In 2008, for the first time at the advice of Karnataka State Information Commission amendments were brought into the RTI Act after its CIC KK Mishra argued for curtailment citing the reason that is an insult to the PIO as he already busy doing other things. This when only 3 applications in KSIC had asked 25-30 questions. Despite protests amendments were carried out. Thereafter the menace spread in Bihar with amendments in 2009.
"This speaks of how committed the government is to curtail RTI Act," says Venkatesh Nayak of CHRI. "Later during the time when the present Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan was at the DoPT in the centre proposal to amend RTI rules to 250 words per subject could not take off after huge protests. But now with first available opportunity they have done it in Maharashtra in an extremely irrational manner. This when as a central minister Chavan had said that without public consultations and debate there will be no amendments to RTI act. Now why has he now allowed that to happen in Maharashtra without any consultation and debate?”asks Nayak.
Advocate Vinod Sampat, also member of RTI Union, stumbled upon the amendments while buying a publication outside City Civil Court.
Julio F Ribeiro, retired IPS officer and trustee of PCGT who has been helping people file RTI applications, expressed extreme disappointment at the arbitrary step take by Maharashtra government to amend RTI act. “We are extremely flabbergasted at the state government for taking such a step clandestinely. Situation in the country is very bad and RTI is better than Lokpal which is for higher democracy.”
Riberio has sought an appointment with Chavan today to decide on future course of action. He said that no CIC has been appointed in the state and vacancies for IC have been pending for a long time due to which pendency of appeals and review petitions are rising. “They are killing a powerful information weapon and taking it away from common man” he said and added that earlier too they had written two letters to the CM for appointment of CIC and IC but the government has chosen to sit quietly over the issue and not do anything about it. Ribeiro has now written to the leader of opposition who part of 3 member committee to appoint SIC and IC.
RTI activist and journalist Krishnaraj Rao said that despite DoPT circular asking for patterning RTI uniformly across states on existing central RTI rules everyone is going on opposite directions. Last year the government wanted to amend central RTI act by keeping a word limit of 250 words which was vociferously opposed by all. “How did they put in a limit of 150 words in Maharashtra? There seems to be some kind of grand design to amend RTI rules across states boundaries the same pattern. Is there a secret circular or are Information Commissioners sitting and discussing this” questioned Rao.
Gravely concerned at arbitrary amendments by state govt, RTI experts say that the laws are made to make people feel secure and not spring a surprise and make them wonder what is the government doing behind people’s back. The government is supposed to take people into confidence and discuss it.
The wording of rule gives rise to multiple interpretations giving the PIO discretionary powers which he can misuse. This is dilution. One subject per application will lead to multiple applications, add to fees and further multiply pendency of appeals. Without considering the fact that thousands and thousands of applications are merely a page long state government has pushed amendments relying on mere anecdotal instances of some three or ten page applications.Every PIO will be waiting for such restrictive amendments as such things generate a lot of enthusiasm in implementing them say experts .
“This is not a solitary pursuit . There has to be country wide campaign directed at DoPT who has to issue a diktat for rules to be followed .It has to be taken up collectively. People will have to take up its ownership otherwise we richly deserve what we are getting. RTI Act gave you information but the rules have to articulate that freedom and not curtail that freedom. Bad rules are being introduced at the discretion of ‘competent’ public authorities .We need to preserve RTI on a united front and not look at it on individual state basis ”says Rao.
The activists plan to fight tooth and nail to preserve the spirit of act before it is maimed by government. “In the current state of affairs we need a minimum 5 information commissioners as the pendencie’s are going up at the rate of 3000 cases per month."
Bhavesh Patel, President of Anna Hazare’s anti corruption outfit, Bhrashtachar Virodhi Andolan, said that they want to make it a toothless act, weaken it and eventually eliminate the act. The amendments have been brought to basically to harass the citizens so that when seeking information become lengthy process the citizen it gives up altogether. after many cases of corruption coming to light with RTI the govt is now systematically curtailing the act . It is now that citizens should come together to protest this.
Speaking on amendments to act Nayak says that based on factual data the govt should make its reasons public and if the problem is serious we can explore other options. PIO’s can divide their work, respond to RTI queries within one month keeping in mind their other work and mention the no of queries they will respond to and also mention the amount of money charged for providing copies. In case of complaints the application can go to appellate authorities who can decide how many questions can be answered in 30 days considering the work burden of PIO.
“The govt should do a study on RTI applications as large majority of applications as in rural areas are for proactively disclosure of information under 4: 1(b) which is about scheme, beneficiaries, project and development funds , NREGA, wage payments etc;. Why this information is not put up on internet or panchayat walls. Realizing strong opposition to amendment of RTI act one by one the states have started curtailing it through rules or judicial route” says Nayak .
Another example of Govt resistance to RTI can be seen from the fact that much before the amendments were introduced, govt of Madhya Pradesh had merely on here say that central govt was bringing in amendments of 250 words pre subject matter started implementing the same .
Patel is hoping that the near future Anna Hazare who went on hunger strike to implement RTI in Maharashtra in 2003 before GoI made in into a Central Act in 2005 will step in for support.