Monday, June 25, 2018

No one fined for using plastic bags in 3yrs: RTI

Times of India: Gurgram: Monday, June 25, 2018.
A gigantic mound of used plastic bottles spotted recently near Basai wetland had drawn sharp reactions from environmentalists, who squarely blamed civic authorities for violating rules laid down by the Supreme Court with regard to plastic waste management.
Though the waste was removed from the area after media reports, records available with MCG suggest the city has, in fact, been sitting on a ticking bomb for a while now in the absence of any concerted efforts to check rampant use of plastic.
In a reply to an RTI petition, MCG has informed that no individual, entity or company has been penalised for using plastic bags in the past three years a revelation that underlines the lack of efforts to enforce a ban on non-compostable plastic in the city.
Interestingly, Haryana was one of the first states to ban sale, manufacturing and use of plastic bags in the country in 2011. The ban was followed up by various directions from the National Green Tribunal (NGT) and other environmental bodies. In 2014, the district administration also announced a ban on use of most forms of plastic bags and trading in them.
In August 2017, the NGT had announced a fine of Rs 5,000 on anyone found to be carrying a ‘thin’ plastic bag (less than 50 microns of thickness). The green tribunal also imposed an interim ban on the use of such plastic bags. Under the Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016, plastic bags less than the prescribed thickness are already prohibited.
“Everybody knows that plastic bags less than 50 microns of thickness are not permitted. But they are still used widely in market places, by traders and common people as well as companies. Recently, the authorities made tall claims (on the occasion of World Environment Day celebrated on June 5) to eliminate plastic. But in reality, they did not impose any penalty (for violating plastic ban) on anyone since January 2015. It shows the authorities are not serious enough to ban plastic in Gurugram,” alleged Aseem Takyar, who had filed the RTI application.
According to experts, non-compostable plastic bags pose a major threat to the environment. “Non-compostable plastic bags not only choke water bodies and drains but also release hazardous gases when burnt, resulting in air pollution. Besides, plastic bags, discarded at landfills, produce harmful toxins, leading to soil and water pollution,” said Vaishali Rana Chandra, a resident, who has been protesting against use of plastic bags.
“While many states (like Maharashtra) are implementing strict ban on plastic bags, the authorities in Gurugram have not even fined anyone yet. It clearly reflects on their intent and priorities,” he added.
On June 5 (this year), officials of Haryana State Pollution Control Board (HSPCB) distributed 10,000 eco-friendly bags among consumers at various markets and spread awareness to reduce usage of plastic bags. But, the move hardly made any difference on the ground people can still be seen using prohibited plastic bags, materials.
“MCG is the nodal agency for implementation of a notification issued under the garbage act (in 2013) to check use of plastic. This apart, 16 officers from different departments are authorized to keep a check on plastic bags under this notification,” said an official from HSPCB, passing the buck to other departments.
Despite several calls and messages, MCG commissioner Yashpal Yadav didn’t respond.

Penalty for flouting rule will remain in place for now

Times of India: Pune: Monday, June 25, 2018.
The civic body has clarified that it will not initiate any steps to reduce the fine amount for violating the plastic ban in the city. Leaders of the ruling BJP in Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) are in favour of ensuring the fine amount remains unchanged.
Talks related to reducing the fine amount were arranged after a similar initiative was considered at the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). A group of elected members of the BMC had proposed a reduction in the fine amount from Rs.5000 to Rs.200, since implementing action and charging the fine would be a tough task for civic officials.
“Though the ban is good in principle, the ground level implementation is wrong. The civic body, which is implementing the ban, is not prepared for it. The system is not in place to carry out drives and curtail the use of plastic entirely,” said Ajay Vaishampayan, a social activist. He has sought information under the Right to Information (RTI) Act about the preparedness of the civic administration. He said that PMC could not provide details relating to plastic garbage and carrybags.
“We are not thinking of reducing the fine on the lines of BMC. If any such decision is taken, citizens will be informed accordingly,” said mayor Mukta Tilak.
Officials said that PMC can make a suggestion to reduce the fine amount before the state government. “A green signal would be required from the civic body’s standing committee and general body before getting the final stamp from the state government,” the PMC official said, requesting anonymity.

‘Rs 997.19 crore was seized during demonetisation’

The Asian Age: Mumbai: Monday, June 25, 2018.
A reply received under the Right To Information (RTI) act from the union finance ministry revealed that only Rs 997.19 crore were seized during Financial Year (FY) 2017-18 under its Operation Clean Money. The drive was launched on January 31, 2017 by Union government. The information received by a RTI activist also showed that the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) could conduct survey at only 11,120 places in FY 2017-18. With this information, the RTI activist has raised question over the purpose of demonetisation.
RTI activist Jeetendra Ghadge has asked for information regarding actions taken during ‘Operation Clean Money’ by the union government. According to the press release of finance ministry on August 30, 2017 nearly Rs 2.89 lakh crore cash deposited in banks by 1.33 million accounts were under scrutiny. From November 2016 to May 2017, Rs 17,526 crore of undisclosed income was detected and Rs 1003 crore were seized.
Reply to RTI query revealed that, only Rs 997.19 crore were seized in search and action during FY 2017-18. It also revealed that no arrest had been made or no FIR had been registered against individuals caught dealing with black money under Income-tax Act, 1961.
Mr Ghadge said “Although the press release by the finance ministry try hard to showcase the successes of demonetisation by giving numbers of potential cases of black money, but when it comes reality, as per the RTI information, no substantial action have been taken by the Government; Rs 997 crore is not even a drop in the ocean of black money.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced decision of demonetisation on November 8, 2018 claiming it as a decisive war against black money and all the dubious businesses that runs on it. The decision had struck a major debate across the country and this new information would add to this debate.

EC for making public scrutiny of poll affidavits of MPs, MLAs; CBDT opposes

Financial Express: New Delhi: Monday, June 25, 2018.
The wealth of political leaders often becomes the talking point before assembly and parliamentary elections. Names of richest and the poorest candidates, in particular, get mentioned in newspaper columns. However, declaration about the property owned by lawmakers, or those who are hopefuls, is sometimes subjected to scrutiny by the Income Tax Department. However, this information is not accessible to public through Right To Information Act. But the Election Commission wants to make the report, which is only a verification report and indicative in nature, public under the RTI Act, as per an Indian Express report. However, the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT) is learnt to have told the Election Commission (EC) that the scrutiny of assets declared by lawmakers in their poll affidavits cannot be disclosed to the public, due to technicalities.
As per information available to The Indian Express, the EC is of the view that since a verification report is not an investigation report, its disclosure should not be restricted under Section 24 of the RTI Act. The said act exempts certain organisations from being covered under this law. These firms also include the Director General of Income Tax (DGIT).
The Election Commission is of the view that disclosure of scrutiny report is in the interest of voters. As per the Commission, making public such information empowers aggrieved or interested persons (such as losing candidates) to file a complaint or an FIR against the persons who provide false information in the election affidavit.
However, the CBDT is learnt to have told the Commission that disclosing the verification report is not “feasible” since it would violate of Section 138 of the Income Tax Act.
The section bars furnishing any information with regard to an assessee under the IT Act. It also maintains that such disclosures are punishable. The CBDT doesn’t scrutinise every poll affidavit submitted to it but only acts in the cases referred to it by the commission. Generally, the EC asks the Commission to act in cases where the contesting candidate’s assets have grown phenomenally since the last elections, cases of winning candidates, cases where an elected member doesn’t provide his PAN number, but the candidate’s movable assets are more than Rs 5 crore.

Activists decry absence of info panel

The Hans India: Andhra Pradesh: Monday, June 25, 2018.
The 13 adivasi families belonging to a vulnerable tribe, Gadaba, living in a small tribal hamlet Chatterjipuram in Visakhapatnam district, are on the verge of losing their land which they have been cultivating for the last 40 years.
When they are denied their existence as per the new records of revenue department, Nookaraju, an RTI activist, sought old records of area from tahsildar in July 2017. As there is no response from tahsildar’s office even after the first appeal, he sent his request to the State Information Commission (SIC) and filed second appeal. As the SIC is defunct in Andhra Pradesh, Nookaraju has not received a response yet.
According to section 15 of the Right to Information Act, every state must have an SIC consisting of a chief information commissioner and 10 information commissioners. The high courts of various states held that the SIC must consist of at least the chief and one information commissioner.
Section 15 (3) of RTI Act states the SICs be appointed by the Governor on the recommendation of Chief Minister, Opposition leader in the Assembly and a Cabinet minister nominated by the Chief Minister.
AP used to have  SIC at the time of bifurcation. The commission continued to work for both AP and Telangana till May 2017. As there is no SIC for two Telugu states, the High Court at Hyderabad directed the states to setup their SICs before September 21, 2017, responding to PIL 164/2017 in August 2017.
On September 25, 2017, Dr Raja Sundaram Soma assumed office as the first chief information commissioner of Telangana and Buddha Murali as the state information commissioner. But AP government washed its hands of after opening an office for SIC at Mangalagiri on August 11 last year and appointing finance minister Yanamala Ramakrishnudu as member of recommendation committee on August 24.
As the office is established with allowed 62-member staff including secretaries, superintendent, accounts officer, their assistants including personal assistants and secretaries for non-appointed chief information commissioner and three state information commissioners, their salaries are being paid every month as per the finance department order dated September 4, 2017.
The Satark Nagrik Sanghatan (SNS) and Centre for Equity Studies (CES) conducted a study and published, ‘Report Card of Information Commissions in India,’ an assessment of the performance of Information Commissions setup under the RTI Act.
They sent the report to Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu also and requested him to take immediate action to appoint commissioners to ensure that the AP SIC becomes functional. They urged him to ensure that the appointments are made in a transparent manner following due process to select candidates from diverse backgrounds meeting the eligibility criteria laid out by the Supreme Court.
B Chakradhar, one of the researchers, told The Hans India that they are deeply concerned and anguished about the status of AP SIC. He said the assessment found that as the SIC was not functional for last one year, people seeking information from public authorities under the jurisdiction of AP SIC have had no recourse to independent appellate mechanism prescribed under the RTI Act. He said that this constitutes a violation of peoples’ fundamental right to information.
Pola Vijay Babu, former state information commissioner of AP shared a similar opinion. Speaking to The Hans India, he said non-appointment of SIC is violation of RTI Act and added in democracy, people have every right to know what’s going on in the state. But due to malafide intention, the state government is not appointing SIC and showing lame excuses.
He said it is nothing but exploiting and misleading public from knowing the truth. The non-interest of government to appoint information commissioners in the state is helping people with muscle and power to silence the voices speaking against them.

Police security dues of Rs 5 crore from 38 people pending: RTI

Business Standard: Mumbai: Monday, June 25, 2018.
The Maharashtra government is yet to recover dues amounting to Rs 5.11 crore from 38 people to whom police protection had been provided in Mumbai, according to an RTI query.
Police authorities, however, said they are in the process of recovering the dues. The state government had faced criticism from the Bombay High Court over non-recovery of pending dues.
A Right to Information (RTI) query has revealed that from 2007 to 2017, the Mumbai police provided protection to 2,293 people and received Rs 44 crore in lieu of that.
Till March 2018, the Mumbai police had provided protection to 219 people and received Rs 1.54 crore from them as charges, as per the information furnished to RTI applicant Nagmani Pandey.
However, according to the reply, furnished by a senior police inspector of the Protection Branch, a total of Rs 5.11 crore was still due from 38 people who got protection.
Citing the section Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act, the officer declined to provide the names of defaulters, saying doing so will put them in serious trouble.
The section prevents the disclosure of any personal information which do not have any link to any public activity or interest.
Hearing a PIL filed by advocate Sunny Punamiya, the HC last year had ordered the government to recover the police security dues from individuals and from political parties if their functionaries are not paying the pending amounts.
The petitioner had said most of the defaulters were either builders or businessmen.
Asked about the pending dues, Punamiya said "If this is the case, I need to file another PIL."
However, the Mumbai police said they were in the process to recover the dues.
Vinayak Deshmukh, Deputy Commissioner of Police (Protection), told PTI, "We keep sending notices to the parties. Recovery is a sort of ongoing process and this process is still going on."
According to norms, security seekers apply to the Protection Branch citing reason for asking for security. His/ her application is then scrutinised and if merit is found in the request, the plea is forwarded to the Joint Commissioner of Police (Law and Order) for approval.
The charges for providing police security vary from person to person and are based on the income of protection seekers and the level of threat faced by them. Their threat perception is reviewed periodically.

Sunday, June 24, 2018

NABARD figures misleading

The Sentinel: Mumbai: Sunday, June 24, 2018.
The National Bank for Agiculture & Rural Development (NABARD) had said in a statement on Friday that demonetised notes presented to district cooperative central banks (DCCBs) in Maharashtra were higher than those deposited in Gujarat, followed by Kerala. This statement, in essence, may be misleading. According to RTI information secured by Mumbai activist Manoranjan S. Roy, Maharashtra’s 30 DCCBs (out of total 370) secured deposits of Rs 3,985 crore worth of banned notes averaging to Rs 132.83 crore per bank. But, neighbouring Gujarat’s 18 DCCBs were way ahead in average terms in securing deposits of old notes worth Rs 3,640 crore or an average of Rs 202 crore per DCCB.
What is important is the average amount garnered by each DCCB, not the total amount in the state. In average terms, Gujarat tops the list followed by Kerala, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in India, as per the RTI documents released earlier by NABARD. Next to Gujarat in the list is Kerala with 13 DCCBs getting deposits of Rs 2,094 crore, averaging to Rs 161 crore per DCCB. It is followed by Karnataka’s 20 DCCBs which got deposits of Rs 1,849 crore, averaging to Rs 92 crore per DCCB.
Tamil Nadu’s 22 DCCBs collected total deposits of Rs 1,514 crore, averaging to Rs 69 crore per DCCB. On Thursday, IANS had released a story, based on RTI replies to Roy, on how the Ahmedabad District Cooperative Bank (ADCB) which has BJP President Amit Shah as one of its directors collected the highest amount of Rs 745.59 crore among DCCBs in the country. This amount was collected within five days after the prime minister announced demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 currency notes on November 8, 2016. The DCCBs were banned from depositing or changing old notes after the initial five-day window on fears that black money may be laundered through this route.
On Friday, the NABARD had defended ADCB saying that only 9.37 per cent or 1.6 lakh customers of the bank had deposited the total amount and the average deposit amounted to Rs 46,795 crore. Roy and others have expressed surprise at why NABARD was acting as “a spokesperson” for the Ahmedabad DCCB. “At this rate, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) may be compelled to justify objectionable goings-on in big banks like Punjab National Bank or ICICI Bank. This is not a healthy trend for the country,” Roy said. (IANS)
Goyal ‘forced’ NABARD to issue statement: Congress
New Delhi, June 23: The Congress on Saturday alleged that Finance Minister Piyush Goyal had “forced” NABARD to issue a statement “to hide the demonetisation scam by BJP President Amit Shah” and demanded that audit reports, including those of NABARD, be made public. Accusing the BJP government of giving “patronage to scamsters”, the Congress also said that another bank fraud worth Rs 2,000 crore, by the D.S. Kulkarni (DSK) group of companies, had come to the fore in Maharashtra. He alleged that NABARD deliberately omitted its own RTI findings which reflected that a whopping Rs 3,118.51 crore worth of old notes were deposited within the first five days of demonetisaton in 11 Gujarat Co-operative Banks “closely associated” with BJP leaders. (IANS)

Don’t confuse ‘Right’ with Hindutva : Aakar Patel

Deccan Chronicle: Opinion: Sunday, June 24, 2018.
I had a small part in a very interesting discussion this week, which included Aruna Roy, the Carnatic singer and writer T.M. Krishna and activist Nikhil Dey. Ms Roy and Mr Dey are part of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, a movement whose struggle gave India the Right to Information Act. Ms Roy was also on the National Advisory Council of the previous government, under whose guidance India legislated very humane laws like the MGNREGA and the right to food and right to education, other than, of course, the RTI. I cannot remember a period of five years ever in our history when such terrific laws were legislated (which of course is the primary task of the government). At the end of the discussion, one of the questions was addressed to Ms Roy and it was why she only opposed the right wing in India and not the left wing. This isolated those who were centrists.
Ms Roy’s reply was that she had never had an association with any Left party. She then said or asked if it was appropriate that those who asked for the rights of the poor to food or education be considered as Leftists. These are basic human rights and should be available to all, and it need not offend anyone of any ideology when such rights are demanded. I think she was absolutely correct in saying this. What also interested me is the fact that there have emerged in India in the last few years, the term “Right” and “right winger”. We should continually examine what they mean in our context. In Europe, where the term emerged (because of the seating arrangement in the French Parliament), and in America where it became firmly defined, the word Right in politics meant something quite specific. It meant the movement to preserve social hierarchies and promoting conservatism. So how should we understand it in India and what do its supporters want?
To see that we must first understand the words “liberal” and “Left”. The word Left again comes from the French Parliament’s seating arrangements. It means today those who wish to see more socialism in the state. This means that the state delivers more services to citizens through state ownership of services. It is accompanied by a suspicion of private businesses. And it is insistent on the state’s championing of the poor, meaning the working class and the peasantry.
The Left in India (and elsewhere in the world) defines itself with the word and has no objection to being called Leftist.
The word liberal like the word Left is also universal. The dictionary defines a liberal as someone “willing to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own” and as someone “favourable to individual rights and freedoms”. Again liberals have no objection to being called liberal, and looking at the dictionary definition, it is easy to see why being liberal is something to aspire to. Now let us turn to the word “Right”, which is used in India to define the politics of only one party, the BJP. The interesting thing is that the BJP does not refer to its ideology as being Rightist or conservative. And this is true also of its policies and agendas. The Right in the United States stands for specific issues. On social issues it stands for being anti-abortion and anti-gay rights. On economic issues, the Right stands for lower taxes and is opposed to government participation in the market.
Can we see such a difference between “Left” and “Right” in India? No, we cannot. The BJP is not opposed to either abortion or gay rights, and in fact it was the Congress, which in the court first opposed gay rights under the last government (later reversing its position). Does the BJP stand for lower taxes? Again, this government has increased the tax burden on the citizen — and while I personally think this is the right thing for it to have done, it is not something that is associated with the “Right”. The other aspect to the term is conservatism of social order. In India that means caste system. But the BJP does not promote the continuation of the caste system and in any case our Constitution does not allow for such a thing. So we must agree that the BJP neither refers to itself as being “Right” nor do its policies conform broadly with what the world defines as being “Right”.
The fact is that the BJP has a clear definition of its ideology, and it has a name: Hindutva. We should not use and confuse the word Right to define Hindutva. Doing so blurs the issue because it gives the BJP attributes that it does not have and does not even want. The ideology of the BJP is aimed against a particular section of Indian society. This is not an accusation by me; this is how the BJP has itself framed it. It would benefit us if we were to be clear in our terminology when talking about it, whether or not we support it.
Aakar Patel is Executive Director of Amnesty International India. A former editor, Patel is a senior columnist and a translator of Urdu and Gujarati works.

In India, narratives are manufactured with an eye on power; there is a need to document history: Aruna Roy on new book

DNA: Mumbai: Sunday, June 24, 2018.
In a country where collectives, issues and principles get their due, the small granite slab in the market square at Beawar, Rajasthan, installed in 2016, was for the longest time the only tribute to the Right to Information Act (RTI) of its kind. Is The RTI Story (TRS)... going to change that?
The RTI Story (TRS) only adds to the 60-80 lakh voices raised in tribute every year! Often English-speaking, middle-class voices are the only ones amplified. Many who struggle patiently, persistently and imaginatively are forgotten. These are stories that live in a fast diminishing oral history, which, for the most part, provided colour and inspiration for action and reflection. This book is an attempt to collate such untold stories.
As unique as the book and the RTI movement which inspired it have been the launches. Tell us more.
I was always asked, "Why don't you do something more creative?" I've tried to tell people that creativity is not boxed into "art" alone. A dharna/protest is creative, and has to be able to sustain energies and communicate with multiple expressions, with seriousness and fun. The first launch in Beawar was "Guru Dakshina," a tribute to the people in the villages around Beawar and Bhim, and those in the town of Beawar, who lived the dharna through for 40 days with us in 1996. The launch was a tribute to the people of the city who watched , made tentative gestures and finally became a part of the RTI struggle. Our editor said that she'd never been to such a book launch before. "I've seen book launches with cocktails. But this beats them all a launch with a dharna."
The launches have created space to return to the history of the movement, to celebrate it, and think of the "achche din" that were, and to discuss and reflect on the current political climate, the challenges and the path ahead.
Do you see TRS... primarily as course content for social work/ public administration schools or as a template for other national movements to take a cue from?
TRS... could be both or neither. The RTI movement is one movement in the rainbow of various different people's movements fighting for social justice and equality. But some people see it as a manual, because of the causality recorded, explained and shared.
Was the use of the third person deliberate in the way you chose to write the book?
The third person is intended to make the narrator like the Indian sutradhar or the Greek chorus, a narrator and no more; to focus on story tellers and the movement's narrative. It was a device, politically and in form, to give "correctness" to the perspective to the history of the RTI movement - to highlight its collective and collaborative nature.
How long have you been working on the book? Does its release in the current socio-political climate make it more significant?
Work on the book in this form has gone on for about three years. It became more and more imperative to write the narrative. We are oral historians. Oral history had a moral context. In contemporary India, narratives are manufactured with an eye on power and electoral processes. The current political climate created the need to write. To challenge the dominant narrative of sectarian politics and centralised power. For instance in 2016, the history of the RTI Act, including its emergence from the MKSS and the village of Devdungri, was erased and removed from the textbooks in Rajasthan.
This book presents peoples' history, in the living memory of many, which can't be erased so easily, and which bears testimony to decentralisation in creating policy, legislation and finally in a dialectic between implementation and law making. It is a statement with source and context of the contribution of people; in particular the rural people of Rajasthan and their interaction with many others, to make one of its greatest laws. Centralised and unaccountable power requires the creation of a dominant narrative in an attempt to control a people and a nation. This book will hopefully be a small assertion of the opposite; that contribution of peoples' struggles make decentralisation a creative reality, and has depths of theory and policy built into it.
The RTI movement led by you has had a very long and difficult journey. What were the biggest challenges in putting the book together?
A huge collection of old records and dusty files and gathering together the history of the MKSS and the RTI struggle involved dozens of people. The biggest challenge was condensing and transforming this wealth of information into a simple and readable story that anyone could read.
Can you give us a sense of how activism in rural Rajasthan centered around minimum wages and land distribution paved the way for the RTI movement?
In the pre-sanghathan days in Devdungri, one of the early protests was at Dadi Rapat, over minimum wages for the villagers in a season of drought. People wanted work in public works and were traditionally denied fair payment. Workers who chose honesty were penalised. Lack of transparency led to questions, and the right to seek records and proof. It grew into rallies and hunger strikes in Bhim a small town. Strategies to get public space to voice the demand for justice, culminated in a new tool which was the jan sunwai or people's hearings . In these hearings, records obtained from government officials, were read out to prople. The records revealed massive corruption in the works programmes and the Right to Information movement began to gain momentum after the first public hearing in Kukarkheda, 1994.
The movement for a national Right to Information and for the Right to Work (enshrined in the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act) have always walked hand in hand, as the initial demands for the RTI were embedded in the demand for work, wages and livelihood.
The RTI movement brought together many streams of thought. Was it difficult at times to bring inherent contradictions/differences together on the same platform?
Any movement contains multitudes of thought, philosophies, voices and people. The MKSS solved this with locating the RTI within the Constitution and those who cherished the promises we made to ourselves in its Preamble. Those who didn't support those basic values got pushed out. Others learned to work with dissent/differences, within the non-negotiable. Today there are still multitudes who own, use and shape the RTI and our understanding of it; giving it new meaning and depth every day.
While some say RTI equally empowers and liberates bureaucrats from the stranglehold of those in power, others see bureaucrats stonewalling attempts to access information. Your view.
There are different sides to this as you say. For many bureaucrats, RTI has become an important way in which they themselves can legally and safely share information with citizens and remain accountable to people they're bound to serve. There are those still afraid though they are protected and in fact required to by the law. And there are still others who see information as power, privilege and control. RTI is a both personal and political tool. It retains individual interpretations within the larger common good.
Many fear the attempts afoot to water down the RTI...
Each government, including the very government that passed the RTI Act has feared it, and tried to amend/water down its provisions within six months. The RTI is one of our only laws that directly, efficiently and simply decentralises power, to place it in the hands of citizens themselves.
Some criticism has come the way of RTI over its abuse in political and corporate rivalries. How do we ensure that this doesn't happen?
Every year 40-60 lakh RTI applications are filed across the country. It is one of the most widely used information laws in the world. Criticism of misuse for corporate and political rivalries is a red herring. Two national studies carried out in 2008 and 2014 by Satark Nagrik Sangathan (SNS) and RaaG gave statistical proof that less than 1% of the RTI applications analysed could be termed frivolous or vexatious. The study analysed orders of the Supreme Court and of various High Courts and information commissions. It also stated that the PMO acknowledged, twice, in response to RTI applications, that it had no actual evidence of misuse.
The current sociopolitical climate has shut the voluntary sector out of all dialogue. How does this affect public discourse?
The current regime practices obfuscation and misinformation. It loves power over citizens and can't allow something like an independent, dissenting civil society to function. Public discourse has become overrun by the ideology of those in power who can't bear to hear any voices other than their own.
If I ask you to pick one success story close to your heart of how RTI has touched lives which will it be?
The poor person forcing the privileged to cower in front of the typical Indian personified by RK Laxman's Common Man in a generic sense. There are so many that a selection will betray the spirit of the book!

CIC green light to DU law students

The Sunday Guardian: New Delhi: Sunday, June 24, 2018.
Students can now get access to their answer sheets under RTI Act.
The Central Information Commission (CIC) has directed the Delhi University (DU) to allow students in the Law Faculty to access their evaluated answer scripts by way of filing RTIs. Following a year long dispute between the university and the students who had approached the CIC to address the matter, the CIC announced that accessing evaluated answer scripts is a statutory right of a student under the RTI Act.
Until now, students had to make a payment of Rs 750 per paper to access a photo copy of their evaluated answer script; since there are five papers in a semester, students had to pay over Rs 3,000 to get photo copies of their evaluated answer scripts which was more than the amount of money paid by students to appear in examinations, which was around Rs 1,200.
In 2016, students and the university ended up being at odds when some students requested for the original copies of their evaluated answer sheets instead of photo copies, but the university, citing its established procedure, refused to release the copies.
Mohit Gupta, a former Law Faculty student involved in the matter then, explained, “The issue was that we were not sure of the evaluation. We wanted to see for ourselves how much marks we have been allotted. Some photo copies that were procured from earlier semester examinations had shown that often there is a calculation miskate in assessment or some answers are left unmarked etc. We have had incidents of huge number of students failing in a single semester before. Mistakes in evaluation have been one of the reasons for that.”
Narvinder Thakran, another law student, had argued, “The university preserves answer sheets only for 135 days now. Earlier, it was two years, but the university’s executive council’s 2011 order reduced the preservation period. On the other hand, the university provides answer sheets only between 61st and 75th day after the result is uploaded on the university’s website. This means that by the time the university will process by request to give me my evaluated answer script’s photo copy for which I have paid enough money, chances are that the university might have already discarded it. So, we demanded that answer scripts should be allowed to be accessed under RTI for which we only have to pay Rs 10.”
The CIC in its order observed, “Issue under consideration is in larger public interest affecting the fate of all students who wish to obtain information about their answer sheets/marks obtained which would understandably have a bearing on their future and their career prospects which in turn would ostensibly affect their right to life and livelihood. Hence, they ought to be allowed to inspect their answer sheets under RTI Act 2005.”
The CIC further observed that the university’s argument that allowing students to access their answer sheets would prove unnecessary burden on the public authority does not hold merit since timely access to information is the essence of the RTI Act.

Jail admin seeks Salman's nod before replying to RTI plea

Times of India: Jodhpur: Sunday, June 24, 2018.
A Bengaluru activist sought information from Jodhpur Central Jail administration about Salman Khan under the RTI Act. Instead of providing information to the applicant, the jail administration sought permission from Salman, asking him of his opinion!
Justifying the move, DIG (jails) Vikram Singh said since the information pertained to a third party, the jail administration required to have his permission before providing the same to the applicant. "Since the information sought by the applicant belonged to a third party , we have sought his (Salman's) permission", Singh said.
Bengaluru resident T Narsimha Murthy had moved an application under the RTI Act on April 10, seeking information that who all came to meet Salman in the jail during his judicial custody from April 5 to 7 after his conviction by the trial court in the blackbuck poaching case.

RTI applicants miffed with protracted process, allege bribery on part of officials

Times of India: Mysuru: Sunday, June 24, 2018.
It is a mite too hard to escape the irony in the plight of Right To Information (RTI) applicants in the city, with the tool conceived to combat corruption being effectively used only after the palms of a few officials in-charge are greased. RTI applicants in the city are made to run from pillar to post in various government offices including Mysuru City Corporation (MCC) and Mysuru Urban Development Authority (Muda) to get access to information that is rightfully theirs to see.
RTI activists are understandably miffed with the existing state of affairs, which they believe subverts the very purpose of the Act. “Citizens are supposed to be treated as masters under the RTI Act, but instead they are being treated as servants,” activists said.
Founder of Mysuru Grahakara Parishat (MGP) Bhamy V Shenoy recalled, with a touch of amusement, experience that an RTI activist endured, while trying to save the People’s Park. “The MGP came forward to help this activist, who wanted to obtain documents about the park to file a public interest litigation (PIL). The RTI application was submitted on May 16, and since the high court was scheduled to reopen on May 28, there was a sense of urgency to obtain the records. We wanted to help MCC save the park, but the lackadaisical attitude of the officials proved a dampener,” Shenoy told TOI.
Likening the treatment meted out to RTI applicants at the hands of officers to those of citizens during the colonial rule, Shenoy added, “An RTI query must be responded to within 30 days, but that does not mean government offices have to take up all of them.”
On the other hand, RTI activist K Ravindra endured a harrowing time at the hands of police, after he filed a case against the felling of 30 trees, including a sandalwood tree, at the Mandya police quarters. “When those who are supposed to protect the law break it, it’s highly unfortunate. Police personnel had not obtained permission to cut the trees, and they even sold a sandalwood tree. An ensuing investigation resulted in those responsible for this being fined Rs 60,000. But, when I approached the office of the Mysuru IGP to file an RTI to learn the status of the case, my request was shot down on the grounds that it was not in public interest,” Ravindra said.
He further added that government officials were very reluctant to furnish information that could prove to be ‘clinching evidence’ to prove irregularities. “Police department covers up the mess, and denies information sought by RTI applicants, by claiming that it is protected under the Official Secrets Act,” Ravindra rued.
R Dinesh too endured a similar ordeal, when he filed an RTI query at Muda office to verify land records. Expressing his outrage at the lax attitude of the officials concerned in dealing with his query, Dinesh said, “They do not take RTIs seriously. Even when the records are readily available, they hesitate to make it available to the citizens quickly. We have to make several trips to the office concerned, and more often than not, officials are not in their seats,” he added.
MCC chief promises swift action
MCC commissioner KH Jagadish dismissed charges of officials expecting bribes to clear RTI applications, but promised to look into the delay in addressing these queries. “Officials do not expect bribes. They fear they will be harassed, which is why they are afraid of taking up the responsibility of answering RTI queries,” Jagadish told TOI.
He added that he would instruct officials to dispose of the RTI applications in a swift manner, and ensure that citizens would not have to wait 30 days to access the information they were seeking.

RTI activists are finding ways to fight back against what they see as the system’s attempts to undermine the Act, and the epicentre of the battle is Mumbai.

Mumbai Mirror: Mumbai: Sunday, June 24, 2018.
Last week, a group of about 80 people gathered at a midtown event space in Mumbai for the launch of Aruna Roy’s book, The RTI Story. While the book looks back at the movement led by Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan that led to the passing of the RTI Act in 2005, uppermost on the minds of many RTI users in attendance were recent attempts to malign those who file applications Once the floor was thrown open for questions, a member of the audience stood up and asked Roy what RTI users could do about recent assertions that most of them are blackmailers.
“Even the BMC commissioner said it,” the man said, referring to statements that reportedly emanated the upper echelons of the BMC administration in January following the Kamala Mills fire. Senior BMC officials reportedly said that some RTI activists indulged in blackmail and extortion. In addition, the BMC even blacklisted Praja, an NGO that focuses on good governance, for releasing information acquired under the RTI Act, claiming that the information had been misrepresented.
Roy’s answer was simple: “Ask them for the data. Ask them for a list of names and FIRs. They won’t be able to give it because it is not true.”
What the blackmail claims are actually about, say RTI users and civil activists, is discrediting those who use RTI, which in turn is part of a larger campaign to undermine the act. “It is a formula to call RTI users blackmailers,” says Krishna Gupta, who, at 20, is one of the country’s youngest RTI activists. “This is a tactic to scare people.”
Thirteen years after the landmark RTI Act was passed an Act that is hailed as one of the best laws anywhere in the world it has proved to be extraordinarily impactful. Just this week, news broke that Rs 745.59 crore worth of banned notes were deposited with the Ahmedabad District Co-operative Bank in the first five days after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced demonetisation on November 8, 2016. This was the largest amount collected by any district co-operative bank, but what made the news particularly noteworthy was that BJP president Amit Shah is one of the bank’s directors. The source of information was an RTI application filed by Manoranjan Roy, a Mumbai RTI activist.
Quite naturally, the resistance to its provisions from those in authority is growing. In Maharashtra alone, there were over 41,000 RTI appeals pending as of October 2017, according to a report by the New Delhi-based Satark Nagrik Sangathan and Centre for Equity Studies. The state also left the post of its chief information commissioner vacant between May last year and June this year, before appointing former a former state chief secretary. A study by Moneylife Foundation, an NGO that engages in advocacy and works on improving financial literacy, states that 90 per cent of information commissioners are civil servants, despite the Supreme Court saying back in 2013 that governments must also look outside the bureaucracy for candidates. Meanwhile, the central government wants to downgrade the standing of an information commissioner from that of a judge to a secretary, and is also considering amendments to the Act. More chillingly, there have reportedly been over 300 attacks against RTI users, including 51 murders. Maharashtra is the most unsafe state for RTI users, with 10 deaths and two suicides.
But across India, and especially in Mumbai, citizens are fighting back, and Shailesh Gandhi, a former central information commissioner who was also part of the campaign to enact the law, is at the forefront of the resistance. He holds workshops on the Act for citizens and government agencies, and organises campaigns in defence of it. After Mehta’s reported comments, he sent a letter to the BMC commissioner stating, “For too long have RTI users and activists tolerated the arrogance, pompousness and illegal actions of public servants who wish to continue as kings and courtiers. You and BMC are consistently insulting citizens and trying to besmirch a right, which exposes the Municipal Corporation and its misdeeds.”
According to Gandhi, the Act is being besieged on three sides. The first is that Public Information Officers (PIOs) have devised strategies of how not to give information, the second is the classification of RTI users as blackmailers and extortionists, and the third is recent rulings passed by the courts. “A lot of their interpretations are slowly strangling the law,” Gandhi told Mumbai Mirror in an interview. One such judgment Gandhi refers to is in the Girish Ramachandra Deshpande case, in which the Supreme Court denied the release of information relating to the salary of a government official, memos relating to his censure, details of gifts received and asset and investment information, on the grounds that it was personal information and, therefore, would amount to invasion of privacy. According to Professor Sridhar Acharyulu, a sitting central information commissioner, about 60 per cent of RTI applications are being rejected citing this order as precedent.
Gandhi calls the reports of blackmail an out and out lie. He says of the over 20,000 appeals he has dealt with, there was a problem with “about five percent of them”. In order to combat such accusations, he hit upon an idea of getting government bodies to upload RTI applications and their replies on their respective websites. When Gandhi came across a video of a speech made in the House by Navi Mumbai corporator Krishna Patkar, in which he accused RTI users of being extortionists, he called up Patkar, introduced himself and proposed his idea. He explained that a DoPT circular and a Maharahstra government circular stating the same idea already existed. According to Gandhi, Patkar agreed to formally propose it. “If the information is on the website, how will anyone blackmail?” says Gandhi.
In order to be more effective and to get numbers, he drafted other RTI users, who were also concerned by the growing antagonism towards them. Among them were Gupta, who gives lectures at colleges advising students on how to file RTI applications and on what issues to pursue; Sunil Ahya, a former electronic goods manufacturer turned lawyer who has been using RTI for a decade; and Naveen Saraf, a chartered accountant, who only began using RTI six months ago. Together, they convinced the corporations of Navi Mumbai, Mira-Bhayander, Nashik, Yavatmal and a handful of others. Initially, the BMC was not one of them but on May 4, corporator Alka Ketkar put forth the point of motion in the house and the resolution was approved. Of course, that’s only the first step. “The next challenge is getting it implemented and the third challenge, which is even bigger, is getting it sustained,” says Gandhi.
Sucheta Dalal, one of the co-founders of Moneylife, set up an RTI centre last year, thanks to funding the foundation received from whistleblower Dinesh Thakur, who exposed the data manipulation taking place at drugs manufacturer Ranbaxy. Along with Gandhi, her foundation is working on creating a database of decisions and figuring out how government bodies should upload their RTI data. “If all the information is not put out in a searchable manner, with headnotes and an index, it is of no use to anyone,” she says.
Gandhi has already begun collating a set of “positive decisions” from RTI commissioners that future applicants can use in their own cases, should they go to appeal. The idea is to create a bank of precedents so that applicants are better able to argue their side, especially in front of commissioners who might be sympathetic towards the government.
Gandhi is also critical of the time it takes for commissioners to handle appeals. While the law mandates 30 days for Public Information Officers to respond and 30 to 45 days for first appeals to be heard, there is no time limit for second appeals before a commissioner. “There is no accountability for the Commissioners but there is a moral responsibility,” says Gandhi.
Every year 40 to 60 lakh RTI applications are filed in India but this is still a tiny fraction relative to India’s population. In order to increase RTI’s reach, seminars and workshops are being held across the country. There are websites, such as RTIIndia.org that provide help to anyone who wants to file an RTI application (Ahya learned about RTI from the website and today routinely answers questioned posed by others as a way of paying it back). In Mumbai, various orgnisations hold workshops, such as Moneylife Foundation and Mahiti Adhikar Manch, an RTI focused-NGO.
Every Wednesday evening for two hours, Gandhi holds a seminar at the Moneylife Foundation in Dadar, where he explains the Act and provides assistance to anyone who wants to file RTI applications.
At a recent seminar, Gandhi exhorted a group of law students interning at the Public Concern for Governance Trust to “avoid question marks” in their applications because “it will get all tangled up and will take a year.” The students were mostly interested in water and sanitation issues and Gandhi counselled them to narrow the focus of their application so the PIOs can’t claim that they are asking for too much information. “Don’t ask how many inspections were carried out. Ask for all the inspection reports for the last two years,” Gandhi said. “Ask for the minimum amount of information but it should be like an arrow.”
Saraf, the chartered accountant, has attended Gandhi’s seminars at the Moneylife foundation, and believes there should be many more of them so that people start to use RTI in their daily lives, such as when applying for a ration card. “If more people used it, then the government would not be able to undermine it because they would lose their vote bank,” he says.
Another tool contained in the pages of the RTI Act, but rarely used, is the right to inspection. It is a tool that Gupta used to inspect the Temba Hospital (a government hospital) in Bhayander because he was worried about the level of care that was available. First, he asked for a list of machinery present at or allotted to, the hospital. Once he got the list, he filed a second RTI asking to inspect the hospital under Section 2 (j) of the RTI Act. Armed with the list, Gupta can be seen alongside hospital staff opening boxes and checking their contents in a video of the inspection that was uploaded to YouTube. “We found that either the machines were not working or they were still packed. Very few machines were working,” Gupta says.
Similarly, Bhaskar Prabhu, the convenor of Mahiti Adhikar Manch, which networks with public authorities and runs open houses on how to file RTI applications every week at St. Joseph’s School in Wadala, encourages the use of the inspection clause. “People talk about [inspecting] big bridges. You need not do that. Just do a small ground or a pavement, or whether the storm water drain near you is cleaned or not,” Prabhu says. He claims if citizens do this, they will be able to reduce public spending by 20 to 30 per cent.
There is an inherent tension between the purpose of the Act, which is to disclose information, and authorities, who prefer to conceal it. At an event on the RTI organised by Moneylife Foundation last month, which was attended by over 100 people, former Maharahstra chief minister Prithiviraj Chavan said, to much laughter, that when he was in the DoPT, he was responsible for the legislation, but “when I came to Mumbai (as CM), I was on the other side and then I wanted to hide information from coming out.”
This tension creates a gulf between user and official, says Ahya. “Between government and the public, there is apprehension on both sides. Citizens think the government is not doing the right thing and the government thinks the citizen is not genuine.” However, if this attitude were to change, Ahya says, then it would be a better experience for everyone and users would be more likely to get the information they want. According to him, he has never had an unpleasant RTI experience for that reason. “If people explain things, then you can convince the other person,” he says. “It should not be personal.”
It is an approach that Prabhu endorses. “RTI is about bringing in good governance. It cannot be working against the government,” he says. In other words, there is more to the RTI than exposing corruption. It can improve efficiency and the responsiveness of government, providing it is used in that way. “Then the public authority will understand what is the need for the people,” Prabhu says.
No matter the party or parties in power, governments have tried to dilute the RTI act ever since it was passed. The first attempt at amending the Act was made about eight months after it came into law by the same government that passed it. That attempt was defeated by public protest and Roy believes the same approach will be required to stop the current government from amending the act too. “We will have to go to the streets. It is a war of attrition. We can’t give up.”

Saturday, June 23, 2018

RTI query against Salman Khan's Jodhpur jail visitors stalled, authorities to seek permission from the actor

Times Now: Mumbai: Saturday, June 23, 2018.
RTI query questioning the names and details of visitors in jail has been stalled and the reason given by the Jodhpur jail authorities is that they need to seek the permission from the actor from disclosing the names, read on the full details inside.
Bollywood Salman Khan was in Jodhpur Central Jail for 1998 blackbuck poaching case and was sentenced to five years of jail term on April 5. However, the superstar was granted bail on April 7, after spending a couple of nights in jail. Salman's jail term and bail created waves on the social media big time but then just like everything, it too settled down.But once again the pages of the book have been reopened by an activist who filed an RTI (Right To Information), insisting to know the detail and timeline of every single person who paid the visit to Salman Khan during his jail term. Now, what is creating waves you ask, the RTI filed by him has been put on hold as the jail authorities want to seek the actor's permission before disclosing the names.
According to the reports by Mirror Now, the jail authorities in reply to the RTI sent a letter stating that since it is information which is sought by the third party they would need the consent of the Bollywood actor before the information could be released.The RTI was stalled even after the 30-day deadline and even the first appeal by the applicant was treated with the stone-cold silence.
Looking at all of it, it is clear that the question of getting any kind of permission from Salman Khan shouldn't have arisen here and the RTI should have been answered. Watch the video above to get an insight into the whole situation.

JD(S) leader alleges misuse of funds in MGNREGS

Deccan Herald: Chikkamagaluru: Saturday, June 23, 2018.
JD(S) state vice president H H Devraj alleged that crores of rupees have been misused by Zilla Panchayat authorities in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS).
He told reporters on Friday that there are various cases where grants were provided for works which were not sanctioned at all and also cases where payments are made in the names of people who are dead.
Additional payments have been made without without carrying out the work. There are lots of errors in the social audit, he said and informed that he has availed all information through RTI Act.
He further said he will submit the complaint to the Lokayukta, Rural Development Minister, chief minister and the district in-charge minister. He demanded an in-depth probe into the alleged misappropriation.
‘Suspicious’
Devraj pointed out that the Zilla Panchayat members not raising the point in the progress review meetings raises speculation over the possible involvement of the members. The misuse of funds is happening since 2016.
Many errors have been spotted in the social audit of 2016-17. Under the MGNREGS, Rs 2.71 lakh has been paid in 45 cases in 11 gram panchayats of Chikkamagaluru taluk; Rs 1.68 lakh has been paid in the favour of dead persons and benami accounts, in 48 cases in eight gram panchayats.
A total payment of Rs 4.77 lakh has been made in 24 cases in seven gram panchayats, for the physical works, after showing more measurement than the actual. It has also been directed in the audit report to recover the additional payments made towards faulty measurements.
Showing the related documents, Devraj pointed out that Rs 16.88 lakh has been paid under MGNREGS in 19 gram panchayats of Chikkamagaluru taluk, Rs 26.60 lakh in 31 gram panchayats in Kadur, Rs 15.98 in 11 gram panchayats in Koppa, Rs9.64 lakh in 15 gram panchayats of Mudigere, Rs 16 lakh in seven gram panchayats of Narasimharajapura, one lakh in four gram panchayats in Sringeri and Rs 7.29 lakh in 15 gram panchayats of Tarikere.
Benami accounts
The vice president added that Rs 2.97 lakh has been paid in favour of dead persons, benami accounts and in the names of those who have not attended to work, in 105 cases in 18 gram panchayats of Kadur.
In similar instances, payments of Rs 68,000 has been made in six gram panchayats of Koppa, Rs 78,000 in four gram panchayats of Mudigere, Rs 1.30 lakh in four gram panchayats of Narasimharajapura and Rs 9,000 in three gram panchayats of Tarikere.
JD(S) leaders Chandrappa, Jamil Ahmed, Jairaj Urs, Ramesh and Holadagadde Girish were present in the press meet.