Right to Information
New RTI Draft Rules an Invitation to Murder of Activists?
Another Right to Information (RTI) activist was brutally murdered on Sunday, making it the 16th such murder in Maharashtra and 65th in the country since 2010, besides assaults on nearly 400 activists.
 
In the latest fatal assault, Pune-based Suhas Haldankar, who exposed irregularities in civic works and inefficiencies of corporators in Pimpri Chinchwad, was savagely attacked with cement blocks by 11 men, including a former corporator from the Congress party. The attack took place when Haldankar was returning home late Sunday night on his bike. He was stopped on the way and bludgeoned to death. Eleven persons were nabbed by the police in connection with the murder. 
 
 
The new RTI Draft Rule 12, issued by the DOPT, is in complete contravention of the 2011 recommendation of the Central Information Commission (CIC). The Draft Rule permits the CIC to allow appeals to terminate on the death of an appellant. The DoPT has sought suggestions and objections on the entire Draft Rules. What is worrisome is that Rule 12, which pertains to the RTI application in case of the applicant’s death, is not what the CIC recommended, which is that the information sought by late applicant must be immediately put on the public domain.
 
As per Rule 12 in the New Draft Rules of RTI issued by the DoPT, which is now in the public domain for suggestions and objections from the public, “Withdrawal/Abatement of Appeal :-. (2) The proceedings pending before the Commission shall abate on the death of the appellant”
 
In stark contrast, the CIC, in a full court meeting held on 13 September 2011, had passed the following Resolution:
1. The Central Information Commission expresses regret and takes note of the reported killings of and assault on RTI users across the country. The Commission underlines the need to take urgent steps by the respective Governments for the safety and protection of the RTI users. The Commission strongly believes that it is the duty and responsibility of the respective Governments to safeguard the life and liberty of the RTI users, for which purpose they should invoke the relevant penal provisions for the prevention and detection of such heinous crimes. 
 
2. This Commission, therefore, resolves that if it receives a complaint regarding assault or murder of an information seeker, it will examine the pending RTI applications of the victim and order the concerned Department(s) to publish the requested information suo motu on their website as per the provisions of law.
 
3. This Commission also resolves that it will take proactive steps in ascertaining the status of investigations/prosecutions of the cases involving information seekers and endeavor to have these processes expedited.”
 
Condemning the murder of Haldankar, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) has demanded that the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) monitor the ongoing police investigation. It has also sent a requisition to the Maharashtra State Chief Information Commissioner to call for all pending RTI applications filed by Haldankar before public authorities in Pimpri Chinchwad and direct them to proactively disclose all information in accordance with the RTI Act. CHRI has documented these attacks on a Google Map. Readers may visit the Hall of Shame.
 
Several activist and legal experts have asked for modification of Rule 12. RK Jain, President, Excise and Customs Bar Association, writes, “…the proposed Rule 12(2) thus needs to be suitably modified to provide that in the case of death of information seeker, who has sought information in larger public interest or against the corrupt practices, such information may be directed to be placed on the website of the concerned Department despite the death of the appellant, so that the purpose of silencing the information seeker is defeated.”
 
Writing in Swarajya, another legal expert, Madhumita D. Mitra, says, “For a government aiming to root out corruption, it should be obvious that allowing withdrawal/abatement will only strengthen the might of this venal public-private nexus. Every RTI application points to a lapse in governance, either by omission or commission, which subsists even after the death of an applicant. The final outcome of an information request instigates a service delivery or course correction, whether it is an individual’s personal grievance or a case of corruption and maladministration. Closing pending appeals/complaints in this manner not only undermines the purpose of the RTI application, but does disservice to the applicant’s family and to the benefit that may have accrued to public interest at large by the disclosure.
 
“Legally too, the proposed Rule 12 will not stand scrutiny. The Supreme Court has made clear in a 2013 judgment (Union of India vs. Namit Sharma) that IC proceedings under the RTI Act are purely administrative in nature, requiring a simple determination whether the requested information should be disclosed or not. It is not a civil or a criminal matter. Even under civil law, abatement of proceedings on death of a party is not absolute and heirs and legal representatives retain their right to sue. In criminal cases, the death of a complainant does not terminate the criminal proceeding and the magistrate can exercise his powers to decide whether the complaint should be dismissed or the accused acquitted or discharged.”
 
RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar says, “…the same rule existed in the 2012 Rules, which are set for amendment now and at that time too activists had vociferously registered their objections. Despite that, they have included the Rule 12 in the Draft Rules 2017. This is indeed treacherous of the government and a way of encouraging murder of RTI activists.”
 
Pondering on the grievous implications if Rule 12 of the Draft RTI Rules 2017 comes into force, Venkatesh Nayak, research scholar and programme coordinator of CHRI, says, “If the Central Government has its way, all RTI applications and appeals that Suhas Haldankar may have filed with public authorities would abate automatically on his death. The accused who battered him to death with cement blocks would attain a victory ... Civil society actors have been demanding that the RTI Rules do not allow for the closure of appeals on the appellant's death.”
RTI activist Lokesh Batra considers Rule 12 as “dangerous for appellants.”
 
The way out is to again file as many objections as we can. 
 
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting, which she won twice in 1998 and 2005, and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book, “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte”, with Vinita Kamte, and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)
 

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COMMENTS

Roy Aranha

6 months ago

have to fight sounds dangerous

Simple Indian

6 months ago

The new rules of RTI are like State-backed goondaism. There is no basis/logic to discontinue an RTI application simply because the original applicant has expired. Social causes are often backed by a whole group, though the applicant may be an individual. As there are class-action suits in the US legal system, we should have similar provisions in India's legal system, and also for RTI Applications, which can be made by an organization. Of course, the Govt can use its 'good offices' to close down NGOs, like it has been doing for a while now (say, by throttling their funding). When the State itself acts like a goonda, there is no escape for conscientious citizens.

ramdas naik

6 months ago

If the party is found guilty, then strong criminal action should be taken against them. Suitable compensation should be awarded to the Applicant. Atleast his efforts should not have gone in vain

'Congress gifted prime land to Tatas at throwaway rates'
Mumbai, An RTI query on Thursday revealed that a huge plot of acquired land here was allegedly 'gifted' to the Tata Group at throwaway rates by the previous Congress-Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) government in Maharashtra.
 
The land measuring 32,182.20 sq. metres was given to the Tata Group by the previous government shortly before it demitted office.
 
Prominent Right to Information (RTI) activist Anil Galgali has now demanded that Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis should order a probe into the matter and cancel the allotment as the land could have been used for housing the poor.
 
Giving details, he said the acquired piece of prime land in Borivali East, opposite the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, worth over Rs 3,000-crore, was allotted to Tata Group at dirt cheap rates.
 
"This acquired land could have been used for public or low-cost housing, but now it will be utilised for construction high-end luxury apartments. It is a good example of how land acquired from the poor is handed over to the rich," Galgali said.
 
When asked for their response, a Tata Steel spokesperson said they needed time to study the matter before replying.
 
According to documents acquired by Galgali from the Mumbai Suburban District collectorate under the RTI, the state government had acquired the plot (32,182.20 sq. mt.) in the 1960s under the Land Acquisition Act.
 
It was meant for extending godowns and making residential quarters for the workers of the company, Special Steels Ltd, which was later taken over by Tata Steel.
 
In 2001, new owners Tata Steel sold a part of the land, 3,051.80 sq. mt. to a leading private builder for commercial and residential purposes.
 
However, Galgali said, in the process Tata Steel violated government rules which stipulated that before handing it over to any other party, it must take the government's permission but it defaulted and sent a request to the collector only subsequently, seeking transfer of the property.
 
The government asked Tata Steel to return the land but when it appealed and ruling went in its favour, Tata Steel paid Rs 8.40 crore as 'unearned income'.
 
Later, the company applied for transfer of the remaining 29,130.40 sq. mt. land to exploit it for residential and commercial purposes, ostensibly with help from government officials.
 
This was despite the fact that the government's Committee for Land Acquisition had decided to reject any proposal for transfer from Tata Steel for purposes other than what was stipulated in the beginning, and approved by the then Congress government's Revenue Minister Balasaheb Thorat.
 
The matter again went to Thorat in appeal but strangely, he overruled the earlier decision of the Committee for Land Acquisition and around 2014 allowed the transfer to Tata Steel which paid up Rs 44.98 crore.
 
"The land is worth minimum Rs 3,000-crore, besides the value of the commercial and residential construction on it which will be sold in the open market at current high rates. Tata Steel violated the provisions of the agreement and Thorat misused his status for a huge loss to the exchequer," Galgali said.
 
He said in 2014, even if the government had allowed the change of user, there is no evidence that the company had paid the necessary fees for it, making it clear the land is being illegally developed for commercial gains, though both the collector and the revenue departments had given proposals to take it back.
 
After the new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government assumed office, then Revenue Minister Eknath Khadse issued an order on November 21, 2014, that since the decision was taken by the previous regime just prior to the October 2014 assembly elections, it should be reviewed.
 
On February 20, 2015, the Konkan Divisional Commissioner scheduled a hearing in the matter of which no information is available on government records.
 
Accordingly, Galgali pointed out that since even the new government suspected it was a wrong decision by the previous government, Fadnavis must order a detailed probe into the case, put on hold all construction activities on site and take action against concerned officials.
 
Disclaimer: Information, facts or opinions expressed in this news article are presented as sourced from IANS and do not reflect views of Moneylife and hence Moneylife is not responsible or liable for the same. As a source and news provider, IANS is responsible for accuracy, completeness, suitability and validity of any information in this article.

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Is RTI being weakened by Rules?
The government has issued a circular on 31 March 2017 giving draft rules, which it is proposing for the Right to Information (RTI) Act.  Most citizens and media have shown considerable concern at these and there has been a feeling that the government is trying to emasculate the RTI Act. From my experience in the RTI journey, I have realised that most people and institutions champion and hail transparency for others, but are very reluctant to give information about themselves.  For this reason, I am extremely suspicious when any changes are sought to be made in RTI.
 
In the draft rules, the most controversial is rule 12, which proposes that a second appeal can be withdrawn by the appellant and it would abate on the death of an appellant.  This appears to be in the belief that when the seeker of information does not want the information it need not be given.  By the same logic when she dies, it cannot be given to the applicant. Many decisions of information commissions have also wrongly taken such a stand. It has not been appreciated that the information sought in RTI belongs to all citizens since they own the government and every piece of information held by it. Thus everyone has the right to get the information, which is sought by an applicant. Allowing withdrawal of RTI appeals would be a direct encouragement to undesirable pressure on applicants, and deal making. The law expects all information to be available suo moto. This proposed rule should be modified to state that when an appeal is sought to be withdrawn or an appellant dies, the information sought shall be placed on the website. 
 
Some people have made the charge that the rules increase the fees. The rules have retained the application fee at Rs10 and the additional fees at Rs2 per page up to A3 size paper. They are now proposing that postal charge above Rs50 shall be charged. When a large amount of information is sought, it is reasonable if the applicant pays for the postage. 
 
Similarly, there has been some concern at the information seeking being restricted to 500 words. From my experience as a user and Central Information Commissioner, I can state that this is adequate for most cases. Often applicants verbosity - in the absence of any limit - results in the user not getting the actual information required. In some rare case, where there is a real need for a longer RTI application, two applications could be filed, which would lead to an additional fee of Rs10 only. The rules mention that payment of fees can be done electronically where it is available. The rule should be modified so that in all cases public authorities must accept fees by electronic mode. That would be in line with the push for reducing cash in transactions and encourage digital payments.
 
Many Commissions are presently refusing to order information to be given when a complaint is filed. This is based on a flawed ‘literal’ interpretation of the RTI Act, instead of a ‘purposive’ interpretation.  The draft rules have a provision for the Commission to convert a complaint into a second appeal and thereby order information to be provided. This is a positive provision. However Section 13 (1) (i) requires that a RTI application must accompany every complaint. Without this, the complaint would be rejected. This requirement should be removed.  Section 18 (1) (f) of the RTI Act requires a Commission to entertain a complaint “in respect of any other matter relating to requesting or obtaining access to records under this Act”. 
 
In such matters there is no RTI application. In one such example:  The Reserve Bank of India (RBI) has put on its website a non-disclosure policy by mis-labelling it as a ‘Disclosure Policy’. In such cases, the citizen has to draw attention of the Commission that she has to file a complaint with the information commission and no RTI application can be made in these circumstances. Similarly, there are many complaints against public authorities for non-compliance with Section 4 of the Act in which no RTI application can be filed. Providing a RTI application in such a case is not possible, hence this requirement should be dropped.
 
The rules have also created formats for appeals and for non-compliance of commission orders. Many commissions have not taken formal action in such cases. It is welcome that the rules specify and formally recognise non-compliance of commission orders requiring action. They also recognise the fact that at times the Public Information Officer (PIO) or the public authority may be responsible for non-compliance.   
 
The rules require an appeal or complaint to be made to the commission in double spacing. This should be changed since it would lead to wastage of paper, and it would be very difficult for those submitting a hand written appeal.  Another positive rule mandates that when a commission issues a lazy order not specifying the time period for supply of information, it has to be supplied within 30 days. 
 
On the balance, this does not appear to be a move to consciously to dilute the law and its efficacy. My considered opinion is that does not appear to be the objective. If rule 12 is changed to mandate placing on the website information sought be any appellant who has died, it would be a balanced set of rules for RTI.
 
(Shailesh Gandhi served as Central Information Commissioner under the RTI Act, 2005, during 18 September 2008 to 6 July 2012. He is a graduate in Civil Engineering from IIT-Bombay. Before becoming a full time RTI activist in 2003, he sold his packaging business. In 2008, he was conferred the Nani Palkhivala Memorial Award for civil liberties.) 

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COMMENTS

Sanjeet Kumar

4 months ago

Nice explanation. However, I don't agree with the statement “Many Commissions are presently refusing to order information to be given when a complaint is filed. This is based on a flawed ‘literal’ interpretation of the RTI Act, instead of a ‘purposive’ interpretation.”
Complaint and Second Appeal have different purposes, and both must be dealt in different manner. If Complainant will be allowed to get information under Section 18, then there is no meaning of including Section 19. Section 19 does not allow Second Appeal without submitting First Appeal. Thus, everyone may go for Section 18 by escaping First Appeal, which takes additional 30-45 days. This will be overburden on CIC. First Appeal allows applicant to get information in many cases. Thus, the commission, which refuses to order information to be given when a complaint is filed, is right as per the law. Learn more about RTI at http://rtiact2005.com/

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