The Right to Information (RTI) Act has provided city residents a useful tool to fight for their rights. By providing access to records and documents of public authorities, it has allowed many citizens to solve long-standing problems or to bring certain issues to the notice of authorities.
But most officials do not follow some of the Act's guidelines and awareness among officials and the public is an issue, activists say.
Consider the simplicity involved in demanding information: Draft a letter listing out the information you want from any department. Address it to the designated “Public Information Officer” of that department. Affix court fee stamps for state government departments and postal orders for Central government departments worth Rs.10 along with the letter.
The information should be made available in 30 days failing which an appeal can be made first to the “Appellate Authority” in the same department, and then to the State Information Commission [or Central Information Commission in case of Central government agencies].
V. Madhav, an RTI activist, recalls how a citizen found works starting on a neighbouring plot for a commercial building. As the street was narrow and a large commercial building would inconvenience the local residents, he filed a complaint with the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) and followed it up with an RTI petition to the CMDA on action taken.
He also asked the town panchayat for a copy of the approved plan under the RTI Act. On receiving the copy he found the builder had applied for the approval after coming to know of the RTI petition filed with the authority. “The problem might not be solved but the at least the public authorities know they can be called into account,” says Mr. Madhav.
G.Natarajan, president, Ambattur Consumer Council, says: “Many people have shed their inhibitions and fear about registering a complaint with the government departments. Several of them are aware of consumer rights and the process to approach consumer courts.”
A senior official at Ambattur municipality says most of the RTI petitions asked for details from town planning, revenue and engineering departments. Nearly 20 complaints or RTI petitions are received daily. Many people also make use of the dedicated helpline to record their complaints, the official said.
In Tambaram taluk, the questions are mainly about the status of applications in revenue offices, state of lakes and other water bodies in the area, officials say. Civic groups in Alandur and Pallavaram say that while complaints to government agencies on water bodies and other civic issues used to be of no avail, the use of queries under the RTI Act on the state of bus stands, facilities at the Government Hospital in Chromepet, and lighting on arterial roads have evoked positive action from government agencies.
Many pensioners of municipalities, panchayats, housing board and slum clearance board have started filing RTI applications, says a local fund audit official of the Chennai Corporation, as it has quickened the process of pension revision of the retired employee. “A chunk of the time at work is being devoted to cull out data for replying to the RTI application,” the official adds.
CMDA vice chairperson Susan Mathew says many people were using the provisions of the RTI Act for getting details on plan approval. The CMDA has received 2,378 applications till date and penalty has recently been imposed on one case.
But activists say the deadlines stipulated in the Act are only rarely followed. T. Sadagopan, vice president of Tamil Nadu Progressive Consumer Centre, says: “Sometimes, petitioners get a response only when they approach the appellate authority in the department. The Government must take steps to train the nodal officers about the act and also inform people about transfer of nodal officers.”
S.Kanniappan, who had applied for details on his deceased mother's bank account, says he is yet to receive the details even after four months from a public sector bank.
Similar cases abound and the problem extends to the State Information Commission, the highest appellate authority in the State under the Act.
But S. Ramakrishnan, chief information commissioner, says part of the problem is because of the nature of complaints. “I received a 100-page petition recently. And another person from Gujarat asked for information on women in government-run shelters so he could choose one from among them as his wife,” he says.
Recently activists demanded that transparency be introduced into the system of appointment of Information Commissioners. A letter was written to government officials calling for public consultations on devising a methodology of appointing commissioners, but it has not resulted in any action yet.
There have also been calls to implement Section 4 of the Act under which proactive disclosure is required from public authorities.
Once that is done, the workload will be lessened for officials and the relevant information will also be freely available to the public, activists point out.
(With inputs from Shyam Ranganathan, K. Lakshmi, Aloysius Xavier Lopez and K. Manikandan)