A 64-year-old doggedly pursues his mission to make administration accountable to common citizens

In the past eight years, 64-year-old Baghambar Patnaik has knocked the doors of the Orissa High Court twice, approached Lokpal four times, sought information from more than 200 district level offices and sent over 200 missives to the Odisha Information Commission, besides arguing with government officials umpteen times.

He has been driven by a single mission; government offices must acknowledge a common man when he reaches with a petition or document for general office work. What stirred up this hexagenarian to hop from one office to another and file scores of applications under Right to Information Act?

Mr. Patnaik’s dogged pursuance to make administration accountable has so far yielded partial success. Twenty out of 30 district magistrates and 16 of 30 superintendents of police have already issued instructions to their subordinate offices to give acknowledgement slips to anybody who submits application.

Journey of this social activist began in the year 2004 when one of his applications was misplaced by the Puri district administration. Mr. Patnaik, who is a prominent Dalit rights activist, suspected that the Puri district administration knowingly lost his application. Next time when the activist went to submit the same set of applications, he demanded that the office of the district magistrate acknowledge having received his application. The office, however, refused to do so.

Dismayed over the refusal, Mr. Patnaik reached two other offices – the District Rural Development Agency and the Additional District Magistrate of Puri. He found a similar situation prevailing in all offices. In the same year, Mr. Patnaik filed a complaint with Lokpal seeking general direction to government to give acknowledgement slips to people.

Realising the gravity of the situation, Lokpal had then recommended that, “Applications not kept in the concerned file or lost are the causes of maladministration. People lose faith in administration. Therefore, I have no doubt that collector will look into matter and instruct the receiving officer of his office either to give the diary number or to put signature on the slip produced by the applicant indicating details of the document in the brief.”

“In case a copy of the document is produced along with original, a receipt stamp with signature can also be put there in order to eradicate maladministration,” Lokpal had added.

An unambiguous instruction of Lokpal to the government would have satisfied any person. But Mr. Patnaik was not a person to be complacent. Taking the issue to its logical end, he started filing scores of RTI applications to know whether respective district collectors and SPs had actually conveyed the Lokpal instruction to their subordinate offices or not. Relentless filing of RTI applications forced the district administrations to issue instructions in light of Lokpal order to all offices.

“Right to acknowledgement is an important step in achieving transparency in administration. Without any proof of submission of document, one cannot pursue one’s cause,” says Mr. Patnaik.

He carries on, “Right to Acknowledgment is an instrument that would strengthen the historic RTI Act. My objective is to ensure that every office in the country acknowledges receipt of application from citizens. Moreover, people should not resign to their fate as being depicted in popular television serial ‘Office Office’. They must assert their rights.”

“Acknowledging an application under RTI Act is an inbuilt feature. But in general sense not all government offices acknowledge applications being received from a common man. As long as a colonial hangover will be there, government offices would continue to pay no attention to common people. To overcome this you need to have a strong grievance redressal mechanism in place,” said Jagadananda, State Information Commission.

Mr. Jagadananda clarified that acknowledgement slip supplied to a person, however, would surely help trace the records and implement RTI Act more effectively.