Sunday, 8 January 2012

Mass Disposal Melas are NOT the way forward for RTI

FIRST THE GOOD NEWS: The Mass Disposal Mela organized by Acting Chief SIC Vijay Kuvalekar at Podar Ayurvedic College, Worli, Mumbai, 3-5 January, was a success. Of the 607 pending cases that were put on the board over eight sessions of this mela, 457 “hearings” (i.e. meetings between appellant, PIO and FAA) took place. Besides a lot of satisfied appellants, who got the information of grievance redressal sought, some penalty hearings are also in the pipeline.

Disposal of 457 appeals means that Mumbai’s RTI appellants will now have to wait two months less for an appeal hearing. They may get their second appeal hearings in – say – 14 months instead of 16 months. That is undoubtedly good.

THE BAD NEWS: RTI Act is being short circuited. The lawful way of doing things is bypassed.
FLASHBACK TO THE TIME BEFORE RTI ACT 2005: Citizens were used to getting things done by personal goodwill -- writing letters to government officials, meeting them in their offices and negotiating with them. In this process, there were very few lawful processes involved – only good intentions and sweet words.

Since RTI Act 2005 was passed, this culture started to change. We learned to insist on Rule of Law. They started insisting on things being done by-the-book, instead of as a personal favour. They wanted laws, rules and norms to be followed. They wanted the law, as it is written-down, to be followed.  

If there is one thing that characterizes an RTI activist, it is his insistence on documented processes. It is his insistence on the written word and the rule-book.

The mass appeal hearings signals a return to our old ways – of friendly words and across-the-table negotiations. It is not RTI.

Information Commissioners are paid very high salaries – over Rs 1.3 lakh – so that they apply their mind to implementing the RTI Act. For this work, each of them is given a large staff of 7 or more. CICs and SICs derive their powers to deal with appeals from Section 19(3). They derive their power to deal with complaints from Section 18. They are supposed to apply their mind to the Sections of RTI Act in order to take their decisions. They are paid for applying their mind in a judicial manner.

They are not paid salaries to be go-betweens and arrange citizens’ meetings with officials. They cannot delegate their decision-making powers to anybody. They cannot go beyond the written word and assume any additional powers, because they have none!

This is a specimen of the form that each set of appellants, PIOs and FAAs fill up during the Mass Disposal Mela, and submit to the SIC staff:

This is its translation in English:

Based on these filled-up forms (and unspecified papers that are submitted along with it), Mr Kuvalekar will summarily dispose off the appeals. He asserts that he has the power to do so, with or without another hearing. Please ask where this power comes from – because there is no answer to such a question.

There are RTI appeal backlogs all over the country. If this method is followed by all the SICs and CICs in the country, please ask what will happen to the RTI Act. If every appeal is to be settled by negotiating with the same PIO and FAA who denied the information in the first place, where will we all go for justice?

Yes, the governor of Maharashtra blessed these mass disposal proceedings. He is the same governor who refuses to abide by the RTI Act in Goa -- whose matter is in court because he says that the governor’s office is not within the scope of the RTI Act. This case is now in Supreme Court, after the High Court ruled against him.

Friends, if this Mass Disposal Mela is the beginning, where is the end? Will you continue to be RTI activists in 2012 and 2013 if negotiating becomes the accepted way of doing things, instead of appeal hearings heard by Information Commissioners?

Our country is where it is because we always take the easy way out. We are a “soft state”, with a chronic tendency to take the path of least resistance. In my humble opinion, this is not the way forward.

Warm Regards,
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