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  1. A question of asking the question-I

    As citizens of this democracy, you are the rulers and the ruled, the lawgivers and the law-abiding, the beginning and the end. ~ Adlai Stevenson (1956)

    Aditi Roy Ghatak
    For some curious reason the Right to Information Act has been a virtually ineffective instrument in the state of West Bengal even though it has been made to serve its purpose quite effectively in unexpected parts of the country: from Bangalore to Banaras; from Delhi to Patna.

    This is not a little curious given that the citizenry in the state has been known to be volatile and generally interested. Whether it is the might of the state machinery that bludgeons efforts to secure information or the ignorance of people about the means to take their quest for information to their legal and legitimate end is not clear but the fact that Bengal has failed to use this vital right effectively has been a matter of serious concern; concern, because information is the bedrock of a vibrant democracy.

    Poor performance

    West Bengal’s poor performance is reflected in the fact that only around 135 applications have been received by the West Bengal Information Commission of which the commission says it has resolved 38. Significantly, no penalty has yet been imposed under Section 20 of the Right to Information Act.

    There is nothing unusual about the bureaucracy not wanting to part with information so scrupulously noted on the margins of its many files. Indeed, for well over half a century after Independence, India’s steel frame managed to hide behind a British enactment ~ the Official Secrets Act of 1889 ~ to hold on to its right to refuse information. There is no power as strong as the information in today’s knowledge society. Yet, making information public is almost like getting the bureaucracy to expose its convoluted guts and it was quite happy to retain an unamended version of the Official Secrets Act of 1889 (once amended in 1923).

    Not even the archaic law, however, conferred on the bureaucracy the right to its culture of secrecy. It only allowed it to be parsimonious with information on matters relating to state security and sovereignty. It was this provision that was, by and large, exercised in a manner that made even non-classified information inaccessible.

    The Indian Evidence Act enhanced state power to withhold even more information and the general Indian public did not quite appreciate the need to question this state of affairs even though it ached for information around various aspects of non-performance of the state machinery.

    Not till the 1975 Supreme Court judgment specifying that the public of India had a “right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way, by public functionaries” did things change.

    In a society as stratified as India, where the government is run by and for those who have the voice, supplemented with the financial means and the socio-political networking to have their voice heard, it did not really matter whether aam janta got to know how the government worked. It worked for those that mattered even as those who were carefully omitted from the networked circle got further and further removed from the arena of development.

    Essentially, much of ‘developed’ India has chosen the easy option of wanting to know nothing about most things pertaining to public life. What obtained then is that those with the ability to demand information have relinquished their right and those who desperately need information have been strictly deprived of their right. One does not need to be an Arvind Kejriwal (the Magasasay awardee and the man credited with being the main force behind the passage of the Right to Information Act, 2005) to realize that “A law, after all, is only as good as its users”.

    This brings one to the issue of why a law that is emerging as a good law even in Bihar remains a bad law in Bengal because of sheer disuse by the Bengali. The bad news is that it is not that people are not seeking information; they are being successfully thwarted by the bureaucracy. The good news is that things are about to change with the public now beginning to exercise its right to get the office of the information commissioner working.

    No private domain

    That the bureaucracy will not want to co-operate is perfectly understandable; it thrives on maintaining status quo and no bureaucrat in his right senses will invite prying eyes into this private domain. The rub lies in the fact that the bureaucracy is not anyone’s private domain and people in other states have sent the message across with a bang.
    In Gujarat, the Adivasis of Panchmahals brought the taluka boss on his knees using the RTI Act. The deputy mamlatdar, who had cussedly refused to deal with ration card issues for these below-the-poverty-line families on any day except Saturday and that too in a state in which the government works on every alternate Saturday ~ was forced not only to deal with such issues everyday but the Adivasis managed to put the fear of a loss of job in the heart of the guilty officer who had the introduced the Saturday only clause.

    The office of the mamlatdar has since started functioning like a public office and Aslambhai the man who took the fight to the administration realized that he had an instrument that could change the power equations in favour of the dispossessed.
    (To be concluded)

    Source :An Editorial in "The Statesman", Feb.05,2007

  2. A question of asking the question -II

    Here is the second part of the Special article written by Aditi Roy
    Ghatak and published in "The Statesman" dated 06 Feb.2007:

    There are two communications issues here: one for the general public that the government must part with non-classified information and there are laws to ensure that it does; two: the administration must be told that in the overall perspective, the Right to Information is a pro-government act, not an anti-government one. By answering questions it establishes its accountability to the people; brings people close to the government and this stands governments in good stead at the hustings.

    The government of Bihar seems to have realised this as it has in place plans to start a state-run call centre to collect and process all questions sought under the RTI Act and actually forward them to the persons concerned for a small fee.

    Bihar has actually identified the problems of information and seekers and had devised a system that addressed them. The person asking the question will be spared the trouble of getting the format and the names of the addressees right ~ which can be a very frustrating affair ~ and be allowed to interact with the call centre in Hindi, English, Maithili or Bhojpuri, with suitable software having been developed to enable this interaction.

    No response

    A public grievance cell is in place in the state where people can register complaints and seek redress. This is a clever government at work and there is certainly nothing like the one at work in West Bengal. For want of a suitable explanation, one has to assume that the information
    commissioner in the state is not adequately motivated nor adequately needled for, certainly, people in Bengal have been asking questions from development plans around the East Calcutta wetlands to Singur and Nandigram without any satisfactory responses. It is then for the citizenry to ensure that demand for information is tenaciously pursued to its logical end and those made responsible for making information available are activated in the manner that the office of the information commissioner of Bangalore, for instance, has been.

    Two stories from Bangalore are instructive: On August 27, V. Bhaskar of Nivarana Seva Trust, who was not given information on unauthorised constructions in the three zones of the Bangalore Mahanagara Palike and on what action had been initiated against the violators within the mandated 30 days, got the BMP to impose fines on the guilty officers.
    In another case, on August 31, 2006, the KIC fined the Commissioner of Byatarayanpura City Municipal Council Rs 5,000 for providing wrong information to a B H Veeresh, who had asked for information on a Civic Amenity site in the Canara Bank Layout. One needs to hear such reports from Kolkata if the RTI is to be an effective instrument and it is for the people of the city to make it happen by demanding “transparency and accountability of the government”.

    Towards that end Utsav Datta, who has demanded that he be shown his Bachelor in Commerce Part II Accountancy Honours answer script (because he was not satisfied with his marks) secured the High Court’s direction to the Calcutta University to show the scripts and when it refused to do so pursued the matter with the information commissioner and got him to rule that the University was bound to show the answer scripts. While Datta has not yet been shown the script even though the university syndicate has apparently decided to accept the commissioner’s directive, the ongoing battle deserves public commendation. The story goes that the university wants to protect the identity of the examiner and the scrutiniser who had gone into Datta’s complaint and it is the West Bengal RTI Manch that is taking the case forward.

    As Kejriwal says: “It is up to us to make full and imaginative use of the act”, which is easier said than done because not everyone has Arvind Kejriwal’s tenacity.

    It needs to be reiterated that there are inherent difficulties in making the act work. Even Canada, which has given leadership to the right to information movement and has had legislation in place for more than two decades, suffers from the “culture of secrecy” in public life. The Justice John Gomery Commission in Canada that went into the “… veil of secrecy surrounding the administration of the Sponsorship Program…” found an “absence of transparency in the contracting process; … There was an atmosphere of secrecy and only the inner circle was informed of decisions”.

    Even in a system like Canada’s, Justice Gomery found it necessary to remind the government and the public that “an appropriate access to information regime is a key part of the transparency that is an essential element of modern public administration”.

    Playing truant

    It is fairly simple to put the public off: the government can make the question seeker sift through a maze of many ministries and departments with their multiple public information officers to get to the right person. Elsewhere, the Principal Information Officer may simply be away from his seat, which means that the visitor cannot meet him. Nor is there anyone else who can collect his request.

    Or else, the department can insist on such complex form that the ordinary citizen is foxed and gives up because the central information authorities are not adequately available all over the country making complaints difficult. Amidst such frustrations comes hope in the shape of the success that Dhananjay Tripathi had when he asked the registrar of the Banaras Hindu University about details of the inquiry report into the events that led to the death of Yogesh Roy.

    This was the much talked about case of 2005 and the university was bent on stonewalling. The successful perusal of the RTI Act led to the Central Information Commission fining the Banaras Hindu University registrar, N Sundaram, Rs 25,000. Yogesh Roy must be smiling somewhere.


  3. By the way she is our member:

    She right now had some difficulty in posting at forum, hope soon she would herself post them around. She had send me the original copy of the article today, so I am attaching the complete un-edited content here.
    Attached Files Attached Files

  4. That is a nice information Kushal. Hats-off to her for such an interesting article

  5. Thats a good article.
    I hope in some time she will be able to post on her own in this forum.


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