Delay, backlog and deny

Guru Ravindranath, one of the prominent RTI users in the city filed an RTI application on 31 January 2007. For not receiving the information, he filed an appeal on 14/3/07. The first hearing was set to 25/5/07. It was then postponed to 28/8/07. Then again it was postponed to 22/11/07. And again it was postponed to 12/2/08. And then again to 14/4/08! The state’s Chief Information Commissioner at this time is K K Mishra.

The RTI (Right To Information) Act is a special-purpose vehicle that is supposed to feed the citizens with information on demand. But Karnataka’s bureaucrats are exploiting the loopholes in the RTI Act to delay information and allowing the cases to gather dust.

Overwhelming evidence presented by three prominent Bangalore-based RTI activists show this. Before we go further, here is a list of abbreviations you need to know.

Asst. PIO = Assistant Public Information Officer
PIO = Public Information Officer
AA = Appellate Authority
SCIC = State Chief Information Commissioner

This also represents the hierarchy of the people working under the RTI Act, with the SCIC being at the helm followed by the AAs, the PIOs and the Asst. PIOs.

Here is how these bureaucrats outwit the citizens:

1. The RTI Act allows the PIOs to appoint an assistant (Section 5(4) of the Act). The PIOs promptly go ahead and appoint a lower division clerk or officer as the assistant PIO, whose calibre is often very low.

According the citizens using the RTI law, PIO appear to be doing this to meet two objectives: (i) the low ranking assistant PIO can be easily manipulated into giving misleading or insufficient information, or delaying/denying it altogether, and (ii) when the information seeker files a final appeal/complaint with the SCIC, it is this low-rank official who has to face the music (if at all it is played). This is the first trick in the book.

2. Normally, when a citizen does not get the information that he has asked for (within 30 days) or is given insufficient/incorrect information, he has to file an appeal with the AA, who should act swiftly. This doesn’t happen because the AA knows that even when the concerned citizen complains to the SCIC, it is only the assistant PIO who will be hauled up.

The result is that the RTI Act has created a couple of posts – PIO and AA – whose holders do not practically don’t do anything. Though the SCIC is responsible for bringing them to book, he chooses to focus on the lowly assistant PIO.

3. The maximum penalty under the RTI act that a CIC can levy on the erring assistant PIO (or the PIO) is Rs 25,000. The Act prescribes Rs.250 a day for every day the information is delayed, but it is capped at Rs.25,000. The citizens I discussed this matter with asked me to think about this: if you were in a high-rank position in a government department and you knew that there is a file being asked for by a citizen that has the potential to bust your job and future, wouldn’t you go to the assistant PIO and ask him to delay matters first and then and give the wrong information for a price?

Not to forget that the penalized officer can approach courts, causing even greater delays.

However, even after the penalty is levied, the responsibility of the PIO to provide the information to an applicant does not seize.

Karnataka Information Commission
3rd Floor, 3rd Stage, Multistoried Buildings,
Dr Ambedkar Road, Bangalore – 560001.
Tel: 22371191-2
scic AT karnataka.gov.in
kic.gov.in

4. In terms of the RTI Act (Section 18(3)), the CIC must follow the civil court procedure when he receives an appellate complaint. In terms of Order 5, Section 5 of the Civil Court Procedure Code, a summons must be issued for final disposal of the case. This means sending across the summons and fixing date and time for hearings and seeing the evidence. This is due process.

However, this proviso is bypassed and instead the CIC takes refuge in Section 20 of the RTI Act that says "reasonable opportunity" must be given to the accused.

In experiences several of our persistent citizens, the CIC keeps giving time to the Asst. PIO/PIO. RTI cases lying with the CIC keep piling up and when a citizen approaches the CIC for expediting a case, he cites the backlog of pending cases as an excuse to delay him the information further. You can understand cases being decided in a matter of 2 or 3 hearings, but postponing them for months altogether indicates a lack of motive to dispose them off.

5. If a citizen is neither satisfied with the information received, nor satisfied with the SCIC’s orders, then all he can do is approach the High Court, where he has to prove beyond reasonable doubt that that the CIC was wrong. Knowing how our courts work, this procedure can aptly be described as an everlasting affair with no hopeful end.

This is how the RTI Act is being implemented – denial of the right itself by delay. What you have read above are the reasons why citizens struggle with their RTI cases, and go away back to where they came from, which in many cases is a small town far away from Bengaluru. Some stick around – a few of these succeed, many don’t.

How long before the backlog of RTI cases be cleared?

More on the attitude

On 8 March, CICs from across the country held a conference at Balbooree Bhavan in the city. The stated purpose was to invite journalists to give their suggestions to the changes required in the RTI Act.

But if the CICs are serious about strengthening the RTI Act – and it does require a number of changes – then in addition to journalist users, must they not sit down with leading citizens users and organizations too? It is no secret that media organizations are only beginning to use RTI, following the trend set by citizens around the country.

Instead, the CICs prefer to hold eye-and-ear candy press conferences. Citizens and NGOs were not invited, giving the impression that the real purpose may have been present a gung-ho picture about RTI and brush the real issues under the carpet. None of the RTI organizations even knew about the meeting and none have been consulted so far, which is both a shame and a sham.

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