'RTI - Common Man's Brahmastra' - Shailesh Gandhi
As Reported by Dr Eugene D'Souza, for Daijiworld Media Network - Mumbai (GA)
Addressing a well-attended workshop of the representatives of the
political and civic cells of different parishes of the Thane deanery
organized by the Bharatiya Lok-Adhar Manch (BLAM) of Our Lady of
Fatima Parish at Ambernath (West) on Sunday June 8, Shailesh Gandhi
said "As the sovereign citizens of the country, we have the right to
information, which is the common man's Brahmastra".
Shailesh Gandhi, who gave up his business a few years ago to take up
the crusade for the Right to Information (RTI) has been one of the
well-known and foremost social activists using the RTI to make the
government accountable to the people.
In his informative and impressive speech sprinkled with humour,
Shailesh Gandhi traced the background of the Right to Information
Act. He pointed out that the Right to Information is derived from
fundamental right of expression under Article 19 of the Constitution
of India. "If we do not have information on how our government and
public institutions function, we cannot express any informed opinion
on it. This has been clearly stated by various Supreme Court
judgments from 1977. In a democracy, as the Government is run on
behalf of the people, they are the rightful owners who have a right
to be informed directly.
To strengthen the cause of the Right to Information, Shailesh Gandhi
cited Justice Mathew's ruling in the Raj Narain case, "In a
government of responsibility like ours, where all the agents of the
public must be responsible for their conduct, there can be but few
secrets. The people of the country have a right to know every public
act, everything that is done in a public way by their public
functionaries. They are entitled to know the particulars of every
public transaction in all its being. Their right to know, which is
derived from the concept of freedom of speech, though not absolute,
is a factor which should make one wary when secrecy is claimed for
transactions which can at any rate have no repercussion on public
Tracing the history of the Right To Information Act, Shailesh Gandhi
said that the movement originated in a small village in Rajasthan,
when the villagers wanted to know how much money was sanctioned for a project and how much was spent on it. The success of the movement
undertaken by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghathan in rural Rajasthan
brought RTI on the agenda of the nation. So far nine states across
India have enacted the Right To Information Acts, the first being
Tamil Nadu. The Maharashtra Right To Information (MRTI) Act was
passed in 2002 and notified on August 11, 2003. The Indian Parliament
passed the Right To Information Act on May 12, 2005, which became
operational from October 12, 2005.
Citing a number of relevant examples, Shailesh Gandhi stressed the
importance of the RTI and how it can bring a change, though not
substantial, in the working of the government and public
departments. Alert and conscientious citizens, instead of complaining
about corruption and non-functioning of the government and public
agencies, can seek the information and try to bring about the
transparency and accountability in their functioning.
To emphasize the importance of the RTI Act and its power, Shailesh
Gandhi narrated an incident of a slum dweller who had learnt the use
of the Right To Information. When he applied for a new ration card,
he was told that he would have to give a bribe of Rs 2000 to the
officials to get the card. However, this RTI-empowered citizen went
ahead and applied for the ration card without offering any bribes or
making any noise about the issue. A few weeks later, he found out
that all the bribe-givers had got their ration cards in about four
weeks. He waited for eight weeks, and then applied for information
under RTI. Using the simple format with an application fee of Rs.10/,
he submitted it to the Public Information Officer of the Food and
Supply Office. In his application he had asked up to which date
applications for ration cards had been cleared, and the progress
report of his application. This shook up the corrupt officials, since
the answer would reveal that they had given ration cards to others
who had applied after him, which would be conclusive evidence that
they had no justification for delaying his card. The result of his
simple RTI application was that the ration card was given to him
immediately. In a similar way thousands of citizens have got their
pensions, passports, Income Tax and Sales Tax refunds, electricity
connections, birth certificates, etc.
The Right To Information Act is applicable to all public authorities.
A public authority means any government office, department or
institutions such as universities, colleges and schools or non-
government organizations substantially financed by the government.
`Information' means any material in any form including records,
documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, press releases,
circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples,
models, etc. `Right to Information' means the right to access the
information held by or under the control of any public authority and
includes the right to: inspection of work, documents, records, taking
notes, extracts, or certified copies of documents or records; taking
certified samples of material; obtaining information in the form of
diskettes, floppies, tapes, video cassettes or in any other
electronic mode or through printouts where such information is stored
in a computer or in any other device.
However, there are ten exemptions of information and request for such
information can be rejected. These exemption include any information
that would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of
India, the security, strategic, scientific and economic interests of
the state, relation with a foreign State; information which has been
forbidden to be published by any court of law; information, the
disclosure of which would cause a breach of privilege of Parliament
or the State Legislature, etc.
Every public authority has appointed one or more special officers
called Public Information Officers (PIO) to deal with requests for
information. Assistant PIOs (APIO) are also appointed by such
authorities at Sub-division or taluk-level.
Citizens seeking information have to submit written applications to
the PIOs or APIOs in plain paper in the prescribed format along with
a fee of Rs.10to be paid in cash, demand draft or cheque payable to
the Public Authority, or by affixing a court fee stamp of Rs.10.
Once the PIO or APIO accepts the application for the information that
a citizen has sought, he may ask for payment of fees for the copies
of the documents. Rs 2 per page (A4 size) or Rs 50 for information
given on floppy or CD. There is no charge for the inspection of files
or records for the first hour and then Rs 5 for every fifteen
minutes. Postage charges would be added to this.
Under the Right To Information Act, the PIO will either supply the
information or reject the request on certain specified grounds within
a period of 30 days. If information is not provided or wrongly
refused, the citizen can go in appeal to an Appellate Authority who
would be an official in the same department, senior to the IPO. The
Appellate Authority has to give a decision in 30 days.
The RTI Act has stipulated a penalty of Rs 250 per day subject to
maximum of Rs 25,000 imposed on the IPO if he has, without any
reasonable cause has refused to receive the application or not
furnished information within the prescribed period or knowingly given
incomplete, incorrect or misleading information or obstructed in any
manner in furnishing the information. Besides, disciplinary action,
according to the relevant service rules, can also be recommended by
the Information Commission against the concerned officer, if he
repeats the above stated acts.
Thus, the RTI Act provides for a time-bound and defined process for
citizens to access information about all actions taken by public
authorities. The penal provisions on the PIO are the real teeth of
the Act, which ensures that the PIO cannot treat citizens' demands
for information in a cavalier manner.
These are a few types of cases where conscientious citizens can use
the RTI Act: when the citizen needs information on some activity of
the government, or reasons for certain decisions; when the citizen
knows or suspects corruption or wrong-doing in some department or
activity; when bribes are sought to provide ration card or water
connection or an authority refuses to act on a complaint or FIR. The
mere asking of information sometimes reduces illegal acts, since the
wrong-doer feels restrained or threatened by exposure. A citizen
could suggest improvements in the functioning of a Government
department only if he has the information.
Besides a large number of representatives of the Political and Civic
Cells from different parishes of the Thane Deanery, the work-shop was
attended by Fr Barthol Machado, the dean of Thane deanery, Willy
Sirsat, coordinator of Church in city in Mumbai Archdiocese, Fr
Sylvester, parish priest of Our Lady of Fatima Church, Ambernath
(West), Fr Adrian and Celine Patil, the coordinator of the political
and civic cells in Thane deanery.