When transparency comes to town: officials gear up to face RTI

From Frederick Noronha / GoaRTI Report

IIPA, the Indian Institute of Public Administration (Goa chapter), held a lively session on the Right to Information Act, which drew a full-hall at the Institute Menezes Braganza, on August 7, 2006 Monday evening.

Unfortunately, officials seemed to make up the major part of the audience. This could be taken as an indication that the citizens are yet to realise the potency of this new law in bringing in transparency to a society that faces the burden of corruption and opacity in its functioning.

Guest speaker was Balleshwar Rai, IAS, Chairman Public Grievances Commission New Delhi and the former Chief Secretary of Goa. Goa’s incumbent Chief Secretary and IIPA Chairman Western Regional Branch JP Singh chaired lecture.

It was followed by a long — sometimes heated — but interesting discussion.

Rai spoke of the efficacy of the Public Grievances Commission, and also specifically outlined some provisions of the RTI Act.

He called Goa, a state whose politicians had difficulties in coping with his approach to administration, a “modern and vibrant state”. He noted it was among the first Indian states to introduce a Right to Information law of its own.

He said the right to seek information from the government is “part of the right to free speech, guaranteed under Article 19 of the Constitution”. Some 21 states had so far adopted the RTI central law, and the remaining few — mostly in the North East — were expected to take it up shortly. Jammu & Kashmir is excluded from the purview of this law.

“Right to information is a basic necessity to good governance. It ensures transparency, accountability, predictability and participation (in governance),” he said.

Rai conceded: “Secrecy is the norm (among the bureaucracy). It’s part of the mind-set. There’s also the reality that the citizen has traditionally
been reluctant to seek information.” He pointed to the colonial legacy of the Indian bureaucracy, built in times when the citizen was a dangerous
person from whom information should be hidden.

Said he: “Our machinery of governance was primarily borrowed from the British. Or, in Goa’s case, from the Portuguese. In those times, the basic thrust of the administration was built on secrecy. We are hopeful that with a powerful act, the mind-set of officials can now be set right.”

“Information is a starting point in a citizen’s quest for justice. It is not an end in itself. It is a means to fight corruption,” said Goa’s former chief secretary. “Simply passing the Act is not good enough. We need a mechanism to
address grievances. Delhi has done it. It has constituted a Delhi Public Grievances Commission.”

He said the public grievances commission could also take suo moto cognisance of issues, for instance, based on something reported in the newspapers.

Rai called the RTI Act “a good first step”.

Rai cautioned that officials in some states showed a “not very encouraging tendency” and they were “subverting the requirements of the law”.

“But the change in the mind-set cannot happen in one day. We all need to join hands to create awareness among the people,” he said. He pointed to
provisions against officials maliciously withholding information, provisions for punishment, and the responsibility placed on officials to have
their records “duly catalogued and indexed”.

Some issues that came up in the discussion:

* There is an attempt to remove notings from this law, which could be a setback to its functioning, since notings are crucial in understanding the rationale for official decisions taken.* Some officials in Goa were hesitant to accept electronic (i.e. email) submissions requesting information. This was problematic, and blocking citizens from getting easy access to information, given Goa’s difficult and geographically scattered terrain.

* The payment of the Rs 10 fee was being used as a bureaucratic hurdle while implementing the act. This should not become a hurdle to citizens getting information in the true spirit of the act.

* Listings of PIOs (principal information officers) and APIOs (assistant principal information officers) were not adequately done, and the full contacts of the officials concerned (including phone, detailed address and email) needs to be listed.

* Listing PIOs and APIOs in their personal name made no sense, since officials are subject to transfer.

* In Goa, a copy of the Right to Information Act (44 pages) cost a significant Rs 44. The same law, bought from Maharashtra, costs just Rs 2 to Rs 5. “A piece of legislation is meaningless if it is not accessible to the
people,” said consumer rights’ activist Roland Martins.

* There have been delays in implementing the law in Goa, though citizens praised it as a “good act”.

* One citizen, Rui Ferreira, wanted to know whether if the State Information Commission ruled in a citizen’s favour, the Goa government still had scope to “run to the High Court and bring a stay in our case”. He cited his
unfortunate experiences under the Goa Right to Information Act.

* Campaigner V A Kamat said many departments were yet to notify their PIOs, and many were appointed by name. It didn’t make sense when there were frequent transfers. Also, he suggested, the fees under the act should be payable to the departmental head, rather than a junior officer. There has been some debate about the mechanism to pay the fees involved, including concern from the official side as to where these monies should be credited.

* Soter D’Souza had questions about approaching Central government organisations for information, called on the authorities to ensure that the basic information was made available to the public, and pointed out that crucial laws and rules governing the citizens’ lives (like the Panchayati Raj Act or the Mundkar and Tenancy Acts) were simply not easily available in the state or priced too high. Most departments didn’t seem aware of the type of catalogue they should be maintaining their information in,
he said.

* More publicity is needed to build awareness about the act. Official adverts focus on the procedure for redress in case the citizen doesn’t get the information. But could not the same focus on how citizens should be applying for information, and to whom, in the first place?

Said Martins, a long-time campaigner: “The time has come. People are now aware in Goa. I may not call it an ‘intellectual’ state or anything like that. But politicians don’t even like awareness. That’s why they are not here (at this meeting).”

Chief Secretary JP Singh, who has a fairly positive reputation, sounded optimistic about the RTI Act implementation in Goa. “I didn’t know the Act was priced at Rs 44 (at the Goa Government Printing Press,” he said. “We
will see that it is priced at Rs 5,” he said.

Singh himself suggested a campaign through the newspapers. “If politicians can bring out full page adverts, we (at the Government of Goa) can also do so. The people should know,” he said. “As chairman of the Coastal Regulation Zone committee, that (bringing in transparency) was the first
thing I did.”

He pointed to some problem areas — if government staff accessed the notings made by the vigilance department, it could lead to the victimisation of honest officers, he said.

State Chief Information Commissioner A Venkatratnam (IAS retired) — contact details 0832-2437880 mobile 09860287282 or avr@nic.in — said the Commission had sent in a recommendation to the Goa government, suggesting that the payment of Rs 10 be made through an easier procedure, such as non-judicial stamps.

“The Commission has not been given funds till today. This is a valid ground for putting in a Right to Information application,” Venkatratnam said, half-jokingly. He pointed out that the first decisions given by the commission,
including in the Amar Naik v/s State of Goa, he had typed the order “in my house” and personally uploaded it to the Net and the website at http://egov.nic.goa.in/rtipublic

“Goa government says it won’t given me an STD phone for my office or residence. Things might improve now (after making these comments). Let’s see,” he said.

Chief Secretary J P Singh responded, “Our intention is to clear things. We are not trying to subvert the implementation of this law…. But Mr Venkatratnam has been a very senior officer, and should know how long it takes to make budget provisions and things like that in government.”

Director of Accounts Rajan Cuncolienkar wanted to know what was to be done if one government servant used the Right to Information Act to dig out possibly personal information pertaining to another government servant.

Chief Secretary J P Singh joked, “In Goa, the transparency is quite large. When the file goes out from my office, everyone knows about. The next day, photocopies are being circulated. They even know the minute-to-minute file movement. There are people here who know everything. They phone me and tell me five minutes before a file arrives in my office!”

But he agreed that it was the rural areas which really needed some help to cope with accessing official information.

Another citizen suggested that the August 15 upcoming gram sabha meetings could be used as an occasion to conscientise citizens about their
powers under the new Right to Information Act, which costs just Rs 10 (plus two rupees per photocopied page, if copies are sought… nothing for an hour of inspection) to access.


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