locations, saving on time, government resources, and time of ordinary citizens, who would have to otherwise travel all the way to the state capital for hearing. The pendency is just of 15 days in Mumbai.
We think Gujarat needs five commissioners, two in Gandhinagar and one each in Palanpur, Rajkot, Surat/Vadodara.
The disposal of cases is directly proportionate to the strength of commissioners in the commission. There is a scope for improving disposal by increasing working hours. Currently, the commission starts functioning at 12:30 or 1:00 in the noon, and completes its work by 3:30 or 4:00 pm. It can begin its work at 10:00 am in the morning, which is what former central information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi did.
There can be hearing in the open court. It is a good practice, and can be replicated in other states. Hearings should be open for everyone to hear.
The orders of the state information commission are not speaking orders. Most of the time, it does not have facts of cases, PIOs’ replies and citizens’ pleas, and reasons for failing to give appropriate orders. For example, recently, in a few orders of the commission talked of lump sum penalty of Rs 10,000, but nothing was said about giving information. Which means that the PIO can pay the penalty and need not give information! The Act says that the penalty to be calculated from the day of the denial of information to the day the information is supplied. And, without giving information there is not logic in putting lump sum penalty.
Penalty Orders: Only 0.5% has been levied as penalty under by state information commission. As enforcement of the law is weak, the system gets the opportunity to deny information giving silly reasons.
Compliance: This is the biggest challenge Gujarat is facing, unlike other states. The general administration department (GAD) of the Gujarat government cannot ensure action on the commission’s order. The commission has been giving so many recommendations in its reports since 2005. Some simple recommendations are, putting sign boards of PIO and appellate authority, with basic information on RTI; even this is also not implemented.
There is no compliance of the reports filed for actions or realization of penalty, or departmental action. The information commission is a statutory body, whose reports are presented in the state assembly and passed. Then these reports become recommendations of the state assembly.
State Training Institute
The GAD, and the Sardar Patel Institute of Public Administration (SPIPA), have been given the responsibility of training and awareness. As per a SPIPA report, it has trained over 6,000 officials every year. It has also trained 162 master trainers. No report is available regarding the training done by the master trainers at the district level. Also, some of the crucial departments like panchayat and rural housing, development commissionerate and climate change, do not have a single master trainer. Over 79% master trainers are situated in Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad. Many of the districts like Panchmahals, Dahod, Patan, Valsad, Devbhumi Dwarka, Aravalli, and Dahod, do not have any master trainers.
Films on RTI, booklets, citizens’ training and multi-stakeholder consultation – which were some of the best practices – have all been discontinued. And yet, awareness about RTI is increasing day by day, and credit for this goes to the print and electronic media, which highlight the struggle of common citizens seeking information. Common citizens have formed their own RTI help centres, with help desks helping others to draft applications. Over 200 “RTI yoddhas” have been key to spread RTI across Gujarat.
Poor knowledge of law is one of the reasons for the rejection of information. The PIOs are not aware of the provisions of law. They simply reject information in a summary order, without giving reasons. The first appellate authorities (FAAs) are not aware of hearing procedures. They conduct hearings the way they want.
As per section 4 of the RTI Act, information needs to be proactively disclosed to the public. In Gujarat no department could comply with this provisions of the Act, despite information commissioner repeatedly recommending this in several orders. Where are the details of “anamat package”, recently declared by the Gujarat government? And its file notings? As per the provisions of section 4, all the subsidies or packages fall in the proactive disclosure category.
All public private partnership (PPP) project information needs to be proactively disclosed which is denied mentioning third party interests.
All government departments and corporations have their websites. Except the chief minister’s office, all other offices of the Gujarat government provide very little information on these websites – compared to other states. Information regarding projects, land acquired, project affected people, benefits to be given, are not disclosed, and considered as “third party information” which actually needs to be in public domain.
What Gujarat needs to learn from other states?
Bihar: Jankari helpline
Delhi: Disclosure of MP, MLA funds expenses through kiosk.
Maharastra: For one day offices (all the records) are open for public inspections.
Meghalaya: RTI on Wheels of the MAGP model, recognized as one of the best practices by the Government of India.
Andhra Pradesh: The commission’s role in field inspections of proactive disclosures.
Uttar Pradesh: Full bench information commission.
- Non-furnishing of information even after the commission’s order: There are departments like district registrar, Ahmedabad, which has not furnished information to citizens even after 13 orders of the commission.
- Non-availability of disclosures of budget and expenses, list of beneficiaries, and their waiting list: Both on websites as well as in the office premises.
- The FAA mechanism is defunct: In 40% of the cases, FAAs do not conduct hearing and pass orders, which creates burden on the commission.
- Exclusion of cooperative societies and cooperative banks from purview of the RTI Act.
- Ignorance about the law in PIOs and assistant PIOs: They do not know about rules, or provisions of laws.
- Poor strength of the commissioners: We have only two commissioners instead of 10. No process has been initiated for the appointment of commissioners.
- Increasing political pressure on RTI users: Gujarat is the second in attacks and threats on RTI users.
- The information seeker is considered an “enemy”: Even the simplest of information is inaccessible.
- No initiatives from government for public awareness, training.
- Very low ratio of penalty, without reasoned orders. 0.5% of the cases have been given penalty. Average penalty: Rs 11,000.
Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel, Ahmedabad