The Bihar cabinet has brought about some amendments in the fee regulations of the RTI in its meeting held on 17 November 2009. Now, only a single piece of information will be given to an applicant for every application. The applicant will also have to attach a self addressed stamped envelope with each application. Moreover, people belonging to the BPL category are now restricted to receiving only ten pages of information without cost.
This amendment is totally illegal. This has been done with the intention to discourage the citizen from seeking information. This is against the letter and spirit of the RTI Act of 2005. This time, the Chief Minister Mr. Nitish Kumar, who always talks about good governance, has actually ended up weakening one of the tools of good governance: i.e. the RTI or the law for transparency.
The RTI Act has authorized state governments to make rules regarding fees and applications. However, such changes should be made in accordance with the RTI Act. No rule that goes above or against the provisions in the Law can be considered. Whenever there is a contradiction between the law and the rules, the law should be considered above everything.
Section 7(5) of the RTI law says: 'The fee prescribed ¶ shall be reasonable and no such fee shall be charged from the persons who are from below the poverty line as may be determined by the appropriate Government.'
It is clear that, according to the Act, no fee should be taken for information provided to people belonging to BPL category. The law does not indicate any limitation regarding the number of pages of information. Thus, the rule made by the Bihar government to restrict the number of 'free of cost' pages is completely unethical and illegal. It is against the provision of the Act. This should be challenged in court. Very recently, a similar attempt made by the Jharkhand government was defeated by RTI activists. A similar attempt should also be made in Bihar as well.
Also, the rule about giving out only a single piece of information for one application is also illegal. According to the RTI Act, an applicant can file a written application seeking information. 'Information' is very elaborately and clearly defined in the Act. There is no rule that an applicant be restricted to demanding a 'single' piece of information per application. Thus, no government is entitled to narrowing down the definition of the amount of information that can be asked for. This amendment will, in all probability, lead the state towards 'bad governance.' Bureaucrats will deliberately redefine and misuse the amendment, and harass applicants.
The Act allows charging a fee for the information sought. However, it has the law clearly says that such fees should be appropriate and logical. Any attempt to take undue advantage of applicants in this regard is completely against the law.
If Nitish Kumar, the Chief Minister of Bihar, wants to check corruption he should take help from the citizens of Bihar. If he wants good governance (or, as he says, 'Sushashan'), he should not challenge the status of its citizens. He should allow the people ask and receive information about the government and administration, and not trap them with illegal and unethical laws. He should take inspiration from those states which are trying to make the RTI Act simple and pro-people. For example, he should take some lessons from Maharashtra: every Monday the Pune Municipal Corporation allows any citizen to access files and take away photo copies of the same. Even Bihar's neighboring state Jharkhand provides another example in which a young IAS officer (K. K. Soan) is always ready to give out any information regarding the departments under his jurisdiction. He is not afraid of the RTI law.
In fact, if Nistish Kumar is not unduly concerned about the consequences of disclosures about corruption and inefficiency, he need not worry about the RTI Act. The 'Good Governance' he always talks about can only be achieved via the RTI, i.e., by the attentive and empowered citizen. However, unfortunately, the maximum number of complaints regarding the humiliation of information seekers has been registered in Bihar itself.
It should be kept in mind that before the RTI Act was implemented throughout the country, it had already been introduced in nine states: Tamil Nadu and Goa in 1997; Rajasthan and Karnataka in 2000; Delhi in 2001; Assam, MP and Maharashtra in 2002; and Jammu and Kashmir in 2004. None of these states were governed by the NDA or its parties, i.e., the BJP or the JDU. The credit for the implementation of this law in all these states --as well as the country -- goes to the UPA and Congress. Unfortunately, now the Congress has also come to regret this because this Act has given the common man more powers than before. The common man is now being able to disclose the corruption and inefficiency of the government and the administration. This is the reason why even the central government is trying to weaken this Act by introducing some amendments.
The Bihar government is just a step ahead by unethically introducing new rules regarding fees etc. Thus, it is obvious that efforts are being made by both the UPA and the NDA in order to deprive the common man of the empowering tool called the RTI.