Monday, June 27, 2016

Right to Information: A new journey begins : by Nalaka Gunawardene

Sri Lanka Guardian‎‎‎: Colombo: Monday, June 27, 2016.
On June 24, 2016, Parliament unanimously adopted the Right to Information (RTI) law.
This marks the culmination of over two decades of advocacy by civil society groups and journalists. It also fulfills a key promise of the yahapalana government.
Passing the law was no easy task, as it went through a year of drafting, judicial review by the Supreme Court, and considerable political scrutiny. The government and other political parties in Parliament who rarely agree on anything came together to pass the law without a vote.
However, our challenges are far from over. Now begins the daunting task of implementing the new law. RTI calls for a complete reorientation of government in how it handles information and promotes openness. This is unfamiliar ground.
As one skeptical citizen, Harindra Dassanayake (@HarindraBD) said on Twitter within hours of the law being passed: “Lanka has many good laws, with hopeless or zero impact. Hope RTI [would] be different. It’s time to act and not celebrate.”
Indeed, there is much to do. The law’s adoption is only a fresh start. Proper implementation needs political will, administrative support and sufficient public funds.
We would also need on-going monitoring by civil society groups and the media to guard against the whole process becoming mired in too much red tape.
Late comers, quick learners?
With the new law, Sri Lanka becomes the 108th country to have introduced RTI laws, also known as freedom of information laws.
That leaves only Bhutan in South Asia without a national RTI law, according to Venkatesh Nayak, Programme Coordinator with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) in New Delhi.
Nayak, a noted RTI expert and activist, says that countries without RTI laws are becoming a smaller and smaller minority on the planet.
He adds: “But for the long drawn ethnic conflict, Sri Lanka would have been the second country in South Asia to enact a national RTI law if efforts made in 2003-4 had reached fruition.”
In the event, Sri Lanka took the belated first step in April 2015, when the 19th Amendment to the Constitution made the right to information a fundamental right. The RTI Act puts in place the administrative arrangement to enable citizens to exercise that right.
Sri Lanka is certainly a late comer to the global RTI community, but we can exploit this to our advantage. Our neighbours and other countries have so much experience in this respect that can help us in implementation.
For example, RTI has emerged as a powerful tool in the hands of Indian citizens since the national law came into effect in 2005. So much so, it has now become a verb (as in “We will RTI this information” when confronted with a problem).
Across India, young schoolchildren and grandmothers with no formal education are using RTI requests to solve local level problems from overdue scholarship payments to restoring suspended rural bus services.
In Bangladesh, which adopted its RTI law in 2009, citizens and NGOs are creatively using public information to combat poverty and counter corruption.
RTI needs imagination
What transformative impact can the RTI law have on Lankan society, politics and governance? The answer is in everybody’s hands.
Unlike most other laws, RTI is one for citizens to seize and use. That, in turn, requires a commitment to the public interest, plus plenty of imagination and tenacity.
When the new Act comes into effect six months from now, any citizen of any age should be able to seek and receive information held with a public authority at central, provincial or local levels.
The law covers all organs of the State Parliament, Executive (President and Cabinet) and the Judiciary. This includes the police and public sector corporations, local government bodies, as well as private entities carrying out public functions or providing public services under contract or license from local authorities (to the extent such work is concerned).
Problem solving
To be sure, the law has some exemptions when the right of access to information may be denied on legitimate grounds such as protecting the privacy of individuals, safeguarding national security and preventing the premature release of vital economic data (e.g. exchange rates, regulation of banking and taxation). These are common to RTI laws the world over.
Some are not happy with the extent of exemptions. But in my view, we should focus on so much information that now becomes our right to ask for and receive within 21 days or less.
On the part of public authorities, they will no longer be allowed to release information as and when they wish. RTI law defines how it must be done and failure to do so has consequences for public officials.
Citizens, on their part, must find sufficient purpose and focus in information they can demand and receive. RTI is not a mere political slogan, but a practical tool for solving problems.
For example, how does our local body spend our tax money? On what basis are Samurdhi beneficiaries selected? Or how are government jobs given to some and not others?
RTI will prise open the hitherto closely guarded ‘reservoirs’ of information.
A five member RTI Commission appointed by the President on the recommendations of the Constitutional Council will monitor and process and investigate citizen’s complaints and appeals. The Commission’s decisions can also be challenged before the Court of Appeal.
All this concerns the ‘supply side’ of public information, which is surely going to be enhanced. But what about the demand side? Are we ready for active citizenship armed with more information?
To draw an analogy from water management, opening the sluice gates of a water reservoir can benefit only if the downstream systems are in place and the users are ready. With both water and information, recipients need to know how to make the best use of what comes through.
Bigger picture
In the coming weeks and months, much needs to be done to ensure RTI readiness among public officials, and RTI awareness among the public.
As we get busy with the nitty-gritty operational details, let us not lose sight of the bigger picture. RTI signifies unleashing a new potential, and a major change in the status quo.
First, we must shake off a historical legacy of governments not being open or accountable to citizens. For over 2,000 years of monarchy, over 400 years of colonial rule and 67 years of self-rule since independence, all our governments have restricted public information even mundane things unrelated to any security or sensitive issues.
The ‘default setting’ in most government agencies is to deny and restrict information. To change this, both public servants and citizens will need a paradigm shift in their minds.
As long-standing champions of RTI, Lankan media and civil society must now switch roles. While benefiting from RTI themselves, they can nurture the newly promised openness in every sphere of public life. They can show, inspire and equip other citizens how best to make use of it.
However, RTI is not just a piece of law or changing how governments share public information. At its most basic, RTI is a collective state of mind. With its adoption, our society can start moving along a more open, informed and inquisitive pathway.
Science writer and columnist Nalaka Gunawardene has long chronicled the rise of Sri Lanka’s information society. He tweets at @NalakaG

12 Police officials face FIRs in Doda District: RTI reveals

Greater Kashmir‎‎: Jammu: Monday, June 27, 2016.
Over 12 Jammu and Kashmir Police (JKP) officials have been booked and are facing FIRs for serious criminal charges in District Doda, as per official record.
Among the accused police officials are former ‘encounter specialist’ Sub Inspector Shiv Krishan Sharma alias Sonu and his body guard Mohammad Ayub-who were held in the year 2013 for allegedly “plotting a terror attack on Police Station Thathri in the hilly District of Doda”.
The SI  was placed under suspension vide order number 375/2013 and inquiry initiated against him vide DPO Doda order number 462/2015 dated October 21, 2015.
A departmental enquiry against the officer is still under process with CPO Doda, while the officer is on bail, as per the Department’s reply.
Further, according to reply to a RTI application, most of the officials including Selection Grade, Head Constables, ASIs, SIs, have been booked under serious charges of attempt to Murder, Abetment to Suicide, Trespassing, Corruption, Arms Act and NDPS Act.
All the accused officials are under the order of departmental enquiries. However in most of the cases the departmental enquiries are either under process or  have altogether not been initiated as yet due to different reasons.
“Till date, none of the police officials have been convicted either by the Department or in any court of law”, the official reply stated.
Further, according to the JKP’s reply, one of the accused police official-Mohammad Akram has also been rewarded promotional benefits. The police official has been promoted from Head Constable to ASI by the Police Department.
Among the officials facing FIRs are Selection Grade Shah Wali at posted at Kathua Police Station, Pawan Kumar posted at Police Station Gandoh, SI Shiv Krishan posted at Police Station Thathri, Head Constable Mohammad Ayub posted at Police Station Thathri, Head Constable Gulam Nabi posted at Police Station Vigilance Organization Jammu, ASI Mohammad Mumtaz posted at Police Station Doda, Head Constable Uttam Chand posted at Police Station Assar, Head Constable Rahul Dugra posted at Police Station Vigilance Organization  Jammu, then Head constable, now ASI Mohammad Akram posted at Jammu, Head Constable Davinder Kumar alias DK, Head Constable Jalal Din posted   at Police Station Bhaderwah and Head Constable Firdous Ahmed.

How they spoil the future of students

Ahmedabad Mirror: Ahmedabad: Monday, June 27, 2016.
Niki Bhavsar, a second year BCom student of Gujarat University was shocked to see that several answers in her Statistics paper had not been checked and she had not been awarded marks in three other subjects despite writing the right formulas and answers. Niki had sought her Semester 3 answer sheets of Corporate Accounting, Statistics, Cost Accounting and Indian Financial System under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
Niki who got 65 per cent marks in third semester said that she had worked very hard and knew for sure that there had been some error in checking her papers. After seeing her answer sheets, she claimed that she should have got up to 50 more marks and her percentage should have been 72 instead of 65. She has now filed a writ petition in Gujarat High Court and a notice has been issued to Gujarat University to be present for a hearing on July 4.
Every year several students like Niki suffer because of the negligent approach of the varsity examiners. Many of these students may have lost out on a bright future because of the careless attitude of these paper checkers. Each year Gujarat University receives 3,000 to 4000 RTI applications from students for copies of their answer sheets and errors are found in 85 to 90 per cent of cases. The issue has been brought to the notice of university officials a number of times, but the varsity claims it is helpless in such matters.
Varun Narula, a third year B Com student who filed an RTI found out numerous errors in the way his answer sheets had been checked. Several answers were ticked right but no marks assigned. When he approached the Examination department he was told to file an application and that his problem would be rectified the following week. Varun claims that he knows a lot of students who are facing similar issues. Niki said, "Each mark makes a huge impact on the future prospects of a student. Stringent measures should be taken against such careless teachers who play with our lives."
Students claim that even the reassessment process is unfair and gives preference to statistical complications over merit of the student. For example, if a student scores 32 out of 70 marks and applies for reassessment then the paper is checked for the second time. If the second examiner gives 45/70 marks then there is a difference of more than 15% in the marks. In such a case, a third examiner checks the paper and gives 37/70 marks, then the marks which are closer to the initial marks are counted. What is even more galling is examiners checking other subject answer sheets and not realizing they have checked them.
As per a university source, last year a Social Science teacher didn't realize that he had checked Sanskrit papers as well. Similarly, a B Com teacher also checked papers of BCA. Gujarat University Vice Chancellor M N Patel washes his hands off the entire botch up. "We are aware of the kind of errors that take place in the checking process but there is not much we can do. These teachers are paid high salaries and we pay them a meagre amount of Rs 3 to 5 per answer copy. So they don't care much about following the right procedure.
If we point out their mistakes they tell us that they would not come at all for checking, the next time. If the error in checking is too big, all we can do is to cut down on the amount that we pay them for the process." According to Digvijaysinh Gohil, general secretary, Gujarat University Area Teacher Association, "Yes, it is true that mistakes are committed by some teachers. Teachers reason that it is tough to check 1,000 answer books instead of 300 they are supposed to. This is nothing but an excuse on the te-acher's part. They should be more vigilant and responsible towards checking as one mark is capable of ruining the life of any student."
A source in the university says, "Students shouldn't only go after RTI. They should also ask for reassessment and rechecking so that they can get their marks changed." Till date no strict action has been taken against any teacher for committing such errors. The teachers do not want to examine papers and the university does not have a proper system in place to penalise them. The government has not made proper rules in this regard and all these loopholes leave the students stranded. Despite all their hard work they have to pay the huge cost of bearing with the consequences of their teachers' faults. With each passing year the number of cases has gone up. Unless the university and state government take immediate action, students will continue to suffer.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Using Sri Lanka’s RTI as an ‘extraordinary exception’

Times Sri Lanka: Sri Lanka: Sunday, June 26, 2016.
This Friday as Sri Lanka’s Parliament unanimously approved the 2016 RTI Bill amidst the mumbling discontents of its gloomy detractors in the House, sceptics raised a rare and hearty cheer.
Born out of a tortuous process ranging back over two decades and frustrated by political hostility on several occasions, it was difficult to believe that this country had at last passed an information law which, though not perfect as such laws rarely are, eminently sufficed for the purpose.
A powerful tool to demand answers
The primary importance of Sri Lanka’s RTI law, once in force, will be its raw power in the hands of ordinary citizens to demand answers from politicians and public servants. Fashioning RTI into a powerful tool can transform Sri Lanka, far more than goose-stepping commissions, committee or task forces can ever hope to achieve.
It can also have immediate direct impact on peoples’ rights as opposed to convoluted constitutional provisions which depend on enlightened and liberal judicial interpretation, a quality that Sri Lanka has sorely been lacking in recent decades.
The core of RTI lies in the embracing of the law as their own by Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim citizens whether in demanding information regarding to moneys spent in building a culvert by a local authority or in demanding information in regard to the ‘disappeared.’
The use of RTI against ‘black money’ rackets
This is how it has been worked in India which is perhaps the most eloquent example in the region. The RTI impact on ‘black money’ rackets driven by politicians and profiting businessmen has been startling. Just a few months ago, massive evasion of tax and money-laundering was exposed through an RTI application filed before the Department of Income Tax by a retired Indian inland revenue service official where income from undisclosed sources was shown as agricultural income despite the level of production remaining the same.
This irrational boost during 2010-2011 in agricultural income as declared by some assesses coincided with the period during which government-initiated enquiries regarding black money in foreign accounts. The RTI disclosures have led to the Government pledging to hold an inquiry.
Further RTI requests have led to refusal by the Department on the basis that the applicant has not disclosed sufficient public interest compelling such disclosures between the Department and tax-paying citizens held in a fiduciary relationship. In response to this denial, a public interest petition has been filed in the High Court with the High Court calling for a reply from the Government. This is RTI activism in full swing.
Judicial interventions into financial scandals
In any event, the Indian courts have been successfully utilised to raise public awareness on gross financial scandals. Spurred by disclosures in the media, a wealth of information on money laundering rackets of Indians with massive unaccounted ‘black money’ accounts in foreign banks has come into the public domain. In 2011, the Indian Supreme Court issued an order on a public interest petition filed by senior lawyer and politician Ram Jethmalani directing the disclosure of names of Indian account holders in a Liechtenstein bank. The judges reprimanded the Government for its lack of interest in probing money laundering schemes and ordered the setting up of a multi-disciplinary team to investigate the alleged crimes. The Government’s appeal that a double taxation avoidance treaty between India and Germany prohibited revealing names of the account holders was dismissed.
At the centre of this scandal is a stud farm owner and scrap dealer Hasan Ali Khan who was estimated to have stashed away millions in foreign banks. Despite the Court’s 2011 authoritative order, the information on foreign bank account holders has been slow in coming. The Court warned consequently that this lack of action could amount to contempt of court. The investigation team headed by a retired justice began inquiring into the case. But there are undertones familiar to Sri Lanka as continuing lack of official vigor in pursuing the matter led to harsh criticism.
Writing to the Sunday Guardian on 23rd September 2015, Jethmalani subjected the Government to a scathing attack, pointing to the fact that ‘instead of implementing the order, it is focusing on how to get it reviewed, recalled or diluted.’ This year, Jethmalani engaged in another tactic familiar to Sri Lankans; he apologised to the Indian public for once supporting Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Indian authorities have admitted that Khan owes the Income Tax Department the largest recovery amount in Indian tax history amidst fears that this may not be recoverable. Year by year, the amount owing by Khan to the Department has been whittled down with Khan spending only a brief stint in jail.
Correcting outrageous political betrayals
These are lessons that we should learn from India and elsewhere. Indeed, Sri Lanka gingerly steps into an ‘RTI-era’ long after it actually should have claimed such a law as its own. The 2004 Cabinet approved RTI Bill was defeated by the political pusillanimity of the Kumaratunga Presidency which dissolved Parliament while the Bill was about to be presented and by the chicanery of the Rajapaksa Presidency which outrageously declared that it was the source of all information.
Save for these unforgivable political betrayals, the RTI law would have been in Sri Lanka’s statute books during the past decade at least.
Even now and exuberance over the passing of the Bill nonetheless, the real difficulties lie ahead. RTI must be evidenced through vigorous activism in Sri Lankan villages and far flung outposts of the country, not limited to ‘information seminars’ and ‘talk shops’ in Colombo like many other such exercises. It must not be allowed to languish like information laws in Nepal and the Maldives.
Using the RTI differently
Our past experiences have not been encouraging in that regard. We have a plethora of laws which are excellent in theory but lamentably deficient in practice. The 1994 Convention Against Torture (CAT) Act is a prime example of this failure. In some respects, its legal thrust is even better than the United Nations Convention against Torture itself. Yet its implementation is dismal, due to deliberate obstruction and lack of political will by state actors including the Department of the Attorney General.
The challenge before us is to prove the RTI as the extraordinary exception to this disheartening rule.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

RTI Independent body must appoint info officers

The Nation Newspaper‎‎‎‎: Sri Lanka: Saturday, June 25, 2016.
Legal academics called for the appointment of information officers under the proposed Right to Information Bill to be made by an independent body and not by the head or chief executive officer of the public authority or the Public Service Commission or Ministers.
Senior Lecturer at the Department of Commercial Law of the Faculty of Law of the University of Colombo, Attorney-at-Law Dr. Prathiba Mahanamahewa said that barriers to the Right to Information, such as the one contained in provisions in Paragraph 6:1:3 of Chapter XLVII of the Establishment Code must be removed.
The provision states that a Ministry Secretary or a Head of a Department may exercise discretion with respect to the release to the public of information that may be of interest and value to the public and that no information even when confined to statements of facts should be given out where the publication of the said information may embarrass the Government and/or Department and/or Officer and that in the case of any doubt the relevant Minister should be consulted.
Certain provisions in the Official Secrets Act, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the Sri Lanka Press Council Act, the Profane Publications Act and the Public Performances Ordinance, which are contrary, inconsistent and conflicting with the proposed Right to Information Bill(RTI) too must be repealed, he added.
“There cannot be limitations and if there are, they must be cleared, otherwise the objectives of the RTI Bill cannot be achieved. In other countries, Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is what is used,” he noted.

Commission directs Punjab govt to share info on Orange Line Project

The News International‎‎‎: Islamabad: Saturday, June 25, 2016.
Punjab Information Commission has directed the Chief Minister Secretariat and other relevant provincial departments to share information with a complainant about the details of the cost and other aspects of the Metro Orange Line Train Project being executed in the provincial capital.
On a written complaint, the commission also issued notices to seven other government departments for non-provision of information regarding the cost, benefits and other details of the project.
The notices have been issued to the Punjab Mass Transit Authority chairman, Communication and Works secretary,  Lahore Transport secretary,  Tourism secretary,  Environmental Protection Agency director general,  Lahore Developme Authority director general  and  NESPAK managing director.
“The applicant has alleged that he has not been provided the requested information, whereas the applications for access to information should have been decided within 14 working days under Section 10(7) of the Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act 2013,” says the notice issued by the Information Commissioner Mukhtar Ahmad Ali on Tuesday.
“You are called upon to either transfer the attached complaint to the public information officer (PIO) designated under section of the act for supply of information or decide it yourself for being a deemed PIO if no such officer has been designated by you in your capacity as head of the organisation,” it reads.
The commission also called upon these provincial departments to ensure effective implementation of RTI law and devise a transparency mechanism to respond to information requests filed under the law.
The complainant Azhar Siddique had filed information requests with concerned provincial departments six times since October 2015, but did not receive any response for the authorities. He had asked 11 questions regarding the Metro Orange Line projects, including the cost and importance of Metro Orange Line Train Project. Any possible PPRA rules violation during the award of contract for the project, details of soft loan obtained etc.
The complainant claimed that Metro Orange Line Train Project was a costly project which may cost up to Rs250 billion.  “The amount to be spent on this project is a public money; hence, in view of Article 19-A read with Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Act-2013, it is the right of citizens to know about the allocations of public exchequer,” he wrote in his application.
While contacted, the Punjab  Acting Secretary Information, Raja Jahangir, said the provincial government is ready to share information with the commission as it had already submitted details with the Lahore High Court (LHC).
“There is nothing secret about the Metro Orange Line Train Project, and the information sought by the commission would definitely be provided,” he said. Raja Jahangir said several cases are pending with the LHC regarding the project and the government had shared all the details with the court. He said sometimes the formatting of information becomes a problem which causes delay in provision of information.
“Punjab Mass Transit Authority has all the information regarding the project, and the same will be provided soon,” he said adding that a study about the project had been done by a foreign company and it has 3,000 pages.
Commenting on the Punjab’s RTI Law, the secretary information said the legislation has a flaw that any person can seek any information on a plain paper regardless of his or her stakes in the information. “Sometimes people seek information just to annoy the government instead of a genuine purpose,” he said.

Private schools violating RTE norms over EWS admissions

The Hindu‎‎: Bhubaneswar: Saturday, June 25, 2016.
Even six years after implementation of Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE Act) in Odisha, privately-run schools continued to deceive the State government over admission of Economically Weaker Section (EWS), alleged parents, educationists and rights activists here on Friday.
“No control over private schools”
“The State government has absolutely no control over private schools which have mushroomed in urban areas over the years and more recently in rural pockets. As per RTE Act, government should monitor whether a private school has earmarked 25 per cent of the seats for EWS students. But in Odisha, the government does not know the number of private schools operating in the State,” said Sanjukta Panigrahi, a parent, addressing a press conference.
Ms. Panigrahi alleged, “several private schools in an attempt to avoid admitting students from EWS come up with advertisements for very few seats. Subsequently, they keep on adding students as per their convenience. The fraud in private schools would not have been possible had the government information as to what is going on in these schools.”
Activists alleged the government has no concrete information about private schools, which have been consistently refusing to address grievance of parents.
“State School and Mass Education Minister Debi Prasad Mishra recently informed Odisha Assembly that there were 75 private schools functioning in Bhubaneswar. But as per information obtained under RTI Act, there are 93 schools in the capital city,” said Pradip Pradhan, RTI Activist.
Mr. Pradhan also charged that, “the State government had never bothered to know if students from poorer section of society were getting admission in private schools, most of which were either provided land free of cost or at subsidised rate. It was in December 2014, the Block Education Officers were directed to compile information on these schools” Mr. Pradhan pointed out.
Activists alleged private schools continued to violate CBSE guideline by indiscriminately effecting fee hikes and forcing students to buy books of publication house of their choice instead of NCERT books.
Activists alleged that the State government has no concrete information about private schools.

Lankan Parliament Passes RTI Bill With Minor Amendments

Indian Express: Colombo: Saturday, June 25, 2016.
The Sri Lankan parliament on Friday passed the Right to Information (RTI) bill without a vote, after the government accepted a few minor amendments suggested by opposition parties.
Tamil National Alliance (TNA) MP and Leader of the Opposition, R.Sampanthan, told Express that the government accepted the Joint Opposition’s demand that  parliament be excluded from the purview of the Act.
“There was no difficulty in accepting this as there was never any intention to include parliament within the purview of the Act. But since the Joint Opposition wanted  it explicitly mentioned, government accepted it,” Sampanthan explained.
Local government institutions and NGOs getting governmental and foreign funding are included in the Act.
Supreme Court’s Suggestions
The Lankan Supreme Court had suggested some major amendments earlier, when the bill was submitted to it for testing its constitutionality. The court had said that if those suggestions were not accepted, the bill would have to be passed by a two thirds majority. It then proceeded to suggest some amendments.
The Court said that the provision promising information to “members of the public” was too broad because the Constitution referred only to citizens. Private educational institution should be exempted, the Court said, and a provision relating the courts should be redrafted to ensure the independence of the judiciary. The government told the court that its suggestions would be accepted.
Giving Sri Lanka an RTI was a promise of Maithripala Sirisena when he stood as the Joint Opposition candidate in the January 8, 2015 Presidential election. The earlier President Mahinda Rajapaksa had said that there will be no RTI Act in Lanka so long as he is in power.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Sri Lanka: RTI Bill debate begins

Sri Lanka Guardian‎‎‎: Sri Lanka: Friday, June 24, 2016.
Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said today that the it will take least one year to fully implement the provisions of the Right to Information (RTI) act as close to 12,000 persons would have to be recruited and trained in to disseminate information.
“It is not an easy task to recruit and train so many persons but we will take try to get at least half of them recruited within six months,” the Prime Minister said at the start of the debate on the RTI Bill.
He said that the RTI law will consolidate democracy in the country and would hold the government accountable to the public.
The Prime Minister said that in 2003 the UNP first attempted to introduce a RTI Bill but after it lost power in 2004, the Bill went into cold storage. The UNP Bill at the time was titled the Freedom of Information Bill.”
“If the RTI law had been in place, then some of the excesses of the previous government which are only coming to light now would have been exposed,” he said.

50 mts from HTL could be the new NDZ

Oherald‎‎‎: Panaji: Friday, June 24, 2016.
In a bid to boost development in coastal areas and protect traditional communities like fishermen, the  Central government constituted six-member committee on Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) has proposed that the ‘no development buffer zone’ (NDZ) be limited up to 50 meters from the High Tide Line (HTL) for densely populated areas. The NDZ currently extends to 200 meters.
However, the recommendations, under consideration of the Union Ministry for Environment Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC), if imposed could prove disastrous to Goa’s coastal ecology, which is already reeling under tremendous pressure.
Granting the relaxation to traditional inhabitants, wanting to take up housing or commercial development, the Committee has recommended that such activities be granted permissions for economic development of the community. The Committee has opined that MoEFCC should restrict itself to policy making in the area of coastal management and monitoring of activities, while vesting powers to the State authorities to tackle the concerns of the people.
MoEFCC had in June 2014 appointed Dr Shailesh Nayak (former secretary of Ministry of Earth Science) to study the necessary changes that could be made to the CRZ notification 2011, following dissatisfaction expressed by various State governments with regard to CRZ limitations. The report submitted in January 2015, was kept under wraps by the Union Ministry.
The ministry released the report after an order from the Information Commissioner last month stating the ministry cannot deny the report under the Right to Information (RTI), Act. 
“The move to reduce the NDZ from 200 meters to 50 meters could prove deterrent to coastal ecology. It is like you can now construct anything right on the shore,” a senior official from the State Environment Department said, stating that ‘even in 200 meters of NDZ, environment is widely damaged’.
The report has divided areas as densely populated rural areas and rural areas, and imposes lesser regulation for the former through the reduction of the NDZ to 50 metres and 200 meters of the high tide line for others.
“The committee has dealt seriously on the State demand to protect the interests of traditional fishing communities, by proposing that such communities need to be provided adequate opportunities for economic development,” the official said.
“Most of the traditional coastal communities, who live on the resources from the coastal areas, especially fishing, need to be provided with adequate opportunity for economic development. The local communities should be provided with an opportunity to take up tourism, artisanal fisheries such as traditional aquaculture and ornamental fish culture, in such ecosystem areas for their economic improvement,” the report has stated.
The coastal regulations were last amended in 2011 but several States pointed out that this hampered development in the coastal areas. The committee found that the regulations, especially with regard to construction, have affected housing, slum redevelopment, redevelopment of dilapidated structures and other dangerous buildings.

Issue notices in the names of then chiefs of pol parties: CIC

India Today‎‎‎: New Delhi: Friday, June 24, 2016.
The Central Information Commission has directed its registrar to issue fresh notices in the names of the then chiefs of political parties after activist R K Jain alleged that the concerned official in an earlier notice dropped all names except Sonia Gandhis.
"If specific name(s) of the respondent(s) is/are mentioned in the complaint, such name(s) shall figure out in the notices issued by the Registrar," a full bench of the Commission comprising Information Commissioner Sridhar Acharyulu, Bimal Julka and Sudhir Bhargava said.
It also granted time to Congress and NCP to file their responses besides giving another opportunity to the respondent political parties BJP, CPI(M), CPI and BSP which did not participate in the hearing.
"The complaints filed by R K Jain for non­compliance of orders of the Commission against six national political parties will be tagged and heard on the next date of hearing. Other complaints and appeals will be heard separately on the same day," he said rejecting the intervention applications.
The bench is hearing a complaint from Jain alleging his queries to political parties seeking details of donations, finances, internal elections etc were not responded to which was a violation of the RTI Act.
In his complaint, Jain has alleged that this was violation of a full bench order of the Commission which had declared Congress and five other national parties including BJP, CPI, CPI-M, NCP and BSP as public authorities making them answerable under the RTI Act.
The full bench of the Commission headed by the then Chief Information Commissioner Satyananda Mishra had on June 3, 2013 brought six national parties--Congress, BJP, NCP, BSP, CPI and CPM--under the ambit of RTI on the premise that they are substantially funded by the government in the form of subsidies, cheap land for offices, and tax concessions.
The order has neither been stayed nor set aside by any of the high courts or the Supreme Court.
During the proceedings of his complaint, Jain had alleged Registrar M K Sharma had adopted double standards in issuing notice to Sonia Gandhi "by name" as Congress President, while the names of Rajnath Singh, Prakash Karat, Sharad Pawar, Mayawati and S Sudhakar Reddy, have been omitted though the complaints named them specifically.
"The effect of omission of the name of the persons accused in the complaints from the notice issued by M K Sharma, Registrar is the shifting of the penal consequences to a person other than the one named in the complaint," Jain had said in his complaint to Chief Information Commissioner R K Mathur, filed on June 15. PTI ABS SMJ ZMN SMJ

Rajiv Gandhi assassination case: Convict seeks info on Dutt’s early release, Yerwada jail officials to consider plea

Indian Express‎‎: Chennai: Friday, June 24, 2016.
Authorities at Yerwada Central Prison will meet on June 28 to consider an RTI plea filed by A G Perarivalan, one of the convicts in Rajiv Gandhi assassination case. Perarivalan has sought information on the grounds on which actor Sanjay Dutt, a convict in 1993 Mumbai blasts case, was prematurely released from prison. A representative of Perarivalan will appear before prison authorities next Tuesday.
Perarivalan’s counsel A Sivakumar said the information sought might be crucial in his case. “He filed the plea after the Centre opposed in Supreme Court the Tamil Nadu government’s decision to release Rajiv Gandhi assassination case convicts. Sanjay Dutt, arrested under TADA and Arms Act, was released from prison despite facing several controversies during his term. In the Rajiv Gandhi assassination case, Supreme Court dismissed TADA provisions in 1999 and conspiracy angles were never proved,” he said.

RTI act being used to harass government officials in Gujarat

Times of India: Gandhinagar: Friday, June 24, 2016.
Government officials in Gujarat tasked with finding answers to Right To Information Act (RTI) queries filed by their fellow citizens, say they are struggling to deal with some of the questions they're getting.
Here's an example:
How does the government send greetings? Is there a fixed format for such messages? How much does the government spend on such messages?
It is the sort of question that rarely ever crosses people's minds, but Gujarat's "RTI-activists" many of whom submit applications through Below Poverty Line (BPL) card holders are harassing government officers by making such unusually pedantic queries. Here are more examples:
1.    If a Hindu government officer has a beard, and dresses like a Muslim, can any action be taken against him? What are the rules for transferring such a person?
2.    Is there any rule for transferring a woman government employee who puts on a lot of sindoor?
3.    How many people visit the Secretariat every day?
It can be rather challenging for officials to answer such questions, not least because they need to do so within a fixed time limit to avoid a fine. Transfer rules, and codes of conduct in particular, are hard to research, for there are many of them. And in many cases, officials have had to find and deliver information spanning a decade or more.
Government departments receive 10 RTI applications a day on average - and thousands every month - and staff shortages mean that those who are duty-bound to field these questions must spend many valuable hours researching them.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

No Retired Judges selected as Information Commissioners though Five applied and One shortlisted: RTI Reply

Live Law‎‎‎‎‎: New Delhi: Thursday, June 23, 2016.
In response to an application filed by Activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal under Right to Information (RTI) Act, the Department of Personnel and Training has stated that no retired SC/HC Judges were selected as Information Commissioners so far. The reply also stated that Five retired High Court Judges were applied for the post and one of them was shortlisted.
Mr Agrawal had filed the RTI application seeking complete information together with related file-notings/correspondence/documents on under-mentioned aspects also relating to enclosed minutes of meetings for selection of Commissioners/Chief Commissioners at Central Information Commission.
1.      Complete information on some retired and/or existing Judges of High Courts and/or Supreme Court ever having applied for posts of Information Commissioner/Chief Information Commissioner at Central Information Commission ever since information may be available on record.
2.      Complete information on any retired and/or existing Judges of High Courts and/or Supreme Court having been selected for posts of Information Commissioner/Chief Information Commissioner at Central Information Commission ever since information may be available on record.
3.      Complete information on any retired and/or existing Judges of High Courts and/or Supreme Court having been short-listed (like Mr Justice Retired Ravi R Tripathi) for posts of Information Commissioner/Chief Information Commissioner at Central Information Commission ever since information may be available on record.
4.      Complete bio-data of any retired and/or existing Judges of High Courts and/or Supreme Court having been short-listed (like Mr Justice Retired Ravi R Tripathi) for posts of Information Commissioner/Chief Information Commissioner at Central Information Commission.
5.      Complete bio-data of Mr Justice (Retired) Ravi R Tripathi as submitted by/for him while applying for post of Information Commissioner/Chief Information Commissioner at Central Information Commission.
6.      Complete information together with related file-notings/correspondence/documents etc on Mr Justice (Retired) Ravi R Tripathi not having been finally selected for either of posts of Information Commissioner/Chief Information Commissioner at Central Information Commission.
7.      Complete information about earlier postings held by Mr Justice (Retired) Ravi R Tripathi.
8.      Complete information on selection of Mr Justice (Retired) Ravi R Tripathi for his earlier postings prior to his having applied for post of Information Commissioner/Chief Information Commissioner at Central Information Commission.
9.      Any other related information.
10.  File-noting on movement of this RTI-petition.
In reply the department has stated that, the following judges were applied for the post:
1.    Shri Brijendra Mohan Sinha retired Judge, High Court of Allahabad applied for the post of IC in CIC in 2013.
2.    Shri Zaki Ullah Khan retired Judge, High Court of Allahabad applied for the post of Chief IC in CIC in 201 4.
3.    Shri Sheo Kvmar Singh retired Jvdge, High Court of Allahabad applied for the post of Chief IC in CIC 2014.
4.    Shri Brojendra Prasad Katakey retired Judge, High Court of Guwahati applied for the post of IC in CIC in 2014.
5.    Shri Ravi R. Tripathi retired Judge, High Court of Gujarat applied for the post of IC and Chief IC in CIC in 2015.
It is also clarified that, no other judge except Shri Ravi R. Tripathi has ever been shortlisted for the post of Chief IC/IC in the CIC.


Greater Kashmir‎‎‎‎: Srinagar: Thursday, June 23, 2016.
The Jammu and Kashmir High Court has directed the government to take action for retrieving 650 kanals of Kahcharie land allegedly encroached upon by land mafia at Zakura, Gulab Bagh and Bhagat Shura in suburbs of Srinagar.
One Peer Noor-ul-Haq had approached the court with a plea that the land mafia has usurped 650 kanals of Kahcharai land at Zakura, Ghulab Bagh Bhgat Shura, claiming to be owners of the land and have raised constructions on it.
Disposing of the petition, a bench of Justice Ramallingam Sudhakar directed Tehsildar Hazratbal to take action in the matter as competent authority as expeditiously as possible.
In support of his contention, the petitioner produced a reply copy he had received through Right to Information Act as proof that the land in question is a Kahcharie land.
While the RTI reply revealed that 459 Kanals as per the ‘Jamobandi’ 1954-60 and 2010-11, situated at Zakura and Gulab Bagh has been grabbed, it divulged another piece of Kacharie land comprising 194 Kanals and 7 Marlas   has been also usurped at Estate Bhagat Shura.
The petitioner pleaded that he approached the Revenue department for taking necessary action against the land mafias in order to evict them from the land.
The authorities, he pleaded, however, failed to discharge their statutory duty for the reasons best known to them. He submitted that the inaction by the authorities prompted him to file a petition before the court to protect the precious state land.
For retrieving the land, the petitioner sought directions to the Revenue authorities to discharge their duty by evicting the land mafias from the illegal encroachment over the kahcharie land.
“In view of the relief sought for by the petitioner (Peer), Tehsildar Hazratbal Srinagar/ competent authority is directed to consider the nature of complaint filed by the petitioner and take action in the matter in accordance with law as expeditiously as possible,” the court said.
Pertinently, the High Court has earlier also ruled that  the structures on the Kahcharai land have to be removed in keeping with  the Apex Court judgment handed down in the petition titled Jagpal Singh and others versus State of Punjab.
“Illegalities committed in nature of usurpation of Common Lands of the village communities cannot be regularized and the common interest of the villagers cannot be made to suffer merely because the unauthorized occupation has subsisted for many years,” reads the apex court judgment.

If Sanjay Dutt can be released, why not us: Rajiv killers file for RTI

Newsx‎‎‎: New Delhi: Thursday, June 23, 2016.
The row over the release of seven-convicted Rajiv Gandhi killers saw an expected turn on Wednesday when the convicts filed for Right to Information (RTI) Act pertaining to the premature release of Bollywood actor Sanjay Dutt.
There have been widespread protests in Tamil Nadu for the release of Rajiv Gandhi killers who have been sentenced to death by the Supreme Court. Many protesters demand from the Jayalalithaa government the release of the accused persons in the case who have served more than 25 years in prison.
The AIADMK supported the plea filed by the convicts and asked the RTI to seek information about Sanjay Dutt's premature release in the 1993 blasts case. The lawyers cited common charges between the two and raised questions about why the Bollywood actor had been accorded early release.

RSS to work for getting stain on Swami Aseemanand removed. It claims information obtained under RTI reveals that the prisoner who reportedly melted Aseemanand's heart to reveal the truth was never in his service as claimed by the NIA.

India Today‎‎‎: Mumbai: Thursday, June 23, 2016.
Delighted with the National Investigation Agency's (NIA) clean chit to Sadhvi Pragya Singh in the 2008 Malegaon bomb blasts case the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is looking forward to remove the "stain" on another activist Swami Aseemanand, an accused in the cases of Samjhauta train bomb blast and Macca Masjid in Hyderabad.
A highly placed RSS functionary told India Today that the organisation was contemplating to explore all legal angles to secure bail for Aseemanand, whom it believes is falsely implicated in these cases.
"The NIA claims that Aseemanand has confessed his role in these cases. The fact is he has not given any confession. More importantly, he has retracted the statement, which the NIA calls as a confession, in the court. We are going to challenge the NIA's case based on the new information we have obtained pertaining to this case," the RSS functionary said.
According to him, Aseemanand has only admitted that he knew late Sunil Joshi, the alleged conspirator of these bomb blasts, and he used to contact him on several occasions. Aseemanand was not involved in planning or execution of any of the blasts. "A confession is something about admitting one's guilt in a crime. When Aseemanand was not involved in planning or executing any crime how can his statement be called as a confession?" the functionary asked.
He claimed that Aseemanand's only mistake was that he listened to Joshi patiently and did not reveal to anyone what he conveyed to him. As Joshi has been killed by yet unidentified people a couple of years ago it is difficult to establish what transpired between him and Aseemanand.
The RSS has gathered information under the Right to Information (RTI) Act on one prisoner Kaleem, lodged in Hyderabad prison along with Aseemanand. The NIA had claimed that Aseemanand had confessed to his involvement in the Macca Masjid blast because he felt a wrong person Kaleem was being victimised. The NIA had claimed that they had arrested Kaleem as a suspect in this case and had kept him in Aseemanand's service. Kaleem reportedly won over Aseemanand with his good behaviour and honest service that melted the swami's heart to reveal the truth.
"The record shows that Kaleem was never kept in Aseemanand's service in the Hyderabad prison. Also, it has been established that he was arrested for cheating and theft not under terrorism charges. So where the question on Aseemanand's heart melting for an innocent person arises?" the RSS functionary said.
"We will take the legal battle to a next level soon. I am hopeful Aseemanand too will come out clean as Pragya," he said.

The Delhi Golf Club cat is out of the bag at last thanks to RTI application

Firstpost‎‎: New Delhi: Thursday, June 23, 2016.
Almost a year after Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled 20 memberships at the Delhi Golf Club, an RTI note now reveals who all managed a backdoor entry to Delhi’s biggest networking ground.
“(These) individuals are nominated for out of turn basis by the minister as per clause 21(iii) of Supplementary Lease Deed between Land Development office and Delhi Golf Club,” said a note from the Urban Development Ministry in response to a RTI application.
All those in the list were sanctioned by the then Union Urban Housing Development minister Kamal Nath, who not only renewed the 220-acre club lease for a pittance of Rs 550,000 annual rent for 30 years in 2013, but sought and gained 29 permanent memberships of his nominees to the club, which had got its land from Jawaharlal Nehru in 1951.
An official from Nath’s office said the former minister is not keen to comment. An email sent to his office went unanswered.
Nath, now in news for his reluctance to accept the party’s offer to lead the party’s electoral challenge in the forthcoming Punjab elections, had repeatedly refused to share details of “out of turn” membership.
Interestingly, the Aam Aadmi Party that wants the club to be open for public, has written to the current urban development minister Venkaiah Naidu, and the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) about the Delhi Golf Club’s “favoured members”.
Interestingly, the Delhi lieutenant governor, Najeeb Jung a bitter foe of Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal is a member of the club. AAP has even encouraged members to take on the club’s high-profile members, who range from powerful bureaucrats and Central ministers to corporate honchos and lobbyists.
The powerful club is full of strutting peacocks and patriots and nestled amidst 15th Century monuments.
The legendary Marlon Brando, who had once visited the club, had called it “heavenly”. Members include the city’s most influential, powerful and wealthy. An application for membership has a 40-year waiting list, and that's only if the candidate passes a stringent set of conditions.
Compared to other clubs, the Delhi Golf Club membership comes cheap at Rs 800 per month (non-members pay Rs 2,400 for an 18-hole round). The ITC Classic Golf Club charges an annual fee of Rs 1.25 lakh while DLF Golf Club charges Rs 8.5 lakh for five years. The DGC currently has 3,000 members.
The names Nath pushed as “out of turn” members are indeed interesting.
The names are indeed interesting. It has Ashish Chanana of Ameera Rice who was embroiled in some major smuggling issues with the ED and DRI, noted meat exporter and hawala trader Moin Akhtar Qureshi, Deepak Puri, who once owned Moser Baer (now a defunct company) and his son Ratul Puri, now heading Hindustan Power Projects. There is Angad Kapur of Atlas Cycles, a Haryana company.
Nath doled out the memberships to the current attorney general Mukul Rohtagi, the former additional solicitor general Amarjit Singh Chandhiok, DLF CEO Mohit Gujral, Mohammed Faisal Patel, son of powerful Congress leader Ahmed Patel, Amit Kumar Bansal, son of former Railway minister Pawan Kumar Bansal, Haryana politician Deepender Singh Hooda, Trinamool Congress leader and former Railway minister Dinesh Trivedi.
Among the glitterati, the list has some interesting names. There is fashion designer Ritu Beri, seasoned, globe trotting marketeer and author, Suhel Seth, another fashion designer Anand Ahuja, top heart doctor Naresh Trehan, Lord Krishna Bank head Mohan Puri and Neeraj Bharadwaj of Carlyle Group.
Interestingly, a host of bureaucrats made it to the list, among them some working under Nath. There were Sudha Krishnan, a joint secretary, Khalid Bin Jamal, private secretary and other bureaucrats like Neeraj Kumar Gupta of Department of Public Enterprises and former PMO official Jawed Ashraf.
A senior official of the Delhi Golf Club said he was “not authorised to comment on special quota members because it is done from the top”.
Interestingly, the club had for almost a decade stalled various efforts to seek information about members, especially those nominated by the minister.
But the wall crumbled last year when the Central Information Commission ruled the upmarket club to be a "public authority'' under the RTI Act, and thus answerable to members of the public.
The ruling was delivered by Information Commissioner ML Sharma on 30 August, 2015 in response to an appeal filed by intrepid RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal, whose RTI application of September 2012 was turned down because the Delhi Golf Club (DGC) had responded by saying it was a registered company under the provisions of the Companies Act 1956, and not a public authority.
The high-profile club last year shot into news after some members complained about glaring discrepancies in sanctioning membership, including three non-government functionaries inducted by former urban development minister Kamal Nath in the DGC General Committee, the highest decision-making body of the club. The three members nominated by the previous UPA government include Rajiv Luthra, Rajan Gupta and Duke Walia.
The NDA government in January cancelled the membership of 27 serving and retired bureaucrats to the Delhi Golf Club. Members alleged that the presence of “non-bureaucrats” in the General Committee was not serving any purpose. The government wanted to remove two permanent members but the president declined, saying the existing rules do not permit their removal.
And now, AAP wants to turn the DGC into a mass park, almost like New York’s 778-acre Central Park and London's Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens complex that measure 625 acres and offer residents and visitors space for recreation.
The last word has not been spoken on this peculiar battle for the greens.