An Act that entrusts commoners with the authority to question the government and its actions.
The only legislation that stipulates a response time of 30 days (48 hours in the case of human rights violations).
A fairly inclusive law that was created with the involvement of social workers, ordinary people, non-governmental, community based and grassroots organizations.
We learnt this and more during an invigorating session on the "Introduction to Right to Information Act" that lasted three hours and a half (an hour longer than originally planned) and left us hungry for more. Organized by the Indian Youth Climate Network (IYCN) in collaboration with Citizen Matters, RTI Study Circle/Mahithi Hakku Adhyayana Kendra (MHAK) and the Centre for Social Markets (CSM), this free half a day workshop was held on the sunny morning of 13th November 2010, at the IYCN-CSM office. It attracted around 30 participants including members of 2 IYCN chapters in Karnataka, Stree Jagruti Samiti, Radio Activ, students from the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, volunteers of Hasiru Usiru and other individuals.
Explaining various provisions of the RTI Act 2005 (pic: IYCN)
"I am glad to see so many young people gathered here and their concern for the environment" began Veeresh Bellur of MHAK. One of Bangalore’s well known RTI activists and a retired government officer, Bellur has been involved in filing RTI applications, spreading awareness about the RTI Act, and monitoring the implementation of the RTI Act in Karnataka since 2000 starting with the state level Act. He traced the historical origins of the RTI Act to a legislation passed in Sweden in 1776. As he explained some of the key sections (among the total 31 sections spread across 6 chapters) of the Indian RTI Act 2005, in a lucid manner, he fielded many questions from the eager listeners. Brinda Gourav from IYCN wanted to know about the risk associated with filing an RTI application, based the experience of her friend who was experiencing harassment from the contractor for a public infrastructure project regarding which she raised questions. Ashwat and Mudassar wondered about how many RTI applications an individual could file and if they could be done in the name of an organization or institution. "There is no restriction on about the number of RTI applications that but they must be in the name of an individual. I suggest that everyone read the content of the Act as it is fairly simple", Bellur responded. The entire Act and pertinent details are available on the website of the Central Information Commission (CIC). The Karnataka Information Commission (KIC) website has information relevant to the RTI Act in the state of Karnataka.
Unravelling the power that the RTI Act has vested with all citizens of India, Bellur emphasized on its critical aspects namely inspection of work, files and documents and of product samples. As an example of sample inspection, Bellur mentioned how he and fellow activists sent sealed samples of Nandini milk for testing, to the Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI) in Mysore. When Bellur and other RTI activists undertook the inspection of work on the Bannerghatta – Kanakpura road a few years back, they found that a part of it passed through the reserve forest area of Bannerghatta National Park. They immediately sent a social audit report to the Lokayukta which resulted in the latter inspecting 13 other roads under construction. On finding irregularities, the Lokayukta stopped further work on those roads.
Bellur makes a point during the RTI workshop (pic: IYCN)
Bellur also illustrated some of the specific provisions of the RTI Act through live cases. For instance, when a rickshaw puller in Bihar requested information about the courses offered by Patna University under the RTI Act, it was refused on the grounds that it was inconsequential to him as he was unlettered. However, when he appealed against the rejection with the help of RTI activists, the government ruled in his favour stating that the Act entitled all citizens of India to obtain information irrespective of their socio economic status. Further, Bellur highlighted that as per section 7(5) of the RTI Act, any Indian who is below the poverty line (BPL) can get up to 100 pages of information free, i.e., without paying even the application fee of Rs. 10/- He also spoke about other important aspects governed by the Act like indexing of documents [section 4(1)(a)], suo moto declarations [section 4(1)(b)], exemptions (section 8), third party information (section 11) et al. Bellur elucidated the term Public Authority and the responsibilities of Public Information Officers (PIO’s) who act as liaisons between the public and various departments of the government.
Utilizing copies of sample documents, Bellur discussed the step by step process of filing an RTI application and an appeal in the case of a rejection. He also gave examples of specific questions that can be raised in an RTI application. For instance, when requesting for information about public infrastructure projects like the metro rail, flyover or underpass construction, one should ask for the work order, proposals, contract agreement(s), cost, monitoring agency, etc. Bellur added vital tips such as the necessity for an applicant to provide her complete postal address. He advised using a postal order for paying the RTI application fees, sending the application via registered post and preserving the acknowledgement. The activist urged everyone present to also audit websites of all government departments with regards to the RTI Act, suo moto disclosures and cataloguing of documents. This would ensure availability of information and efficient functioning of a department.
The highly interactive session ended around 2 pm with everyone resolving to file RTI applications in public interest and sharing their knowledge.