150 words and no more

Access to information using the RTI Act may have changed for the worse. The Government of Karnataka under Governor Rameshwar Thakur’s administration has added a new rule, #14, which places a restriction on the subjects and the number of words to be contained in an application asking for information under the RTI Act.

The rule was in the form of amendment (GO) to RTI rules 2005 and signed by the Under Secretary, Department of Personnel and Administrative Reforms on behalf of President of India and published in the Gazette of GOK. It is now in force.

The rule allows only one topic per application (even if they are inter-related) and restricts the description to 150 words. To understand the impact of this rule, you have to understand how a RTI application moved before this rule was introduced:

How the RTI process works

If a citizen comes across any civic issue/problem related to roads, drainage and other utilities, then he files a single RTI application with the BBMP/ or the appropriate government agency asking for information related to all the issues.

In a large number of applications, the reply given by the BBMP so far has been either vague in nature or misleading. At this stage, some RTI applicants lose their enthusiasm. The brave ones continue their fight and appeal to the Appellate Authority or to the Karnataka Information Commission, where the SCIC (State Chief Information Commissioner) presides.

There is a whopping time lag in taking up these appeals – this delay averages to about 4 months. By this time, most of the officials who had given the original vague/misleading information are transferred and there’s a new official in place now, and he knows nothing about the RTI application or the information provided. The new official asks for time and the SCIC adjourns the case for another 4 months!

After a gap of 9 months from the date of filing the original application, the SCIC then directs the official in charge to give the information.

So, in effect, the RTI applicant gets his information 10 months after filing his first application. In between he has to do several desperate rounds to the concerned government agency and the KIC, following up his case.

Despite all these roadblocks and potholes, some dedicated RTI activists have still managed to get their hands on critical information and bring the guilty to book.

How the new rule obstructs

A citizen has to be sparse with his details. If he is not a good writer and cannot edit the number of words to 150 – too bad, his application will be rejected. Alternatively, he may not be able to explain his query within 150 words – this will give rise to more misleading replies. If he attaches documents with his application, then the PIOs may count the number of words in his attachment and reject the application!

Citizens argue that this is a not progressive rule. Already, as things stand, government departments delay all applications. With this, the number of applications pending with departments could rise even further and so will the number of appeals before the SCIC, all adding up to further delays and a humungous mass of paperwork.

As of now, the present SCIC does not even have a record of cases pending, officials punished, etc., but what is for certain is that a very large number of (an ‘ocean’ say some) pending. The introduction of Rule 14 will not reduce the number of cases, say RTI activists.

The RTI Act in its present form has quite a few loopholes because of which many cases are stuck. It needs to be made more robust and free of loopholes. Instead of making the RTI act work for the people, the Karnataka government decided to add Rule 14. Rule 14 raises the prospect that some government officers will now view applications based on their word count and the summary rather than on their merit, say activists.

A group of RTI activists have already written to Karnataka’s Governor, requesting him to revisit the section and eliminate it. Action though will rest with the new government that comes to power soon after the current elections.

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