BY KRISHNARAJ RAO

There has been a startling breach of trust and public confidence by Government of Maharashtra. Without any public debate, the government has quietly notified an amendment to Maharashtra RTI Rules on January 16, 2012.

Shockingly, we did not even learn this from any government source such as a public notice in the dailies. Nor was it told to any RTI activist – many of whom are in regular touch with Mantralaya. We were informed by our RTI Union member Advocate Vinod Sampat, who saw this notification in the March edition of a publication he purchased outside City Civil Court. After reading it, we are left in no doubt as to the authenticity of the notification and the amendment. (Click here to read the notified amendment)

THE AMENDMENT SAYS:

  • Request for information must nor ordinarily exceed 150 words.
  • Request for information must relate to one subject matter only. If necessary, separate applications must be made if it relates to more than one.
  • Public Information Officer (PIO) must allow the person inspecting the documents to take a pencil only. All other writing instruments must be deposited with the PIO.

We may have differences of opinion about the merits or demerits of the amended rules, but there can be no differences on one point: WE, THE RTI ACTIVISTS AND RTI USERS OF MAHARASHTRA, SHOULD HAVE BEEN CONSULTED. There should have a public consultation of stakeholders before changing the rules. This is as mandated by Section 4(1)(c), which says, “Every public authority shall – publish all relevant facts while formulating important policies or announcing the decisions which affect public.”

Please protest. JOIN US IN SENDING THE BELOW LETTER OF PROTEST to Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan. Send an email to my activist colleague G R Vora grvora1@gmail.com.

To help G R Vora compile your signatures neatly, please copy-paste and email your information to him in this five-point format:

  • Your name: E.g. Krishnaraj Rao
  • Your brief address: e.g. Borivali, Mumbai
  • Your profession: e.g. Content Writer
  • Your email id: e.g. thebravepedestrian@gmail.com
  • Your mobile: e.g. 98215 88114

Also, please change the Subject Line to: “I endorse letter to CM opposing RTI Rules Amendment”

The hard copy of the protest letter WILL BE COURIERED TO THE CHIEF MINISTER AT 2 PM ON MONDAY, 2ND APRIL, 2012, with copies to Prime Minister and also to Mrs Aruna Roy, Member of National Advisory Council (NAC). This is a time to sink all our differences and unite. Please sign in large numbers, and show your solidarity for safeguarding RTI in Maharashtra.

DRAFT OF LETTER TO CM

2 April, 2012

To

Shri Prithviraj Chavan,

Chief Minister of Maharashtra,

Mantralaya, 6th Floor,

Madame Cama Road,

Mumbai 400032

Please withdraw Maharashtra RTI Rules amendment notified in Jan 2012

Sir,

We – the community of RTI activists and users of Maharashtra — are writing this to convey shock, dismay and sense of betrayal. We feel cheated that you saw fit to notify an amendment to the Maharashtra RTI Rules on 16 Jan 2012 without taking us into confidence. And we are disappointed that we learned about this amendment post-facto from an unofficial source – a private publication sold outside Mumbai’s city civil court.

Sir, in stealthily carrying out this amendment, you have been wrongly advised. Your government DEFIED THE LEGAL MANDATE OF SECTION 4(1)(C) OF RTI ACT 2005: “Every public authority shall – publish all relevant facts while formulating important policies or announcing the decisions which affect public.”

By not holding a PUBLIC CONSULTATION, you have erred gravely. The Union government held public consultations last year for rule amendments; why not you? Why did you not take the people into confidence, as mandated by Section 4(1)(c)?

Please expect this amendment to be immediately CHALLENGED IN BOMBAY HIGH COURT on these grounds. Before this happens, it may be worthwhile withdrawing this amendment, as it is legally indefensible.

The amendment says:

(i) Request for information must nor ordinarily exceed 150 words.

(ii) Request for information must relate to one subject matter only. If necessary, separate applications must be made if it relates to more than one.

(iii) Public Information Officer (PIO) must allow the person inspecting the documents to take a pencil only. All other writing instruments must be deposited with the PIO.

The third point appears aimed at preventing RTI applicants from making permanent marks on public documents while taking inspection. On the face of it, that seems fair enough.

We object to point (i) because a majority of Maharashtra’s people – less educated people living in slums and villages – may lack the verbal skills for drafting an RTI application within a word limit of 150 words. By what process was the 150 word-limit arrived at? Why not 250 words? Unless it is based on study and judicious reasoning, this rule is arbitrary and capricious. If we accept such an arbitrary rule today, the government may pass another amendment tomorrow imposing a limit of 10 words. It is therefore unacceptable to the community of RTI activists and users.

And finally, coming to point (ii), WE STRENUOUSLY OBJECT TO THIS “SINGLE SUBJECT MATTER” RULE, AS IT GIVES THE PIO UNNECESSARY DISCRETIONARY POWERS. There is a large subjective element involved in deciding what is a “single subject matter”; where does one draw the line between two subject matters?

FOR EXAMPLE: An RTI applicant asks the Municipal Commissioner’s office for copies of complaints, and the papers showing action taken on them, relating to impure water supply in A, B and C wards. An uncooperative PIO can argue that this RTI application has three subject matters, as each ward is a separate “subject matter”. Another man in his position can argue that complaints are one subject matter, and the actions taken on complaints are a different subject matter. Sir, based on our common experiences, we anticipate that the PIOs and appellate authorities will be drawn into such hair-splitting disputes, diverting their attention from the intent of the RTI Act. This will end up hurting the inexperienced first-time RTI applicants the most.

OUR EARNEST PLEA TO YOU:

1. Sir, IMMEDIATELY WITHDRAW THESE AMENDMENTS to regain the faith of the people of Maharashtra.

2. If amendment to rules is felt necessary, PLEASE SOLICIT FEEDBACK AND HOLD PUBLIC CONSULTATION WITH VARIOUS STAKEHOLDERS, including RTI activists and users, PIOs, first and second appellate authorities. Only after considering all the feedback should you amend the rules. This may be time consuming and difficult, but there can be no short-cuts.

3. Before you even consider any such amendments, it is urgent for you to TRANSPARENTLY SELECT AND APPOINT AT LEAST FIVE STATE INFORMATION COMMISSIONERS, AND GIVE THEM ADEQUATE STAFF AND BUDGETS. Please do this by due process i.e. declaring selection criteria, inviting applications from aspirants, and proper screening procedures. In the absence of sufficient numbers of Information Commissioners, many benches of the State Information Commission are lying vacant, numbers of pending Second Appeals are mounting to 30,000, and the time-interval before getting hearings is exceeding 18 to 24 months. Many public authorities in the state are increasingly delaying or denying RTI applications, as the Second Appeal is fast losing its potency.

Sir, we urge you to take immediate action to safeguard good governance and transparent administration in the state.

Yours Sincerely,

(Your signature, name, address, phone number)

Copy to:

1. Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh.

2. Mrs Aruna Roy, Member, National Advisory Council (NAC).

(Krishnaraj Rao is an RTI activist. The opinions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of Canary Trap.)