There are reports of officers threatening information seekers with dire consequences
Ever since the Right to Information Act (RTIA) came into force there has been a widespread debate about it usage and its benefits. It is argued that the RTIA can be a tool for achieving what is called good governance. The Act basically has two sides — supply and demand. Its efficacy depends on how these two sides play their roles.
The recent events reported from some parts of the country make one wonder whether the supply side is doing justice to one of the best pieces of legislation seen in post independent India.
There are reports of the Public Information Officers (PIOs) threatening information seekers with dire consequences. In some cases RTI applicants are physically assaulted. Take for instance the case of J.M. Rajashekara, a local journalist and RTI activist from Ranebennur in Haveri district of Karnataka. He filed an application under the Act and sought very general information from the Northeastern Karnataka State Road Transport Corporation.
The corporation instead of providing information or rejecting it issued a legal notice through their advocate. The advocate threatened the applicant with dire consequences and also demanded Rs.2,000 as legal fee for filing an application under the RTIA.
In Chintamani taluk of Kolar district, Manjunath Reddy is running a civil society organisation called Jana Jagruthi Vedike. He found that the quality of roadwork was poor and sought information and documents from the executing agency. He also applied for inspecting the work. The quality inspector was brought and it was proved that work amounting to Rs.2 lakh was not done but paid for.
The contractors lobby hired goondas and instigated the local people against Mr. Reddy. They manhandled him right in front of the officer. Fortunately, the officer was convinced of the poor work and ordered redoing of it. Mr. Reddy has also been a victim of physical assault from contractors of the Public Works Department.
In yet another case, Mr. Paramashivamurthy of Mysore was physically abused by the very PIO from whom the information was sought. The applicant sought details of the work in the Varuna Canal Project in Mysore.
The case of Ravindranath Guru, a consumer and RTI activist from Bangalore, is much worse. He found that his neighbour had violated the building bylaws and constructed a commercial complex on a site meant for residential purposes. He obtained sufficient information by using the RTIA. The next day his house was ransacked. He suspects some politicians were behind the violence.
The RTI provides that the PIO shall not ask for the reason for seeking information. Though the PIOs are not insisting on this in writing, RTI applicants are orally asked to divulge the reasons. In some cases the credentials of the applicants are sought indirectly. Take the case of Ms. Savitha Ranganath of the Mysore District Mahithi Vedike (RTI forum). She sought a copy of the movement register of a doctor of KR Hospital, Mysore. Though a copy was given, the doctor insisted that the applicant be personally present before him. She had to wait from afternoon to evening to get the information.
Forget about PIOs. Even advocates appearing on behalf of PIOs or public authorities have started using their usual legal language to protect their clients. Mr. Veeresh of the Anti Corruption Forum, Bangalore, has been using the RTIA extensively in Bangalore. This is an eyesore to many officials.
In an appeal filed against Mr. Veeresh in the Karnataka Information Commission, an advocate took exception to Mr. Veeresh’s practice of using RTIA. He said that the RTI applicant should come before the Commission with clean hands. After much persuasion and intervention of the Chief Commissioner, the advocate’s petition was withdrawn.
While the brutal murder of Satyendra Dubey and Manjunath gets wide coverage, the threats, abuses and physical assaults that many RTI activists are subjected to go unnoticed. Most of these activists have to wage a lone battle and be ready for any consequences. Can something be done to protect them? Maybe an amendment to the RTIA?