Using RTI in journalism: a lesson in tenacity

IN Books | 05/07/2017
Despite the RTI Act, for the government anti-transparency is a statement of belief and hiding information and passing the buck a favorite diversionary activity,
discovers SHYAMLAL YADAV. An extract from his book

 

Book Extract

Journalism through RTI--Information Investigation Impact
By Shyamlal Yadav, Senior Editor, The Indian Express,
New Delhi 2017 / 244 pages /Hardback: Rs 795 (9789386062833) / SAGE India

 

 

Passing the Buck: Misuse of RTI by Public Authorities

It had long since come to our attention that the Public Information Officers (PIO) under the guise of one of the exceptions given under Section 8 of RTI Act, have evaded the general public from getting their hands on the rightful information that they are entitled to.

Supreme Court, on December 16, 2015 in RBI vs Jayantilal N. Mistry and others

 

In the last 10 years that I have been using RTI for journalistic work, I have dealt extensively with the whole gamut of government machinery―from the president’s secretariat, PMO, Cabsec, chief ministers’ offices of states, central and state ministries, public sector undertakings, investigation agencies, and police organiza- tions, down to the district collectors and district superintendents of police of the remotest districts of each state―trying to garner information from them on a wide range of issues of national importance. But despite the RTI Act, getting crucial information from the government is a tough, tedious, and often frustrating engagement where, it would appear; anti-transparency is a statement of belief and hiding the information and passing the buck the favorite diversionary activity. Having overcome their initial fear, several government departments try to make every effort to undermine the RTI Act, since the very beginning.

The fact is that whether the seeker of the information will get it or not and what will happen to the RTI application, it all depends on the mindset of the person sitting on the other side of the table, that is, the PIO. An application with queries can return with complete information from one office, and from another office a similar application with similar queries may come back with claims of exemptions for denial of information. It can be forwarded to hundreds of offices just to confuse the seeker and defeat the purpose of information. There are many such experiences while dealing with government offices and officials on RTI which are necessary to share in order to understand this observation.

For instance, section 6(3) of the RTI Act says:  
Where an application is made to a public authority requesting for an information—which is held by another public authority; or the subject matter of which is more closely connected with the functions of another public authority—the public authority, to which such application is made, shall transfer the application or such part of it as may be appropriate to that other public authority and inform the applicant immediately about such transfer: Provided that the transfer of an application pursuant to this sub-section shall be made as soon as practicable but in no case later than five days from the date of receipt of the application.

Further, section 7(9) says:3 “An information shall ordinarily be provided in the form in which it is sought unless it would dis- proportionately divert the resources of the public authority or would be detrimental to the safety or preservation of the record in question.” There are many rulings of information commis- sions and one from Madras High Court that section 7(9) cannot be used for denial of any information.

But, both these sections have been variously misinterpreted and exploited by several public authorities. Section 6(3) has been most commonly misused for denying information and indulg- ing in their favorite diversion tactics of passing the buck. On many applications, I have got disconcerting, and often alarm- ing, responses from ministries and departments such as the CPWD, Department of Revenue, CBDT, MHA, Department of Posts, Ministry of Water Resources, ECI, and state DGPs, among others. These are lessons for those who always criticize transparency law for so-called ‘misuse’ by users and claim that valuable time of public authorities is being wasted. There are examples that several of their colleagues are themselves misusing the law and wasting the time, energy, and resources by unmindful use of section 6(3), forwarding the application to hundreds of officers without making an effort to know who is the custodian of the requisite information.

 

ECI’s 2000 Envelopes

The first such big shock I experienced, and definitely the most baffling, was while dealing with the ECI. On an application filed with the ECI, I must have received in total an overwhelming 2000 envelopes but hardly any information—all they said was either, “The requisite information may be treated as NIL!” or “Your application is being forwarded to” other CPIO. My applications were first forwarded by the ECI to CEOs of all states and then onwards to district election officers (DEOs), that is, district magistrates by CEOs. In most cases, even the DEOs managed to adroitly pass the buck by forwarding my queries to returning officers of every assembly constituency to respond directly.

In fact, during the ongoing controversy related to Bangladeshi migrants, requests were filed to the CEO of Delhi, MHA, the Delhi- based Foreigner Regional Registration Office (FRRO), and the ECI for information about Bangladeshi migrants. Applications were filed on May 21, 2008  to all these authorities with changed words.

 

*     *    *    *

 

Interestingly, the application was also put to CEOs of some states, and they had forwarded the application to DEO, and many DEOs forwarded it to the officials in charge of the electoral rolls revision in every assembly constituency. I was unperturbed by the influx of envelopes on my table as I realized that every letter for- warded by one officer to another was being marked to me. At the end, there were thousands of envelopes but there was almost no information.

States and districts, supposedly harboring large numbers of suspected Bangladeshis, either did not respond or they for- warded the application to the sub-division level so the response was not consolidated. One day I visited the ECI office and met Deputy Election Commissioner R. Balakrishnan and told him about the bundles of worthless envelopes received. According to him, the problem of Bangladeshi migrants was mainly in Assam; to which I countered that I had not got responses from many districts and subdivisions of Assam. He was asked what he thought I should do. He immediately called up the CEO of Assam who informed him that in Assam there were around 150,000 names of “D Category” voters identified during the revision of electoral rolls. So, obviously the CEO of Assam had the information but his PIO had unnecessarily, or with the intention of stalling, forwarded the application to the ground level.

Much the same happened when another RTI application was filed to ECI on January 12, 2010 to get details of cash seized during General Elections 2009, and action taken in the matter. But the application was forwarded8 to CEOs of all states and they in turn forwarded it to the district level interpreting section 6(3) of the RTI Act. But later, the ECI improved the system as when similar query was asked for General Elections 2014, the ECI provided countrywide data9 from Delhi itself.

 

8 Vide letter dated March 16, 2010 from ECI.

9 Of cash seized, through letter dated March 3, 2014. 

 

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