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Maharashtra amends RTI rules without public consultation

The hushed amendment, which restricts the length of applications to 150 words, has left civil society miffed

Shonali Ghosal
New Delhi

A notification dated 16 January, restricts both the number of subject matter and words in an application such that a written request for information must relate to only one subject matter and must not exceed 150 words. For an Act which is often touted as the common man’s tool for transparency to be amended without the knowledge of the general public has left many disturbed. RTI activists both from Maharashtra and across the country in an attempt to revoke the amendment are signing a joint petition letter of protest led by activist G R Vora to be submitted to Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan on Monday, 2 April.

“We will also be seeking an appointment with the CM to ask for more information commissioners. The state government is too preoccupied with surreptitiously passing amendments to see that we have only four information commissioners.” Some like Mumbai-based RTI Activist Krishnaraj Rao are most miffed with the absolute lack of public consultation. “They should have consulted all stakeholders before changing the rules. Otherwise RTI can be killed with its own rule that allows for amendments,” he says.

In fact, the lack of consultation only makes the state appear more secretive. Especially, considering that activists aren’t even mindlessly opposed to all the amendments. The second notification dated 31 January, which said that a person while inspecting documents will be allowed to take only a pencil is seen as a welcome step by many. “Some pesky individuals or people inspecting documents related to them may write comments, change figures, strike out information with a pen on official records. That’s just not done. At least with a pencil, they can erase it,” says Pune-activist Sanjay Shirodkar.

Other issues have grey areas even among government officials. On the one hand, Prahlad Kachare, head of the Yashada RTI Cell, finds nothing wrong in the word limit amendment but on the other hand, Central Information Commissioner, Shailesh Gandhi says that “it’s not a bad idea. However, 150 words may be too tight. Civil society should push for 200-250.”

Similarly, Kachare believes the single subject matter rule is debatable against the activist viewpoint that it would be too open to interpretation and would only give the public information officers more powers to reject applications. Whether the amendment will be revoked may be uncertain but it will be contested for sure. Perhaps, even the larger issues of appointment of information commissioners will merit a relook. As Gandhi puts it, “If they have the time to restrict citizens, they need to think about how RTI in the state will function without adequate information commissioners.”

Shonali Ghosal is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
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