Let’s protest against govt’s desperation to kill RTI

Chetan Chouhan’s blog on Hindustan Times

The government gave citizens a unique power to question its policies and decisions through the Right To Information (RTI) Act five years ago but off late it has been desperate to kill it either by hook or crook.

The latest in the round of such attempts is the decision of the Chhattisgarh Legislative Assembly to charge Rs 500 as RTI application fee and Rs 15 as a photocopy charge for each page of the information sought.

The RTI Act clearly states that the fee charged should be reasonable to ensure that citizens are able to exercise their fundamental right. Keeping in view the spirit of the Central law, all governments and its bodies have prescribed uniform fees of Rs 10 and photocopying charge of Rs two per page.

The Chhattisgarh legislative assembly has violated this spirit. It has also tried to restrict the citizen’s right to seek information and create a distinction between two wings of a democratic set-up. While information can be sought from the Chhattisgarh state government for Rs 10 but the fees for the same from the state legislative assembly would be 50 times more.

As, Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi, said it will mean unwarranted discrimination against citizens who want to access information from the legislative assembly. Moreover, it also indicates that the legislative assembly wants to discourage citizens from seeking information and plug transparency.

If the citizens fail to protest there is a danger that other government bodies may follow suit and hike the RTI fees abnormally. It is a well known fact the bureaucrats and politicians hate RTI law as it provides a tool in hands of citizens to question and expose them.

RTI has been instrumental in revealing scams and bringing truth out in open. It was an RTI application that unbundled the National Rural Health Mission scam in Uttar Pradesh. The RTI also provided new insights into the 2G scam, in which the accused include former union telecom minister A Raja and several corporate leaders. The streetlight scam in Delhi during Commonwealth Games 2010 was highlighted because of an RTI application by this correspondent.

Increasing the fees is just one of the many innovative ways adopted by governments to bury RTI. Another popular mode is not to appoint information commissioners so that an appeal of a RTI applicant is not heard and he or she gets frustrated.

There is not even single information commissioner in Andhra Pradesh since November 2011, Jharkhand and Rajasthan have one information commissioner and there are a couple of them in several states. The Central Information Commission (CIC) is slightly better with six information commissioners including the Chief Information Commissioner. As per rules, each information commission can have up to 10 members.

As a result, an average time taken to hear a RTI appeal range from 14 months to two years. By the time, the information commission decides the information sought losses its relevance. Many government departments are now deliberately denying information on flimsy grounds knowing well that it will take years for the information commission to decide an appeal.

The UPA government its in first avatar was credited with bringing in the transparency law but the UPA-II will have to ensure that efforts to kill RTI are defeated if it believes in better governance and transparency. It should quickly fill vacant posts in CIC and advise the state governments to set up full strength information commissions for quick disposal of appeals.

Or, else RTI will become another frustrating experience for citizens dealing with the government offices. Citizens can protest through Prime Minister’s tweeter account or emailing representations to Prime Minister and Chief Ministers and all those in high offices of the government.