The Right to Information Act (RTI) may be in place but is it actually translating into answers for those seeking them under it? Most who have used the act respond with a resounding NO. But then all hope is not lost as a movement in UP is now brewing amongst the people in the state capital which plans to ask for information under the RTI Act and get it too.
People like Urvashi Sharma who is a house wife and a mother of two but she displays an amazing awareness of her rights as a citizen of India. Better still she prefers to call herself a social worker and RTI activist.
"I have seen my husband being harassed for no fault of his and being accused of harbouring and instructing his Dalit students to spread communalism. A mountain of paper work to terminate him from his post of a lecturer has been initiated by the departments he was posted to and if it wasn't for the RTI Act he would have been forced to live with such grave accusations. We demanded transparency provided to citizens under the act and were able to counter all charges. But this would not have been possible had we not joined the people's movement for the right to information," she says as she prepares to attend a dharna being organised by a group of citizens she has joined up to campaign for issues under the RTI Act.
The movement she talks of is a group of local citizens for whom it all began as a personal battle for their rights and transformed into a community movement called the Action Group For Right To Information (AGRI). Not only does the group spearhead the cause of many who have sought for information under the RTI Act but also is now coercing the state governments to expedite measures to facilitate quick redressal of the cases that come to the State information commission.
But that is easier said than done claim most RTI activists in Lucknow.
Explains Afjal Ansari, the Chief Co-ordinator, AGRI, "Since the concept is based on what we call the participatory democracy in which the common man becomes a major part of the governance as well, asking for information is usually seen as accusations of corruption and not responded to. A right reserved only for the legislatures, politicians and bureaucrats until now. But the RTI Act now provides a direct reach of a citizen to any part of the entire set up of the government system to ask for answers of actions taken, what can be more empowering than that. Anyone who has been in authority until now and has been conditioned to refuse permission to access files related to departmental issues, will resist all to attempts enhance accountability and transparency. So challenges do arise and we have to take them into our stride. As changing an age old system does not happen overnight and corruption is one such system."
Adds Azhar Ahmed Ansari Convenor, AGRI, "What is lacking is the training of the clerks and babus who are to function as per instruction of Public Information Officers (PIOs). Most are not even aware of the basics points mentioned in the act. Thus delays occur when they don't respond to the applicant within the stipulated 30 days. Making matters worse is the fact that these delays are costing the state government a whopping 2-5 lakhs in terms of TA/DA per hearing as no less that 250 cases come every month and deferred time and again. The concerned departments have to depute officers to represent their case on every new date given. It’s not worth it as the penalty of Rs 25000 is usually paid by the PIO from his salary if delay is proved in responding. While the babu and the clerks get away completely. This must change and accountability must be for all."
But will things change?
"Of course, previously there were people woes related to the railways, passport office and even land allotments were many, but after RTI Act came into being things have really changed. It will take time but sustained efforts will usher in the change we desire at least that's what we plan to ensure through AGRI," avers Ansari.
A fact which is seconded by most RTI Activists who also rue harassment of the applicant to discourage any queries.
Says Urvashi Sharma, "Seeking Information under the RTI Act is interpreted by the heads of the department against which an RTI has been filed as being directly accused of corruption. So no co-operation is extended to the applicant, and they are harassed with FIRs filed against them as trouble makers. Some even have to face a lot of humiliation at the hands of clerks and babus which discourages the applicants from filing RTIs. This is one major challenge we have to face when it comes to making optimum use of the RTI Act. But we started forming a base of all such cases and will address them under Section 19/1 or Section 19/3 under the RTI Act."
In addition AGRI has managed to address many more issues related to the act at a recent conference organised in Lucknow. Not only was the seminar attended by Chief Secretary, Atul Kumar Gupta, Chief Information Commissioner, Government of India, Wajahat Habbiullah, Retd Justice Kamaleshwar Nath, President of Transparency International but some, decisions were also taken to help iron out problems faced by the common man when making use of the act.
Among those were initiatives like making all departmental information available online. As per the Information Commissioner, Central Information Commission, Wajahat Habibullah the emphasis will be more on providing information over 20 years old online. With the World Bank pitching in an impressive Rs 23 crores for the project, the websites with all such public information will be ready by April 2009.
An added plus says Manish Sisodia, RTI Activist in the city, is that "people can phone in through phone booths and get information from any department. The system is based on the lines of phone booths in Bihar. If this works in UP a lot of backlog of files seeking information under the RTI and unnecessary harassment of people can be cut down."
Amen to that!
(The author is a senior journalist based in Lucknow, India. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org )