Monday, April 23, 2018

Africa: Authoritarian Govts Tighten Grip On Press Freedom

All Africa: Sopo Karazi: Monday, April 23, 2018.
The 25th celebration of World Press Freedom Day will be led by UNESCO and the government of Ghana in Accra on May 2-3. The theme is "Keeping Power in Check: Media, Justice and The Rule of Law," covering the issues of media in respect to the judicial system and transparent political processes.
At the same time, the conference will discuss state institutions' accountability towards their citizens.
  • Politicians in democratic states launched or escalated efforts to shape news coverage by delegitimizing media outlets, exerting political influence over public broadcasters, and raising the profile of friendly private outlets.
  • - Officials in more authoritarian settings such as Turkey, Ethiopia, and Venezuela used political or social unrest as a pretext to intensify crackdowns on independent or opposition-oriented outlets.
  • Authorities in several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, and Asia extended restrictive laws to online speech, or simply shut down telecommunications services at crucial moments, such as before elections or during protests.
  • Among the countries that suffered the largest declines on the report's 100-point scale in 2016 were Poland (6 points), Turkey (5), Burundi (5), Hungary (4), Bolivia (4), Serbia (4), and the Democratic Republic of Congo (4).
  • The world's 10 worst-rated countries and territories were Azerbaijan, Crimea, Cuba, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Turkmenistan.
The day takes place in the context of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2015, which includes 17 goals for achieving sustainable development for all, including ending inequalities between men and women. Among the goals, Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 focuses on promoting just, peaceful and inclusive societies.
Peace, justice and strong institutions allow for good governance as well as other sustainable development efforts to thrive, facilitated further by an independent and enabling media environment.
Today, the number of countries with right to information laws is steadily increasing. The international normative framework regarding the safety of journalists, and particularly women journalists, has been significantly bolstered through the adoption of resolutions at the UN General Assembly, Security Council, Human Rights Council and UNESCO, and there is greater recognition of the right to privacy.
Still, according to Freedom House, a free press is accessible to only 13% of the world population and a partly free press to 42% of the world population. The remaining 45% lives in countries where a free press is non-existent ("New Report: Freedom of the Press 2017"). Political and economic transformations of some countries alongside their technological developments place new restrictions on press freedom.
Governments of these countries tend to implement restrictive laws and censorship on freedom of press, usually justifying these actions as a necessary tool for national security against terrorism. Apart from violating the right of freedom of expression, these restrictions place higher risks of violence, harassment and death on journalists.
According to the 2017 World Press Freedom Index, violence and restrictions against media freedom has risen by 14% in the time period of 2012-2017. At the same time, since 2016, media freedom in countries where it was ranked as "good" decreased by 2.3%.
The level of restriction on press freedom has been one of the highest in MENA countries such as Syria. Even though article 43 of Syria's Constitution guarantees freedom of the press while a 2011 media law bans monopolistic media alongside with "the arrest, questioning, or searching of journalists," these laws are not practiced in the government-held areas of the country. According to the media law, publication of any information on armed forces and spread of information that might affect national security and provoke "hate crimes" is forbidden in Syria. In case of violating this law, journalists are held accountable and fined with 1 million Syrian pounds ($4,600).
At the same time, despite the fact that article 3 of the media law guarantees freedom of expression as stated in the Syrian Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, article 4 of the same law declares that the media must practice this freedom with "awareness and responsibility".
Consequently, this broad wording allows the Syrian government to restrict press freedom in multiple ways and in case of disobedience, punish journalists for anti-state crimes. For instance, in December 2016, the government imprisoned seven Syrian journalists through security-related legislation and used torture to receive their confession.
From the political perspective, Syrian authorities spread propaganda and false information while forcefully restricting publication of news in the government-controlled areas. Distribution of "all printed material" has been led by the General Corporation for the Distribution of Publications, responsible for censorship in Syria. This, alongside the economic problems caused by war, has decreased media diversity in the government-controlled area, leaving only a few dozen print publications which rarely deal with the political issues.
From the economic perspective, most of the print publications are owned by the government-allied businessmen who also control editorial policy. This, on the other hand, intensifies the problem of the non-existent free press in Syria.
However, despite this fact, in the opposition-controlled territory new print and broadcast outlets have emerged, funded by volunteers and some of them based abroad. For instance, the opposition TV channel - Orient TV owned by Ghassan Aboud, an exiled Syrian entrepreneur - broadcasts from Dubai while having correspondents in Syria.
According to Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, "when politicians lambaste the media, it encourages their counterparts abroad to do the same... [undermining] democracy's status as a model of press freedom."
The case of Syria demonstrates how the absence of press freedom and an independent judiciary triggers development of authoritarian governments. The "just, effective and independent judiciary" is a base for an effective rule of law which builds a strong democratic system, guaranteeing the right of freedom of information, expression and safety of journalists.
This, on the other hand, provides free press that is compulsory for representing political will and needs of people, and for establishing good governance. Press freedom allows journalists to monitor and report about the on-going events taking place in different sectors of the state. As a result, this makes it possible to hold governments accountable towards their people and helps to accomplish the 2030 agenda of Sustainable Development Goals.

IOC petrol pump shares wall with kids living next door.

The Tribune: Rachana Khaira: Jalandar: Monday, April 23, 2018.
Do you want to open a petrol pump adjacent to a school or a hospital or in a highly congested residential area? No problem. In Jalandhar, you can twist the provisions of Petroleum Rules 1976 and the development order by the Punjab Town and Country Planning Authority and can open a filling station at any place of your choice.
While some filling stations have recently come up next to schools and houses, some hotels and schools were also granted no objection certificate (NOC) and opened adjacent to a filling station opened many years ago.
Highlights
  • Tribune investigations revealed that the petrol pump owner allegedly got a letter from the area councillor who stated that there were no filling stations in the area and there was a dire need to open one
  • Shockingly, when contacted by The Tribune, former area councillor Bunty of ward number 24 claimed that he did not remember issuing any such letter to the filling station owners
  • However, when contacted, nearby area councillor Kanwaljeet Singh Gullu of another ward slammed the officials for “ignoring” the rules of the Petroleum Act and the directions of the High Court over a letter issued by the councillors
  • “It is our duty to inform the officials about the needs of our area residents. However, it does not entitle them to overlook the norms prescribed in the Petroleum Act. They should have granted permission as per the law,” said Gullu
Take example of a filling station situated near Kapurthala Chowk. Even though the Mumbai High Court, in a judgment in writ petition NO. 4734 of 2004 of St Philomena Convent High School vs Union of India case, clearly stated that the filling stations should be opened at a minimum distance of over 91.5 metres from a school and hospital, the aforesaid filling station is situated just 20 m from a critical heart care hospital.
“A petrol station shall not be situated within a distance of 91.5 m from the nearest gate of a school, hospital, theatre, place of assembly or stadium or such other place of public utility,” stated the court in its order dated March 31, 2009.
Shockingly, despite being aware about the norms, the applicant had managed to move across over dozen departments with the subject that the applicant had intended to set up a filling station “near Tagore Hospital”. More shockingly, the NOCs of all departments, including an NOC by the District Collector, too went on acknowledging the fact that the site was indeed situated next to a hospital.
Also, while the guidelines issued by the Ministry of Industry and Civil Supplies (Dept of Industrial Development) clearly stated that the petrol pumps should not be established next to residential houses, this filling station shares a wall with a residential house having two kids aged three and four.
While the filling station was situated in plot No. 86, a family is staying in a house constructed in plot No. 87.
Ashwini Mahajan, a sports goods merchant living ‘next door’ the filling station, alleged that even though there were four filling stations running in the area, the district administration had defied the mandated rules and granted permission to open the pump in the heart of the residential area.
Tribune investigations further revealed that the owner allegedly got a letter from the area councillor who stated that there were no filling stations in the area and there was a dire need to open one. The administration hurriedly accepted his claim and granted permission to open one. Interestingly, the letters (copies available with The Tribune) issued by the area councillor Gurvinder Bunty Neelkanth and nearby area councillor Kanwaljeet Singh Gullu did not even bear date and the letter number.
On further probe by The Tribune, it was found that the Town and Country Planning Department did not issue the NOC earlier by stating that the junction on which the petrol pump was located on a 23-6” road and is a minor junction (above 22 feet wide).
However, it seemed that the “demand” stated by the area councillor turned the tables and the department finally “bypassed” the rule.
Shockingly, when contacted by The Tribune, former area councillor Bunty of ward number 24 claimed that he did not remember issuing any such letter to the filling station owners.
However, when contacted, Gullu slammed the officials for “ignoring” the rules of the Petroleum Act and the directions of the High Court over a letter issued by the councillors. “It is our duty to inform the officials about the needs of our area residents. However, it does not entitle them to overlook the norms prescribed in the Petroleum Act. They should have granted permission as per the law,” said Gullu.
More seriously, while a petrol pump should be opened around 50 feet away from a road intersection having a minimum width of 22 feet, the Explosives Department too overlooked the fact in this case and granted permission to open one, right on the road intersection.
While the district administration officials claimed in an RTI reply that one of the roads in the cross section was not thoroughfare, as claimed by the Police Department after an on-the-spot inspection, an RTI reply sought by Mahajan from the Police Commissionerate was refused by stating that he could not be provided information as per notification 2/27/05-IAR/191 dated 23rd February 2006 which stated that the RTI Act 2005 would not apply to certain organisations under the Department of Home Affairs and Justice and DGP Punjab CHD no. 21190-289/Con-EO, dated 16-05-2006.
Sources in the Civil Supplies Department even made serious allegations. Some alleged that a majority of the filing stations in the city had made different site plans as per the specifications required by a respective department.
To open a petrol pump, one needs NOC from around eight departments. Due to highly stringent rules, it is too difficult to adhere to specifications of all departments. As the respective departments only issue NOC and not the sanctioned site plan to the district collectors’ office, the oil companies allegedly get a chance to fudge around with the site plans to meet the specifications of a respective department.
in case of filling station situated near the Kapurthala chowk, it was granted permission to operate on the cross section situated in the congested residential area and just adjacent to a critical heart care hospital.
When contacted, one of the pump owners Rajeev Murria ‘Vicky’ instead of accepting the lapses, argued that when a majority of the pumps were situated adjacent to high-rise hotels, why can’t he be allowed to operate one in a residential area?
While the pump owner might have got away by twisting some facts in the record files, the next door residents here like Mahajan’s family, including his three-year-old daughter and her four-year-old cousin are breathing toxic emissions everyday.
A study carried out in France looked at 280 children with leukemia and a control group of 285 children, all younger than 15 years. The researchers found that children living next door to a petrol station or automotive garage had a quadrupled risk of leukemia. And the risk of developing acute non-lymphoblastic leukemia was seven times greater compared to children who lived in the same area, but not next to a petrol station. Also, fast-moving oil tankers and buses entering the filling station might take precious lives some day in future.

Make list of ‘missing files’, file FIRs, CIC tells Huda

Times of India: Gurgaon: Monday, April 23, 2018.
The Haryana chief information commissioner (CIC) has directed Hudato prepare a complete list of files on residential and commercial sectors missing from their office, then file FIRs for these and take action against officials responsible for their custody.
CIC Yash Pal Singal passed the order while hearing an appeal filed by Gurugram-based RTI activist Aseem Takyar.
Takyar had filed an RTI query before Huda in August 2017, seeking information on the files for residential and commercial sectors that are missing, files which were re-constructed as their replacement, and FIRs filed by the authority for the missing files. Unsatisfied by authority’s reply, Takyar filed an application before the first appellate authority in September 2017, and finally before the commission in December 2017.
The CIC observed that Huda’s reply indicates no effort has been made by the authority to prepare any list of missing files or re-constructed files, neither have FIRs been filed for the ones missing.
he order further observed that as per Section 4(1)(a) of the RTI Act, 2005, a public authority has to maintain all its records. The CIC directed Huda to reconstruct the missing files and take action against official(s) responsible for their custody, including registering of FIRs for files that went missing or were destroyed, and complete all of this before June this year. “Non-maintenance of such information is itself a violation of the RTI Act,” said Takyar.
Missing files is one of Huda’s perennial problems, often making people wait for years to get their work done.
“Lower-level authority officials have adopted a practice of declaring files missing, after dumping or hiding them to stall work and harass residents,” said an official, adding files are declared missing if a resident fails to “fulfil the lower-level official’s demands”, ie, pay bribe, and that missing files resurface as soon as residents “fulfil the demand”.
It is a practice that has flourished for years, in the absence of regular scrutiny by higher-level officials, that in most cases, FIRs are refused although they are mandatory.
To check such corruption, Huda had introduced its online system in January, promising to complete 32 civil works listed under citizen charter, barring issuing completion certificates, in four working days.

Secunderabad Cantonment Board ducks RTI

The Hans India: Telangana: Monday, April 23, 2017.
The Secunderabad Cantonment Board (SCB) has once again faulted on passing information under the Right to Information Act. In a reply to a petition filed by N Venkata Ramana of Malani Enclave near Trimulgherry on the CPIO of SCB, the board replied that the information sought is voluminous and as the assistant engineer has to look after other duties and would affect administration, hence the information sought attracts section 7 (9) of RTI Act, 2005. Venkata Ramana said that the SCB is ducking questions and citing that the section is not appropriate as it is bound to pass information.
It may be noted that in 2016, one C J Karira, an RTI activist had sent four applications to SCB and did not receive a reply that led to the Central Information Commission (CIC) hauling up SCB for mismanagement of RTI affairs in the organization. Raghuveer, a social activist and resident of West Marredpally said, “The SCB is notorious for not replying to RTI applications. It is nothing short of mockery of the RTI Act.” In all, the RTI applicant asked for 21 points pertaining to nala construction from Mahatma Dandhi Community Hall until Trimulgherry Lake, work estimates, drawing plan, fee for sanctioning layouts, burning plastic and garbage, construction of park in Malani Enclave among others.
Citizens have been criticising the attitude of SCB officials on several matters. Revathy, a resident of Sikh Village said, “The SCB is flouting all norms, plastic is burnt in the open air even as officials speak about Swatchh Bharat and also hold rallies. The shifting of the dumpyard at the community hall at Trimulgherry too is pending.”

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Read it to know the pain and joy of activism.

Asian Age: Sanjeev Ahluwalia: Sunday: April 21, 2018.
This is not a glib account of mobilising the rural poor, penned by a peripatetic babu or a drive-in-fly-out development expert. It is, refreshingly, a record of activists, who elected to spend the better part of their working lives making a difference, bottom upwards, and three decades later remain rooted in their karmbhumi — village Devdungri, Rajasthan.
Some came from well-off urban backgrounds and yet stuck it out in the harsh and relentless realities of the rural poor. This testifies to their commitment. But even to attribute high moral incentives to them, betrays the tinted glasses of this urbanised reviewer. The authors do not vent their frustration, voice their regrets or betray even a whiff of resentment against an uncaring world. What shines through instead, is their quiet joy and fulfillment, at doing something useful.
Aruna Roy, for all her careful attempts to share the credit, is the central figure. Born into a family of lawyers, she drifted into the elite Indian Administrative Service in 1968 but resigned in 1975 to work with the Social Work and Research Center (SWRC) in Ajmer. Clearly, goaded by the need to be more immediately and directly involved with real people in rural India, she left SWRC in 1983. Nikhil Dey — recently returned after college in the United States, seeking something beyond a comfortable life, became a friend; Shanker Singh, a local village official’s gifted son, adroit puppeteer and communicator extraordinaire, completed the group which bonded and decided to check out the rural empowerment landscape in Jhabhua, Madhya Pradesh. That seed did not flower. But bonds between the three deepened.
They resolved, in 1987, to put down roots in village Devdungri, which today is part of district Rajsamand in the Mewar region of Rajasthan. This was close enough to Shanker’s village, Lotiyana, to give the group an entry into rural life through his local bonds of kinship. Here, in a mud hut, rented from his cousin, the small group lived like the villagers around them and awaited a gradual immersion into the rhythm of village life and hopefully, local social acceptance — trust and credibility is central to an activist’s effectiveness. Meanwhile, the group refined the credo of their concerns. These coalesced around the need to enable the rural poor and marginalised, to look beyond their sordid reality of traditional social and cultural constraints, to understand and avail of, the constitutional rights available to them, within India’s democratic and institutional architecture. The disastrous drought, blighting the region, presented an opportunity. The standard mechanism for drought relief was to initiate civil
works. By 1983 the Supreme Court had directed that public works must comply with payment of minimum wages. But this was rarely done. The group resolved that getting workers minimum wages would be their central concern. A related opportunity arose due to the tyrannical ways of a local sarpanch who misappropriated village development schemes for personal benefits and whose benami holdings encroached on village land.
In both cases, empowering the poor meant getting access to the government records of money allocated by the government for different schemes; the amounts spent, on what and when. At that time ordinary citizens could not access these records as a right. Often mistakenly, even a list of Below Poverty Line cardholders was conveniently construed to be secret. Consequently, in any dispute with government entities — around wages or non-inclusion for welfare schemes “the villagers were always the liars”. They had no way to prove their case because the truth was hidden inside the official records, to which only the government had access.
Getting the dispossessed to appreciate that access to information and knowledge is vital, was the easiest part. The awareness that local government intermediaries were swindling them kindled anger, and sometimes outrage among villagers. While the immediate oppressor is visible and becomes vulnerable, the veiled support of those higher up in the hierarchy, maintains the status quo. Getting villagers their rights, means changing the status quo from the top.
The political vehicle used by Aruna and her activist colleagues to generate awareness; the desire for change and an ecosystem for long-term support to deliver rights to the rural poor was the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS). The artful, determined and collaborative way in which it was constituted, and the strategic depth of its functioning is a delight to read. The ideological roots of the MKSS lie in the life and thoughts of Gandhi ji (non-violent protests against government apathy), Babasaheb Ambedkar (equity and dignity for all) and J.P. Narayan (social and political revolution within constitutional constraints).
The movement for access to political and social rights, formally started in 1987, expanded organically over time from the village level to the state level by the mid-1990s and finally to the national level by 2005, when the Right to Information Act was passed by Parliament. Parivartan, the Delhi-based NGO, headed at the time by Arvind Kejriwal, evolved its strategy of “direct democracy” from the MKSS methodology — a mix of rootedness in organising the poor from within; high moral, ethical and personal values; imaginative use of local folklore and theatre like the Ghotala Rath to lampoon corrupt politicians; careful research to unearth government information to pinpoint negligence, fraud or corruption using the vehicle of Jan Sunwais (public hearings).
Less successfully the MKSS also branched into directly managing kirana (provisions) stores in villages as a competitive force to make local traders less rapacious and reduce their profit margins. While useful as a temporary local intervention to break a trader cartel in a small village market, this model proved difficult to scale up. The MKSS also dabbled in village-level elections to get some of its well-intentioned members, elected and collaborate with like-minded parties. But it is far from transmuting into a political party.
Aruna, 41 years of age in 1987, is 72 today, Shanker is 64 and “young” Nikhil is 55. During the last three decades of their struggle, the Right to Information has been embedded into the accountability structure of the State, bringing the much-needed transparency. But making the State accountable to the people, in real time, is a broader unfinished task — top-down accountability and bottom-up participation, both need deepening. The good news is that the indefatigable trio is upbeat about conquering this frontier too.
This book is a must read for cynics, who want their optimism restored; those eager to share the pain and the joy of activism; organisational behavior “experts” and budding activists looking for pathways to India’s development.
Sanjeev Ahluwalia is adviser, Observer Research Foundation

Child marriage act not implemented in the state, reveals RTI

Times of India: Bhubaneshwar: Sunday, April 21, 2018.
Despite large scale prevalence of child marriage cases in the state, Odisha government has not been implementing the Orissa Child Marriage Prohibition Act, alleged civil society groups and lodged a complaint with National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). They alleged that no annual report has been prepared since 2009 to till date and nor the annual review meetings were conducted as per the act.
Responding to the queries sought under the Right to Information (RTI) Act Odisha government said, no annual report is available from 2009 to till date. The Chief Child Marriage Prohibition Officer (CCMPO) has no plan to prepare and submit an annual report for the year 2017 – 18, the reply said.
There is only one state level convergence meeting on strategy development to prevent child marriage in Odisha held on May 31, 2016. Apart from that no annual review and strategy conference on prevention of child marriage held in between 2009 to 2017. The CCMPO has no plan to convene annual review and strategy conference on prevention of child marriage for the year 2018, the reply from Women and Child Development department said.
“It is unfortunate that the prohibition of child marriage act is not being implemented properly in the state. Despite more incidents of child marriages the state is below the national average because not many FIRs are being lodged. Our act is a bit sketchy and there is a need for more stringent act as in the state of Karnataka,” said former chairperson of Odisha State Commission for Protection of Child Rights (OSCPCR), Kasturi Mohapatra.
In districts like Malkangiri, Nabarangpur, Mayurbhanj, Koraput, Rayagada, Nayagarh, Ganjam and Keonjhar, incidents of child marriages are more than the national average of 26.8%.
“In such a grave situation the apathetic attitude of the designated officer on effective implementation of the Orissa Prohibition of Child Marriage Rules, 2009 is a major concern,” said G R Panda, a social activist, who filed a petition with the NHRC seeking intervention.
“I urged the NHRC to issue necessary direction to prepare and submit the annual report on the progress of implementation of the Act for last year, and also to convene the annual review and strategy conference on prevention of child marriage within a month,” Panda added.

Attacking Transparency Watchdogs.

The Wire: Anjali bharadwaj & Amrita Johri: New Delhi: Sunday, April 22, 2018.
With over six million information applications filed every year, the Right to Information (RTI) Act is one of the world’s most extensively used transparency legislations. By empowering millions of citizens across the country to question public authorities, the RTI Act has initiated the vital task of redistributing power in a democratic framework. People have been innovatively using the law to demand accountability from the government on a range of issues – from their ration and pensions to big ticket scams; from educational qualifications and assets of public servants to human rights violations. The legislation is being extensively used to seek answers from the high and mighty.
It is perhaps this paradigm shift in the locus of power through the use of the law that has resulted in consistent efforts by the powerful to denigrate it. The latest attack on the RTI Act is the proposal of the BJP government to amend the legislation.
According to media reports, in complete contravention of the pre-legislative consultation policy, the government has drafted a Bill to amend the RTI Act. The proposed amendments, which have not been made public, reportedly dilute the law by downgrading the status of information commissioners, the watchdogs of the transparency legislation.
Sections 13 and 15 of the RTI Act state that the salaries, allowances and other terms of service of the chief of the Central Information Commission shall be the same as that of the chief election commissioner. Those of the central information commissioners and state chief information commissioners will be on par with election commissioners. The chief and other election commissioners are paid a salary equal to the salary of a judge of the Supreme Court, which is decided by parliament.
As per the proposed amendments, salaries and allowances of information commissioners will no longer be equivalent to those of a Supreme Court judge. The amendments seek to empower the Central government and the state governments to decide salaries of information commissioners through rules. The rationale provided is that treating information commissioners on par with functionaries of the election commission is incorrect, as the latter is a constitutional body while information commissions are statutory bodies.
This contention is inherently flawed. The principle of according a high stature, and protecting the terms of service by equating it to functionaries of constitutional bodies, is routinely adopted for independent statutory oversight bodies, including the Central Vigilance Commission and the Lokpal. The status conferred on commissioners under the RTI Act is to empower them to carry out their functions autonomously and direct even the highest offices to comply with the provisions of the law.
Empowering the Central and state governments to decide salaries of information commissioners is a clear attempt to undermine their independence – directions to disclose inconvenient information could invite adverse consequences by way of cuts in their salaries and allowances.
The government has claimed that these provisions in the RTI Act were drafted in a hurry and without much application of mind. Nothing could be further from the truth. Deliberations of the Parliamentary Standing Committee, which examined the RTI Bill, 2004 before it was passed, show that the committee gave due consideration to the matter.
The RTI Bill originally pegged the salaries and allowances of the central chief information commissioner at the level of a secretary to the government of India, and of the information commissioners at the level of a joint secretary or an additional secretary to the government of India.
The committee observed that:
“… Information Commission is an important creation under the Act which will execute the laudable scheme of the legislation …It should, therefore, be ensured that it functions with utmost independence and autonomy.”
It recommended that to achieve this objective, it would be desirable to confer on the central chief information commissioner and information commissioners, status of the chief election commissioner and election commissioners respectively. The committee’s recommendation to elevate the status of information commissioners was accepted and passed by parliament.
Another justification for the amendments is that ex-bureaucrats, who retired at the level of an additional secretary, suddenly get elevated to the level of a Supreme Court judge upon being appointed as information commissioners. This reasoning is untenable as there is nothing in the RTI Act mandating that officials of the rank of additional secretary be made commissioners.
In fact, the law is clear that commissioners should be persons of eminence in public life with wide knowledge and experience from diverse backgrounds – law, science and technology, social service, management, journalism, mass media, administration and governance.
Despite this, since the RTI law came into effect, an overwhelming majority of chief information commissioners (84%) and information commissioners (nearly 60%) have been appointed from among retired civil servants. If the government is anxious about the sudden elevation of additional secretaries, the way to address the concern is not to amend the law but to select eminent and experienced people from diverse backgrounds to be commissioners.
The proposed amendments come in the backdrop of the government’s adamant inaction on filling vacancies in the Central Information Commission. Out of a total sanctioned strength of 11 commissioners, there are currently four vacancies and four more are due to arise in 2018, including that of the chief.
The failure to make timely appointments is leading to huge backlogs of appeals and complaints resulting in inordinate delays in the Commission, which render the law meaningless for citizens. Instead of making appointments, the surreptitious move to subvert the law exposes the government’s intentions of diluting the transparency regime in India.
The four years of Modi sarkar have been characterised by weakening of autonomous oversight bodies – serious concerns have been expressed by sitting judges about the independence of the judiciary; four years after the law was passed, not a single Lokpal has been appointed; the functioning of the Election Commission has come under a cloud. The onslaught on information commissions is the latest in the long list of attacks by the current government on institutions of accountability.
Anjali Bhardwaj and Amrita Johri are RTI activists and are associated with the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information and Satark Nagrik Sangathan.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

आपका रुपया जमा रखने वाले बैंक के अधिकारी RTI का जवाब न देने में नंबर 1

NDTV Khabar: New delhi: Saturday, April 21, 2018.
राष्ट्रमंडल मानवाधिकार मुहिम के वेंकटेश नायक ने बताया कि सभी सरकारी प्राधिकरणों को मिलने वाले कुल आरटीआई आवेदनों में नौ प्रतिशत आवेदन रिजर्व बैंक समेत 26 सार्वजनिक बैंकों को मिलते हैं.
सार्वजनिक संगठनों में सरकारी बैंक सूचना का अधिकार (आरटीआई) आवेदन रद्द करने में अग्रणी हैं. एक स्वयंसेवी समूह के विश्लेषण में यह जानकारी सामने आयी है. राष्ट्रमंडल मानवाधिकार मुहिम के वेंकटेश नायक ने बताया कि सभी सरकारी प्राधिकरणों को मिलने वाले कुल आरटीआई आवेदनों में नौ प्रतिशत आवेदन रिजर्व बैंक समेत 26 सार्वजनिक बैंकों को मिलते हैं.
उन्होंने बताया कि रद्द किये जाने वाले आरटीआई आवेदनों में इनकी हिस्सेदारी 33 प्रतिशत है. मुहिम की रिपोर्ट के अनुसार बैंकों को 2016-17 के दौरान 86 हजार आरटीआई आवेदन मिले.
रिपोर्ट के अनुसार, स्टेट बैंक ऑफ हैदराबाद ने सर्वाधिक 71 प्रतिशत आवेदन रद्द किये. इसके बाद ओरियंटल बैंक ऑफ कॉमर्स ने 50 प्रतिशत, कॉरपोरेशन बैंक ने 47.3 प्रतिशत, आंध्र बैंक ने 45.9 प्रतिशत तथा देना बैंक और केनरा बैंक ने 40-40 प्रतिशत आरटीआई आवेदन रद्द किये हैं.
रिजर्व बैंक ने 57 प्रतिशत आरटीआई आवेदनों को अन्य कारण बताकर रद्द किया है.

सूचना का अधिकार: भ्रष्टाचार पर प्रहार

Media Passion: Raipur: Saturday, April 21, 2018.
निर्धारित समयावधि पर करें आवेदनों का निराकरण: राज्य सूचना आयुक्त श्री पवार
लापरवाही अथवा जान बूझकर गलत, अपूर्ण अथवा भ्रामक जानकारी देने पर जनसूचना अधिकारी के विरूद्ध होगी अनुशासनात्मक कार्यवाही: राज्य सूचना आयुक्त श्री अग्रवाल
रायपुर,जिला कलेक्टोरेट परिसर स्थित रेडक्रास सभाकक्ष में आज सूचना का अधिकार अधिनियम पर एक दिवसीय जिला स्तरीय कार्यशाला का आयोजन किया गया। इस अवसर पर राज्य सूचना आयुक्त श्री मोहन राव पवार ने कहा कि सूचना का अधिकार अधिनियम का मूल उद्देश्य आमजनों को सशक्त बनाना, सरकार के कार्यकलापों में पारदर्शिता और जवाबदेही को बढ़ाना है। इस अधिनियम के माध्यम से भ्रष्टाचार को रोकना तथा लोकतंत्र को वास्तविक रूप से जनता के लिए काम करने के लिए तैयार करना है। जनसूचना अधिकारी आवेदकों के आवेदन का निराकरण आवेदन प्राप्त होने के 30 दिनों के भीतर अनिवार्य रूप से करें।
इसी तरह कार्यशाला को संबोधित करते हुए राज्य सूचना आयुक्त श्री ए.के. अग्रवाल ने कहा कि इस अधिनियम के तहत किसी भी व्यक्ति को समय के भीतर सही और पूर्ण जानकारी देना जनसूचना अधिकारी का दायित्व है। अधिनियम के तहत समय के भीतर सूचना नहीं देने पर प्रार्थी या आवेदक प्रथम अपीलीय अधिकारी के समक्ष अपील कर सकते है। सूचना अधिकारी ध्यान रखें कि बिना किसी उचित कारण के और लगातार सूचना हेतु किसी आवेदन को प्राप्त करने में लापरवाही अथवा जान बूझकर गलत, अपूर्ण अथवा भ्रामक जानकारी दी जाती है तो जनसूचना अधिकारी के विरूद्ध अनुशासनात्मक कार्यवाही की जा सकती है। कार्यशाला में सभी जिला स्तरीय जनसूचना अधिकारियों को सूचना के अधिकार अधिनियम के संबंध में विस्तृत जानकारी दी गई। इस अवसर पर अपर कलेक्टर श्री क्यू.ए. खान, एडीएम डॉ. रेणुका श्रीवास्तव सहित संबंधित जिला स्तरीय अधिकारी उपस्थित थे।

Mumbai civic body takes 48 days to resolve citizens’ complaints: Praja report

Hindustan Times: Mumbai: Saturday, April 21, 2018.
The report, released on Thursday, states 92,329 complaints were filed last year, of which more than 75,000 were closed
Planning to lodge a complaint with the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC)? If NGO Praja Foundation’s report for March- December 2017 is anything to go by, you can expect a solution only 48 days later – the average time taken by BMC to look into a complaint.
The report, released on Thursday, states 92,329 complaints were filed last year, of which more than 75,000 were closed. The complaints were related to roads, buildings, drains, water supply, solid waste management, licence, gardens, colony officer, storm water drainage, health and pollution.
The report was compiled based on data obtained through Right to Information Act, 2005 for all 24 wards.
According to the BMC’s citizen charter 1999 (a joint charter by BMC and Praja), the civic body should fix complaints related to drainage, water supply, solid waste management (SWM) or any other civic complaints within three days. However, the BMC takes at least more than 15 days to do so, the report revealed. “Citizens are unhappy with the BMC. Time-bound service delivery has also been severely impacted,” the report said.
Three wards – Colaba (86 days), Borivli (89 days) and Bhandup (93 days) -- have been rated worst wards for their delay in closing complaints. Nitai Mehta, founder and managing trustee of Praja Foundation, said, “Good quality service and effective response to complaints matters most to citizens. The data show total lack of concern for citizens and their issues.”
The findings showed 38 of 227 councillors did not ask questions in ward committees related to issues or unresolved problems during the study period. Of these, 11 were re-elected, which means they had served a term between March 2012 and December 2016. Forty-five councillors did not ask a single question in 2012.
The report said last year councillors asked 125 questions related to naming and renaming of roads and chowks, whereas 10-42 questions were related to education, drainage, health, community development, toilets and stormwater drainage. The report showed the disparity in number of toilets for men and women,

70 students attend session on RTI Act

The Tribune: Bhatinda: Saturday, April 21, 2018.
The Regional Centre, Bathinda, of the Mahatma Gandhi State Institute of Public Administration (MGSIPA) Punjab organised a one-day RTI Act, 2005 awareness seminar at the Punjabi University Regional Centre on Friday. Over 70 law students pursuing LLB and senior members of the law faculty of Punjabi University Regional Centre participated.
The programme, which has been sponsored by the National Federation of Information Commissions in India (NFICI), aims to generate awareness about RTI Act, 2005 among masses and make government administrative machinery and citizenry more transparent and accountable to problems and grievances of people.
Initiating the discussion, Jarnail Singh, course director (RTI), MGSIPA–cum-regional project director, MGSIPA Regional Centre, Bathinda, said, “This Act has contributed in a big way in empowering the common man and giving relief to the people for finding solutions to their problems.”
He also said that the institute had organised over 300 programmes last year on various subject like RTI, Seva Uttam, office procedure, civil service rules, financial management, soft skills etc. He also distributed participation certificates to students and faculty members.
Dr Puneet Pathak, Assistant Professor, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, Dr Nimmi Jindal, head of the Law Department, Punjabi University Regional Centre, Bathinda, and Mandeep Singh, project coordinator, MGSIPA Regional Centre, Bathinda, highlighted various features of the RTI Act and its significance. They also interacted with students after each session and replied to their queries in an academic way by referring various provisions and rules in RTI Act, 2005.

Friday, April 20, 2018

Fixing BCCI: The law panel recommendations add to the momentum for bringing BCCI under RTI

Financial Express: New Delhi: Friday, April 20, 2018.
The Law Commission has recommended that the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) should be declared a public body, thereby bringing the Board and all its member association under the Right to Information (RTI). The law panel said that BCCI has been “flying under the radar of public scrutiny and encouraged an environment of opacity and non-accountability”. It has created “an impression in the minds of the general public that corruption and other forms of malpractices are adversely affecting one of the most popular sports played in India”. It also said that the Board held “State-like” powers in all matters cricket, and thus comes under the definition of “State” as held by the transparency law. The panel recommended that the Board be classified as a National Sports Federation, highlighting elsewhere in the report that it is, in essence, permitted by the Indian State to represent the country in international matches and tournaments, and the selection of what is widely held to be the “national” team rests completely with it. Even the International Cricket Council recognises BCCI as the body representing India.
Given the BCCI enjoyed tax exemptions of over Rs 2,100 crore between 1997 and 2007—albeit because it was structured as a non-profit body—significant public money has gone into it. The Commission said that the government had given BCCI “indirect substantial funding” via tax exemptions, subsidies, and land at “paltry” lease amounts. Thus, the panel said, “it would follow that the body/entity receiving such benefits would be a ‘public authority’, even though it may be a private, non-statutory or non-government body.”
Much of the rationale given by the highest law-advisory body in India reflects what the Justice RM Lodha committee had said in its report. The Board had become a stand-in for corruption and lack of accountability, and defining it as a public body and bringing it under RTI will be the first step towards easing it out of the muck and keeping Indian cricket clean. Given powerful political interests have managed to keep BCCI operations opaque so far, the government will be batting on a difficult pitch. But, the momentum is for making BCCI transparent, and not going forward with the law panel recommendations will be a hit-wicket dismissal.

Plea for additional collector to be ‘deemed’ Public Information Officer

DNA: Mumbai: Friday, April 20, 2018.
The Information Commission summoned the additional collector from Bandra office, called her out to be the ‘deemed’ Public Information Officer (PIO) under RTI Act in order to ensure that an applicant gets the official data on time.
The PIO, which is otherwise a junior officer, is responsible for giving quick relies to the RTI Act. The move came after an applicant was not given information after three PIOs tossed his RTI application from one office to another. The PIOs cited reasons of non-availability of official records on the matter.
Under RTI Act, an officer is termed as the ‘deemed’ PIO when her/his help is sought by the PIO to whom an RTI pleais addressed. However, the additional collector was made the ‘deemed’ PIO because the junior PIO (Nayab Tehsildar) failed to provide minutes of the meeting held in Additional Collector’s office.
State chief information commissioner, AK Jain, observed that as per the provisions of RTI Act, the additional collector is being considered as ‘deemed’ PIO because the concerned meeting took place in her office.

Police: RTI info on militancy can lead to crime .

Tribune India: Chandigadh: Friday, April 20, 2018.
Seeking information under the RTI Act about casualties during the militancy era in Punjab can “provoke criminal activities”. This was the response of the Hoshiarpur SSP to a query submitted to the state police by Nawanshahr-based RTI activist Parvinder Kittna.
On a complaint filed by the applicant, the State Information Commission has issued a notice to the state DGP’s office and several district police officers for failing to provide the requisite information.
Kittna had sought details of the dead civilians, militants and police officers, besides missing persons, from 1978 to 1993. The DGP’s office had forwarded the application to the police’s intelligence wing, which refused to do the needful.
The Sangrur SSP argued that the records in this regard were over 20 years old. Several other district police officers refused to provide information under Section 8 of the RTI Act, which exempts certain subjects from disclosure. However, some police districts furnished the information.
The commission has asked the information officers of the DGP’s office, the Patiala SSP and the Police Commissioner, Jalandhar, to appear in the last week of April.
In a voluntary disclosure of the motive behind seeking the information, the applicant had claimed that it was needed in public interest so that a “true picture of the casualties could come to the fore”.

PSBs rejecting information requests under RTI Act: Study

Economic Times: Nidhi Sharma: New Delhi: Friday, April 20, 2018.
Public sector banks are increasingly rejecting information requests under the Right to Information Act, an independent study has found. 
A study conducted by Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative on the 2016-17 statistics furnished by 25 public sector banks and the Reserve Bank of India to the Central Information Commission (CIC) reveals that while the banks account for 9% of the total applications received, they account for 33% of the rejections of requests. 
The report found that 15 of 25 public sector banks reported an increase in the number of RTI applications as compared to the previous year. In 2016-17, more people sought information from banks as compared to other public authorities under the finance ministry. 
The most number of applications – 25,300 – were received by State Bank of India, accounting for more than a third (33.20%) of the total number of RTI applications received by public sector banks. The RBI reported receiving more than 13,000 RTI applications in 2016-17 – an increase of over 14% over the previous year. 
Though there has been an increase in the number of RTIs being filed in the banks, statistics show there is not much load on individual branches. In fact, a PSU bank branch handles on an average one RTI request in a year. Only 3 PSBs, namely, State Bank of India (1.39), State Bank of Bikaner and Jaipur (1.25) and Punjab National Bank (1.10) averaged more than 1RTI application per branch in 2016-17. 
Venkatesh Nayak of CHRI said, “it is quite possible that some branch offices might receive more RTI applications than others. It is important to conduct a third party assessment of the spread of RTI applications between bank branches and then identify measures to assist those branches receiving a large number of RTI applications to deal with them speedily.” 
More than the flow of RTIs, what has got activists worried is the rejection rate of public sector banks. 
The State Bank of Hyderabad rejected a record 71% or 7 out of every 10 RTI applications received in 2016-17. OBC rejected every second RTI application (50% rejection rate).