Monday, March 27, 2017

RTI Act – how much will the documents now cost?

Oherald: Goa: Monday, March 27, 2017.
Governments come and Governments go. Once elections are over the “citizens” mostly referred to as “voters”, a term I have begun to hate simply because it takes away my identity as a Citizen, are actually being used as a “disposable commodity”. Besides, we can no longer depend on the Opposition to fight our battles. So what is left for the people to do when the Government and the Opposition let you down?
The most powerful tool in the hands of the people, is the Right to Information Act, but sadly is it any longer? Kindly read on. Disturbed with the massive changes made in the new Outline Development Plan (ODP) 2021 of Panjim, Dr Sabina Martins, a well known activist, applied for a copy of the ODP along with other documents viz. minutes of the Authority meeting, etc, under the Right to Information Act. She was shocked to receive a reply from the Public Information Officer of the NGPDA to make a payment of Rs 5068 for the said documents, presumably Rs 68 for the other documents and Rs 5000 for the ODP of Panjim.
A lot of us have been strong users of the Right to Information Act for years now, and found out what an effective tool it has been to ensure good governance, that too at a very low cost to the citizen. No department had ever asked us to shell out such an exorbitant amount, including the NGPDA and Town Planning Department. We always paid Rs 2 for a page copy and the actual photocopy charges for any plans, because earlier like us, they too believed that we had a “right” to the information we asked for. Dr Sabina Martins paid the amount of Rs 5068 and I collected the copies on her behalf. However, I was not happy with the document I had in my hand, and got that uneasy feeling of having been “cheated” by the Government.
I walked into a well known photocopy shop on the M G Road, and asked for the same document to be scanned, and printed on exactly the same type and same size paper. It cost me exactly Rs 1000 and I preserved the bill. I even chose the more expensive option of scanning the document and printing rather than photocopying (for which I would have paid only Rs 750) because I was not sure that the one the NGPDA had given us was printed or photocopied. I called up the lady in charge of RTI in the NGPDA, and when I confronted her as to why the huge cost, she said that it was a decision taken by the Authority that all the “Outline Development Plans 2021” will be issued at Rs 5000.
Since when has the NGPDA got into business of “selling” documents? Are their coffers getting empty? Or is this a devious idea of the Authority to dissuade citizens from getting copies of the new Outline Development Plans under the RTI Act? This arbitrary and perverse decision of the NGPDA defeats the very purpose of the Act that promises transparency in governance to the common man. The question that needs to be asked here is whether this decision of the NGPDA is legal under the Right to Information Act?, or for that matter what stops the NGPDA from hiking the charges to Rs 10,000 the next time around?
A close friend suggested, I take this matter further and write to the Appellate Authority and if it does nothing about it, take one more step and appeal to the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC). At this I thought to myself, why have honest citizens to always be the “suckers”, get cheated by your own Government and then have them torture you by making you run from pillar to post till you have spent your time, energy and maybe another 5000 bucks or more before you get an Order in your favour (or maybe not).
Dr Sabina is welcome to do that if she wants to, but I would expect the matter to be taken up “suo-moto” in public interest, if not by the Appellate Authority or the CIC, at least by the new Town and Country Planning Minister who has promised us “Goenkarponn”. Mr Minister, can we have some “GOENKARPONN” in “GOVERNANCE” starting with your department? That’s the least I can ask.