Right to Information
Source: Association for Democratic Reforms
According to Evidence-Based Research Mobilising Action for Policy-Influencing in Two Provinces: Policy Changes under the Right to Information Act in India, which has been prepared by Vikas Jha, Society of Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), March 2010, http://www.pria.org/docs/RTI%20Case%20Study%282%29.pdf:
• In India, in the last 15 years, there has been a fifteen-fold increase in Central Government Budget spending on anti-poverty programmes from around Rs.75,000 million in 1993-94 to well over Rs.1,20,0000 million in 2008-09. Yet, inefficient and leaky delivery mechanisms have resulted in the diversion of resources, and merely marginal improvements in the condition of the poor.
• The government of Bihar has moved ahead and created mechanisms which have had tremendous influence on compliance with RTI in India, while the government of Uttar Pradesh has not responded to evidence-based research and community mobilisation.
• Socio-economic indicators in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are more or less similar, predominantly due to the crisis of governance in the two states. Public institutions have largely become non-accountable and non-responsive to citizens. A study by Transparency International India and the Centre of Media Studies, 2007, covering 11 services with a focus on Below Poverty Line families demonstrates that Bihar and Uttar Pradesh have alarming levels of corruption. These studies substantiate the citizens’ perception that elected representatives and public officials work for themselves and not for citizens.
• From a study conducted by Participatory Research in Asia between April to September 2006, it could be assessed that in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, there are several instances of PIOs refusing to accept applications. Government officers are frequently absent from office and nobody accepts the application in his absence. In Uttar Pradesh’s Bahraich district, PIOs refused to accept the fee by postal order saying that they do not have a Government Order for the same, whereas the government has already passed the order that the fee can be paid by postal order. Most of the time, information provided was partial or half-baked.
• Regarding the role of the Information Commissions, the findings pointed out that the SICs are very reluctant to penalize PIOs for dereliction of duty i.e., denial of information to the public. In some provinces like Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan, the constitution of the SIC was delayed by several months.
• It was also found that SICs were not provided adequate infrastructure, e.g. office space, computers, staff, funds and so on. For example, the Uttar Pradesh SIC has a very heavy workload, but only two Information Commissioners have been appointed.
• The Bihar CIC has recently taken oaths and the official address is still not available even on the website. People in rural areas also felt that the appeal process was very expensive. There is a provision for sending the appeal by post but people feel that in their absence, their case would not be presented properly.
• On the government’s role in educating people, the study pointed out that a large percentage of people (nearly 90%) are not aware of the Act which becomes a hindrance in the filing of applications. In all the states utilisation of the RTI is far less in rural areas as compared to urban areas. The government has not undertaken any campaign, either in the electronic or print media, for making RTI popular among people, while it regularly launches campaigns on the achievements of the railways, health programmes and birthdays of politicians. So far, only one large-scale campaign has been launched on RTI, which was organized by NGOs and the media. Governments, both central and state level, have neither allocated adequate funds to nodal agencies for organising campaigns on RTI nor supported such activities in any other way.
• Community-based research was undertaken by a group of RTI activists in Bihar. They collected the qualitative data by conducting several meetings in the districts of Gopalganj, Siwan, Khagadia, Begusarai, Samastipur, Patna, Muzaffarpur and Madhubani.
• A research study was carried out by Sahbhagi Shikshan Kendra (SSK) in Uttar Pradesh in the districts of Sitapur, Bahraich, Varanasi, and Mirzapur. Kabir (an NGO from New Delhi) and Poorest Area Civil Society Project (PACS) partners Akhil Bharatiya Samaj Sangha had also taken up an initiative named Action Research Villages (ARV) in four districts (Banda, Chitrakoot, Allahabad, and Bahraich) of Uttar Pradesh in December 2006.
• The initiative began with the training of villagers on RTI so that they could participate in the research. The research and advocacy initiative was conducted over a period of one year to find out peoples’ opinion on RTI and its use, and how it affected the day-to-day lives of the villagers, changed overall village conditions and affected the reform of existing governance mechanisms.
• The research in both the provinces demonstrated that the people in rural areas faced tremendous difficulties in accessing information.
• The role of the Information Commission and the state government was found to be grossly inadequate. Regarding the role of the apex body of RTI, the UP State Information Commission, the research pointed out that poor disposal rate of appeals, citizens not being called for hearings, sympathy for bureaucracy and a wait of four to six months for appeals were common complaints of citizens. Such a state of affairs at the RTI’s apex body worried people, as it would lead to long waits where justice was indefinitely delayed.
• The research also demonstrated that people were able to solve small service delivery problems in housing, unemployment, roads etc. through RTI and expose cases of corruption in some districts (Bihar and Uttar Pradesh). The findings from the community-based research were shared regularly with the media through regular press briefs.
• Some of the research findings in Uttar Pradesh, such as corruption in the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), mid-day meals, scholarships and school uniforms were highlighted in newspapers, which built pressure on the government to take corrective action. Some cases of harassment of the common citizens were also highlighted in the media.
• PRIA in 2008 took up a study entitled “Review of Right to Information Rules in Seven States”. The study pointed out that the RTI rules framed by the states go against the letter and spirit of the RTI Act, 2005. It is a well-settled principle of delegated legislation in the federal structure of India that the rules made to enable legislation cannot go against the provisions of the parent Act they seek to enforce.
• The study finds that in many instances the rules were framed violating the provisions of the RTI Act.
• The Uttar Pradesh Government did not seem very comfortable with the widespread use of the RTI Act by common citizens. It tried to expand the list of exemptions by excluding 14 items from the purview of the RTI Act. These items were the appointment of the Advocate General; notifications related to the Uttar Pradesh Rules of Business 1975; the Government of India’s Allocation of Rules of Business; matters related to the other states’ rules of business; probe against ministers and Members of Parliament; all matters related to the Padma awards, appointment of the Governor; the appointment of ministers, ministers of state and deputy ministers; the code of conduct for the ministers and the Chief Minister’s instructions to them; the appointment of judges and the Governor’s monthly report that is sent to the President of India.
• A lot many civil society organizations demanded that the RTI Act should be followed in letter and spirit, a single window system should be created to facilitate access to information and RTI laws should be citizen-friendly. A demand for RTI call centres on the lines of Bihar was also made in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh by Action Group for Right to Information (AGRI, a partnership and network group of RTI activists in the state) and national-level activists Arvind Kejriwal and Manish Sisodia.
• The Bihar Government established the ’Jankari’ call centre on 29 January 2007. The centre records the voices of the citizens over the phone and drafts the application in a manner that can be put before the Public Information Officers in the Public Authorities.
• Since a large chunk of the rural population is unable to read and write, the call centre is proving to be beneficial as it writes applications on behalf of the complainants. A sum of Rs. 10 is charged as fees (under the RTI provisions) and is automatically charged in the caller's telephone bill.
• Bihar is the first state in India to accept RTI applications on the phone with the objective of ensuring transparency in the functioning of public institutions and that of expanding the reach of RTI to the villages.
• The RTI call centre had a slow start but it has gradually picked up. The analysis of data of two years (2007 –2009) of the RTI call centre’s working shows that it has facilitated in the filing of applications and Appeals in a big way.
• A comparison of the data of six months in 2007 and 2009 on details of calls received at the call centre shows that the number of applications filed has jumped nearly three times from 2007 to 2009. The number of First Appeals and Second Appeals has seen a huge increase over these two years.
• The analysis of call details helps us find out the government departments which are getting the maximum number of RTI applications. The maximum number of RTI applications was filed in the Personal and Administrative Reforms Department and Rural Development Department.
• Interaction with community and civil society organisations in Bihar brought out the reasons for RTI usage in these two departments; community members said malpractices in huge recruitment drives for primary school teachers and in rural employment drives under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme were the reason they wanted to find out whether entitlements were granted in a fair manner.
• The three- to four-fold increase in the number of queries over these two years substantiates the conclusion that the call centre has been able to educate and guide a number of citizens. Though the number of 12,628 (2009) seems to be quite small compared to the huge population of Bihar, this method of responding to RTI applications, appeals and queries assumes importance, as no such method exists in other states.
• Information technology then, if used innovatively, can provide solutions for poor grievance redressal, poor transparency and non-accountability of government institutions.
• There have been some logistical constraints in the call centre’s operations as citizens complain that the phone lines are often jammed and it is not possible to call from all the districts in Bihar. It is also seen in some cases that the questions are not framed with the applicants’ information needs in mind. Hence, wrong information is furnished to the applicant. These must be seen as small operational bottlenecks which can be easily sorted out if the call centre is expanded.