RTI lessons: how to chase officials hiding the data

The documents/ replies that I have received from various offices of BBMP in the last five months, to my RTI query on illegal hoardings, are piled up before me. Yet, they have no data that I asked for. Pic: Akshatha

It has been precisely five months since I filed an RTI application with the Advertisement department of Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) seeking information about legal and illegal advertisement hoardings in the city. (If you haven’t read the first piece you can read it here). And today as I write this second post about the status of my application, I stand in dismay, even as I continue to struggle to get the information that I am looking for.

In the last five months as I ran around pursuing this RTI application, there have been times when I sat counting the days and hours I spent on this chase. I would ask myself, “is it all worth it? What am I going to get at the end of it?” May be after months of prolonged wait, even if I succeed to get the information, it might just turn out to be obsolete. But then if I stop following it up, I for sure know, the lethargic city corporation officers who shifted their responsibility and did their best to wash their hands off, will continue doing the same in future.

How things unfolded in last five months of filing the RTI with BBMP asking for advertisement hoarding related information:

  • Filed an RTI application to the Assistant Commissioner (BBMP Advt)  on April 25th, 2016, asking for three specific information – the total number of advertisement hoardings in each BBMP zone; list of legal hoardings; and list of illegal hoardings (zone-specific) in BBMP.

  • The AC replies on June 15th (i.e after 50 days of receiving the application) and says she is forwarding the application to Joint Commissioners of 8 zones. She writes “as the information you have sought for comes under the jurisdiction of eight zonal commissioners, I am forwarding your application to the JCs.”

  • During the next one month, three out of 8 JCs (BBMP West, Dasarahalli and Yelahanka) forward my application to AROs under their jurisdiction asking them to provide me the info, while remaining JCs do not just bother to respond.

  • On July 8th, 2016, I file an appeal with the First Appellate Authority, Advertisement Section, BBMP Head Office, questioning the delayed response.

  • The appeal is forwarded to zonal deputy commissioners.

  • I get appeal hearing notice from BBMP West and Dasarahalli zones, while the remaining don’t respond.

  • I attend two hearings at West office. Since the AROs failed to provide the info, the DC passes an order giving me the liberty to approach the State Information Commission.

  • I file another RTI application at BBMP West office asking to provide documents of all communication related to advertisement hoardings sent from JC west office to the AC Advertisement at BBMP Head Office.

  • I have received the reply and I have now a strong proof to say that AC (Advt) denied giving me the information, despite possessing it.

So, while I juggle between my life and work, I have consciously dedicated some time to pursue this case. In the last two months, I have visited BBMP West office at Malleswaram at least five times! Often I would come out frustrated and disgruntled, losing my mind at the sheer ignorance and apathy of the staff and officials. Then I would ask, “if this is what a journalist has to go through to get a piece of information under RTI, what about common citizens?” Does RTI mean anything to them – the government officials?

Well, coming back to the case, I will explain you the turn of events following my decision to file first appeal after I failed to get the information that I had asked in my original application.

Appeal was forwarded!

My original application was addressed to the Assistant Commissioner (Advt), BBMP Head Office, which was forwarded to the eight zonal offices. The officers at zonal offices in turn promptly forwarded it to Assistant Revenue Officers under their jurisdiction. As per my count, the total AROs in BBMP who are responsible to give information is 81! Of this, 22 AROs have responded so far (they have just responded, don’t ask me if they have given the exact information that I had asked!)

After waiting for their responses for about two and a half month, on July 8th, 2016, I filed an appeal addressing the First Appellate Authority, Advertisement section at BBMP Head Office.

In the appeal, I questioned the Assistant Commissioner (Advt) for forwarding my application to zonal offices after an inordinate delay (50 days of receiving it).

Strangely, the first appellate authority at the head office forwarded my appeal to the Deputy Commissioners of each zone. There is no provision in the RTI to forward the appeals. In fact, when my appeal itself was against the AC Advt, how did the Additional Deputy Commissioner (who is the appellate to AC), forward it to lower rung officials?

The Head Office had made my job complicated. I was pushed to a position where I had to visit all the eight zonal offices for appeal hearing. Did they expect me to spend all my time and energy on hearings of this one particular application? Results of decentralisation. Ridiculous, isn’t it?

Like in the past, none of the DCs except BBMP West and Mahadevapura zone bothered to call me for the appeal hearing. I received another appeal notice from Hegganahalli Revenue Officer to attend the hearing against Peenya Industrial Estate ARO. I am unable to comprehend why the DCs have called me for the hearing in two zones, while in Hegganahalli, it’s the Revenue Officer.

On receiving the notices, I decided to diligently pursue the appeal hearing in at least one of the zones with the hope that I will be able to get the needed information from one zone. But I was proved wrong!

I traveled from Koramangala to the West Zone office at Malleswaram on the day I was asked to appear for the hearing. On reaching there I was informed, the DC who had called me for the hearing had retired and had signed the appeal notice on the last day of his work. Smart enough! They said the new DC was yet to take charge, hence hearing has been postponed. I was irritated, not because the officer wasn’t there, but because the staff did not have the courtesy to call me and inform in advance.

A few days later, I received another hearing notice again from the same office. Thankfully, this time, the new DC was on duty. A sensible officer he was, on hearing my version, he wondered why did his predecessor accepted to hear the appeal on the first place. “BBMP head office has forwarded your appeal application to us. But then, the RTI Act does not have provision to forward appeals,” is what he said.

Some of the AROs or their assistants were present at the hearing. I was expecting them to submit the information at least on the day of the hearing, but they did not, proving their scant respect for the system. On hearing my plea, the DC fixed another date for next hearing and directed all the 12 AROs to submit the information on the said date.

During our conversation, the DC was seen visibly surprised at why the AROs were not sharing the information. “Hoardings have been surveyed several times and the information you have asked for is available. The same has been sent to the BBMP Head Office as well,” he said.

Second hearing at JC West

The following week, I appeared for the second hearing. Of the 12 AROs, two of them had come with the information and while the rest continued with their inertia. I still wonder at their confidence of not providing the info even after the appellate authority ordering for the same.

The DC after giving them an earful, passed an order in which he said since he does not have the power to evoke penal provision, the complainant (I) can move to the State Information Commission.

Even though, by then I had decided to go for the second appeal to the SIC, I wanted to make my case strong. Therefore, I filed another RTI application, this time at the office of the West zone. In the application, I asked for copies of all documents of the communication related to legal and illegal hoardings in the city that was sent from the office of the JC (West) to the office of the AC (Advt), during last one and half year.

I was quite sure that the JC office has sent the list of hoardings to the head office based on surveys and if I get the copy it would act as a substantial evidence to prove that the AC (Advt) at BBMP Head Office evaded from her responsibility of giving me the information despite having it.

Guess what? I have finally got the required documents within a month’s time, though after quite a lot of running around and making calls. First visit was to check and select the documents that I needed. Upon selecting the documents, they asked me to get a challan from the bank at BBMP Head Office. After one more round of running around and the struggle to clear the confusion between two officers at the West office on “who has to give the info,” and complaining about the same to the DC, they finally provided the documents.  

With all the documents in hand, now it’s time for me to appeal to the State Information Commission. While I am still wondering against whom shall I complain – considering that in this case every concerned official has denied me the information causing me lot of agony – I have started filing the draft. I hope the SIC takes up the case seriously and helps me to get justice.

About Akshatha M 4 Articles
Akshatha M is a Staff Journalist at Citizen Matters. She tweets at @akshata1.

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