VINITA DESHMUKH | 22/05/2014 12:53 PM |   

Last year, Narendra Modi ridiculed the PMO for denying information to a citizen. Will his office be open to seriously dealing with RTI applications, considering that his home state Gujarat does not have a good record?
People have given a huge mandate to one single party and soon a new government will begin its work under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. While issues like curtailing price rise and bolstering economy would be a priority, it would be interesting to see his strategy on transparency, meaning the implementation of RTI Act, particularly in the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office), besides the rest of India.
The reason for broaching this issue is Narendra Modi’s speech while addressing a BJP workers’ meeting in Kolkata on the 9th April, 2013. In an apparent reference to RTI activist Commodore Lokesh Batra’s RTI application which was dismissed by the PMO office and had gained publicity through newspapers, Modi had stated that, a citizen had asked a question to the PMO under RTI but the PMO office declined to provide the necessary information. He further stated that the Congress flaunts that it has brought in the RTI Act but what is the use if it does not abide by the true spirit of the Law. His speech can be heard here. For the specific comment, go to timing 1:07:58 in the speech.
Batra had filed a RTI application to get information on the details of files and records which have been digitized by it as per the rules of Section 4(1)(a) of the RTI Act. ThePublic Information Officer (PIO) replied that the applicant “has not specified how the information is useful to him either personally, socially or nationally.” As most are aware, a RTI query does not require motive. The first appellate authority overruled PIO’s reply and directed him to make the information available within  a fortnight. Despite that, the PIO did not comply.
While Modi was correct in raising the issue, the fact is that there is the general apathy in implementing the RTI Act in Modi’s home state of Gujarat. Several activists who I spoke to on Tuesday confessed that RTI compliance is poor in the State. Bhadresh Wamja, the 20 year old Sarpanch of Saldi village, 120 kms from Gandhinagar who is an ardent RTI activist too stated that, “RTI in Gujarat is weak. There is apathy over appointment of Central Information Commissioners (CIC) –we have only four out of nine presently. PIOs are very lax in providing information so most of the applications go for first and second appeal.’’
RTI activist Vinod Sanepara of Surat also stated that Gujarat has not implemented RTI Act in true spirit. He states, “My RTI applications regarding various schemes and rights for the disabled have been stonewalled. I have had to go for first appeals but there too it is not smooth sailing. PIOs are particularly callous about replying queries and there is no political or administrative will to strengthen RTI.’’
Another RTI applicant mentioned that, it is difficult, nearly impossible to get information concerning MLAs and MPs of Gujarat. This results in threats and he thinks it is pertinent and of urgent importance that a strong Whistleblowers Act is put in place. Gujarat and Maharashtra are two prominent states where assaults, most of them fatal, have occurred.
As for the PMO office under Manmohan Singh, it was clearly RTI-unfriendly in the UPA-II era, say RTI activists. Observes Batra, “Earlier, I was asked to name the most transparent Public Authority, without second thought I would say PMO. As per my experience PMO was role model in implementing RTI Act. Then suddenly towards October 2011 everything changed and transparency in PMO took a dip. The status of Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) who is a Deputy Secretary level officer was reduced to a Post Office.
“The CPIO started signing RTI replies with standard phrase ‘The matter was referred to the office for providing inputs. The inputs provided by the office in respect of your request for information, is enclosed.‘ In my view, it was clear that the RTI responses were being vetted by Senior Officers in PMO before being signed and sent to CPIO by a Section level Officer who is much junior in rank to CPIO who holds the rank of Deputy Secretary but left with little say. Transparency in PMO became the causality.’’
States Shailesh Gandhi, former CIC: “It is a very good sign that Mr. Narendra Modi,-the PM designate,- displayed his inclination for transparency when he criticised the PMO for refusing to give certain information under RTI. My experience with the PMO as an Information Commissioner is that generally it is very professional and correct in RTI matters. However, at times there are unjustifiable denials of information. With Mr. Modi as PM we expect that the PMO will not deny any information which should be provided. We hope Mr. Modi will increase transparency in the PMO and the Central government. He will find that increased transparency will allow thousands of vigilant citizens to curb arbitrariness and corruption. I am hopeful that he will take the Government towards complete digital working without paper files which would facilitate transparency, adherence to Section 4 and improve efficiency in working.’’
Delhi-based RTI activist Veeresh Malik, opines that, “The UPA Government has been talking about the RTI Act of India as one of its stellar achievements while the actual fact is that they have been responsible for resisting downstream implementation in real top-down cases, on various subjects such as:
* Costs incurred on so-called VIPs/VVIPs under multiple heads, not only security
* Subhash Chandra Bose files
* Definition of “Muslim Citizen of India” as used in Parliament
* Definition of “minorities” after marriage with non-minorities as well as sub-sects within minorities
* Bringing PPPs / JVs / NGOs and other substantially financed by taxpayer entities under RTI.
Let us hope the new Modi government opens RTI and PG (Public Grievance) up properly, for real citizen governance.”
Will Modi do an Obama in this case? As soon as he became President of USA in his first term, he had sent a letter to all public departments, asking them to be transparent in their day to day work. Here is the link.
A survey by CHRI and Nagarik Adhikar Kendra in 2009 revealed that RTI implementation is poor in Gujarat. Excerpts:


“CHRI and Nagarik Adhikar Kendra, Kalol designed this survey to assesscompliance of public authorities with their obligations under the RTI Act in Panchmahals district.
Panchmahals was the district of choice as it was handpicked by the State Government in 2006-2007 for intensive capacity building of public authorities under a UNDP sponsored programme. This survey is an exercise aimed at evaluating the performance of public authorities in terms of objective parameters based on their duties described under the RTI Act and the RTI Rules issued by the Government of Gujarat…


“…With the exception of a handful of public authorities that have made serious efforts to implement the RTI Act, the record of compliance is poor in a large majority of the offices. Compliance at the taluka level is much weaker compared to offices at the district level. The dismal levels of performance overall in Panchmahals can be attributed to several factors:
a) negligible or partial understanding of the obligations under the RTI Act;
b) a cavalier attitude towards fulfillment of the objectives of the RTI Act;
c) lack of proper understanding about the effect and consequences of
providing access to information that they hold in custody;
d) lack of incentives to change from deep-set ways of maintaining undue
secrecy in every aspect of governance; and
e) unjustifiable attitudes towards the taxpaying citizen ranging from
casual treatment to blatant disregard.
The narratives of the experience the survey team went through to obtain mundane, everyday information about the implementation of this Act are illustrative of the degree of resistance within the bureaucracy to changing old habits of keeping information hidden from public view.” Full Report here.


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