The RTI at work: From the diary of an Information Commissioner
June 3, 2007
This is the synopsis of a talk (in Marathi) delivered by Mr Vijay Kuvalekar, State Information Commission of Maharashtra (Pune revenue division) on 'Right to Information' in a programme organised by the Surajya Sangharsha Samiti at Sardar Mahadeo Balwant Natu Auditorium at Bhartiya Vidya Bhavan, Pune Kendra, on Tuesday, May 29, 2007. Many thanks to Prakash Kardaley, RTI activist, journalist and convener of humjanenge-- a popular yahoogroup on RTI. As Kardaley said, Maharashtra is the first state in the country to have posted information commissions in different parts of the state to bring justice closer to the people and Mr.Kuvalekar is only the third journalist to be appointed to this important post.
Eyebrows may be raised on my addressing a gathering of RTI 'activists'. But there is nothing wrong for an information commissioner addressing different segments of the society on the RTI Act and sharing his/her experience. One can come close to the people and yet maintain a respectful distance.
I agree one has to be 'pro-people', but not necessarily be a populist.
There were suggestions that I should prefer the posting in Mumbai and avail of an official residence there. After all, it is considered prestigious to function from the state capital. But I insisted on working from Pune for after all, I was appointed for Pune region.
The concept of prestigious position and place is rather amusing in the administration. In the initial hunt for office accommodation in Pune, I accept a rather non-descript place near Swar Gate Bus Station in southern parts of Pune because that is where common petitioners from my region covering southern Maharashtra will alight, invariably travelling by state transport buses. But I was advised that the place would not be suitable for a prestigious position of an information commissioner! So I was temporarily accommodated in a small room in the Council Hall, the seat of the Divisional Commissioner, in the government district in the city, several kms away from Swar Gate. Eventually, I was given a permanent office space in the new administrative building opposite the Council Hall.
Past three months as the information commissioner has been a process of learning for me. I am beginning to realise how this powerful piece of legislation can solve the day-to-day problems of the common man.
Citing a few instances:
One of the earliest matters that came before me was the second appeal filed by a villager from South Maharashtra on not getting a copy of a resolution adopted by his village (gram) panchayat passing strictures against his wife, an anganwadi sevika. The PIO and the appellate authority – the block development officer – were present, but the petitioner was not. The officials said the copy of the proceeding book was missing and that the respondent was informed by post, incidentally within the same village. The petitioner in his appeal had recorded that he had not received any communication at all. I asked the officials if a police complaint was lodged on the missing document. They answered in the affirmative. But I noticed that the complaint was lodged only after the requisitioner had filed his second appeal with the information commission. I directed the officials to make all out effort to trace the proceeding book and give the information within a week, or else I will be constrained to summon both the post master of the village and the police official with home the complaint was alleged to have to been lodged, to depose before the commission. The RTI Act empowers an information commission to summon such witnesses.
At about 6 pm, when I had already left the office, I received a call on my mobile phone from the requisitioner that he had reached my temporary office at the Council Hall and wondered what to do. He was sorry he was late and obtained my telephone number from the peons there. He had to change two buses to reach Pune from his village. He had money just enough for his passage and certainly not for an overnight stay in Pune. I told him I would come back to the office and asked him to stay put. He couldn't believe his eyes when he actually saw me there. I had a room opened and recorded his deposition. He confirmed he had not received any postal communication at all.
Next day, I received a phone call from the officials saying the proceeding book, after all, was traced and that a copy of the resolution was being handed over to the requisitioner. I, however, insisted that the requsitioner should speak to me and confirm. I closed the case only when he confirmed that the required information indeed was passed on to him.
Another example of missing files. A resident of Sangli in South Maharashtra (Sangli is a district place) sought from the Sangli-Miraj-Kupwad municipal corporation copies of its records declaring his housing society being illegal (that is – having built illegal constructions). He had been seeking these documents for the past several years and had unsuccessfully approached the judiciary. Every time, the excuse of the municipal corporation was that the file was missing. He got the same reply when he piloted a requisition under the RTI Act.
His second appeal came before me. Both the parties were present. Officials told me that the matter dated back to the days when Sangli was a municipal council. The file probably was misplaced when the council documents were handed over to the municipal corporation. I asked the officials if a complaint was lodged with the police on the missing file. The answer was negative. In that case, I told them, a police compliant needs to be lodged against all officials who were supposed to have the custody the file during the entire period. I was told that one or two have passed away and some have retired. I told them that a police complaint can surely be filed against retired officials for lapses done during their tenure with the government.
I then noticed that the requisitioner had taken up the matter unsuccessfully with the judiciary. So I suggested that the officials perhaps can procure a copy of the document from the civic lawyer. The officials, however, said, they were not aware who was the lawyer for the erstwhile Sangli municipal council as they represented the Sangli-Miraj-Kupwad municipal corporation. At the stage, the requisitioner, promptly fished out the case papers from the wad of documents he was carrying and gave them the name of the lawyer.
I gave the officials seven days either to get the document from the lawyer and pass it on to the requisitioner or file police complaints against all surviving officials who were responsible for keeping the file in their custody but did nothing to report the matter despite it was presumably lost. Let the police now enquire the matter.
I need not add that even before I could prepare my formal order and despatch it to Sangli, I received a phone call from the municipal corporation officials affirming that the file, presumably lost for several years, was luckily found and that a copy of the document requisitioned by the citizen was being passed on to him. I closed the matter on ascertaining it with the requisitioner.
While I have cited two examples where officials were apparently trying to hide information, I must hasten to add that not all officials are shirkers and at the same time not all requisitioners are saints.
I came across a requisitioner who used to diligently file 10 requisitions a day demanding a variety of information from an aided school. Even Sundays were not spared. He used to file 20 requisitions either on Saturdays or Mondays.
When his bunch of appeals came up for hearing before me, I had no option than to scold him. He may be exercising his democratic right, I told him, but he is at the same time denying other requisitioners their own democratic right. That is because, while I spend my time in attending to his 100 odd requisitions others have to patiently wait for their turn.
Then there was a person below poverty line demanding information that ran into 32,000 pages. I ask RTI campaigners if they would approve this.
In one matter piloted by a BPL person, I even felt that I should order verification of his claimed BPL status.
It has been my practice not to close a matter unless I get the confirmation that the order has been complied with. Interestingly, in some matters decided by me – as in case of this villager – compliance was reported back to me even before my formal typed order could reach the parties!
My hearings are open to everyone. I follow the 'open court' procedure.
The region assigned to me has been significantly active in the use of the RTI Act ever since the days of the Maharashtra Right to Information Act. Almost about 2,000 appeals and complaints have recently been transferred to me for disposal from the chief's office in Mumbai. I will try my best to dispose these of at the earliest. Though I will generally follow the chronological order, I may give priority hearing where the nature of the matter I find calls for early disposal.
To the RTI activists, my appeal is to take the information obtained under the RTI Act to its logical end. None can ask you the purpose for which you are seeking the information, but the obvious question that crosses one's mind is, you got the information, what next then? How are you going to use this information?
While deciding an appeal filed by employees' organisations of government milk schemes in Maharashtra, I was myself shocked at the information that was finally disclosed by the officials. Government dairies in districts have not been functioning for several years, thanks to a GR that diverted the milk procurement from rural areas to cooperatives of milk producers and their dairies, and nearly 14,000 government employees attached to these dairies have been idle, regularly getting their salaries anyway. What was significant was that these employees apparently do not want to sit idle. The requisition was piloted by none other than their own organisation demanding to know the status of the government dairies and consequently, their own status. Shouldn't someone follow up this shocking information obtained under the RTI Act?
After all, the Act aims at achieving good governance.