Below is the one year campaign on Right to Information in Orissa. As many memebres have always shared their ideas on RTI in Agame Oridda Yahoo group, I do share the status of campaign in our beloved state.
Orissa Campaign for Right to Information: A Victory small, but significant
Right to Food Campaign, Orissa
Recognising the unique importance of Right to Information as a transformative tool for bringing about a transparent, responsible and responsive system of governance in the poor and backward society of Orissa, the Orissa Right to Food Campaign, an informal network of activist groups launched a State-wide campaign for ensuring a proper operationalisation of the RTI Act 2005 soon after it was notified on the Gazette of India in June 2005 last. In keeping with its strategy to mobilise as many civil society groups as possible in the campaign process, the Orissa Right to Food Campaign encouraged the formation and growth of an open-ended platform to spearhead the campaign for RTI covering the whole State. The specific objectives of the campaign were (a) to contribute to the advocacy efforts then going on at national level for pressing the Central Government to frame citizen-friendly rules as mandated by the Central Act; and more importantly (b) to effectively lobby with the State Government of Orissa to make the State rules under the Act as much pro-poor as possible keeping in view the interest of the overwhelming bulk of State’s population.
The campaign was formally launched from a two-day State level Seminar held at Capital city of Bhubaneswar on 12/13th September 05, in which articulate representatives from cross-sections of society, legislators, bureaucrats, legal experts, academia, NGOs, Panchayat leaders and media persons etc. took active part. From the rostrum of the Seminar and in a pre-emptive bid, a comprehensive Memorandum was addressed to both Central Govt and State Government of Orissa to ensure that the rules to be framed by each Government should perfectly accord with the letter and spirit of the historic law. The said Memorandum did also call upon all the public authorities at Central and State level to make proactive disclosure of 17 categories of essential information in a manner accessible to the public as required under Section 4 of the Act. Yielding to the combined advocacy at national level, the Central Government, which had fixed a tall fee of Rs.20/- against each succeeding hour of inspection following the first hour that was free, drastically reduced it to Rs.5/- only.
However, the Campaign faced a formidable challenge to its mission when the Government of Orissa announced on 7th October 05 a set of Rules that ran diametrically counter to the very basic mandates of the Act. Not only the various fees prescribed by it were exorbitantly high, so to say the highest in India, but also its entire corpus of provisions were found to be ultra vires the mother law and out and out anti-people. For instance, as for the fees, a page of xerox would cost Rs.5/-, a page of computer print-out Rs.10/- and a CD/Floppy Rs.100/- whereas the respective fees at Central level were Rs.2/-, Rs.2/- and Rs.50/- only. As for the inspection fee, the Central Rule made the 1st hour free and charged only Rs.5/- against each succeeding hour, whereas Orissa charged Rs.15/- against each hour from the start. When the Centre in complying to the injunctions of the mother Act didn’t charge any appeal fee at all, Orissa charged Rs.40/- against 1st appeal and Rs.50/- against the 2nd appeal. Further, the Orissa Rules contained some draconian provisions too, which had no parallel anywhere. For instance, an applicant seeking information in the shape of a sample has to pay the damage of the entire structure from which the sample is collected, if the said damage be caused during the collection of sample sought. Similarly, an appellant has to deposit in advance the expenditure to be incurred for production of witness and evidence before the Information Commission, otherwise his appeal won’t be entertained. Again, the most detestable provision made under Orissa RTI Rules was the Rule-13, which said that if an applicant failed to pay any dues within 30 days of the notice to that effect, it would be realized by way of recovery of arrears of land revenue, which meant that his property may be confiscated and auctioned off for the purpose, or alternatively he may have to undergo civil imprisonment ranging from 6 weeks to 6 months. Besides the formats for application, intimation, rejection and appeal were also so ill-designed as to circumscribe an average citizen’s legitimate right to approach any public authority under State Government for accessing the information or approach the State Information Commission for disposal of his/her complaint and appeal. Of all, the Application Form was the worst one. While the Central Act specifically prohibited the public authorities from asking the applicant about any personal information, the Application Form under Orissa Rules contained certain columns (such as name of father/spouse, permanent address and identity as a citizen) which, ironically enough, demanded informations which were outright personal in nature.
Another provision that makes the Orissa Rules largely unworkable is the single mode of payment, that is by cash only (not through MO or Cheque etc.), against the information to be supplied by the PIO. In practical terms, it means that even if a person applies for information from afar through post, he or she has to travel all the way from his/her location to the concerned public office, only to deposit the fee by cash towards the cost of information. Under the circumstances, the Campaign soon resolved to focus all its energy to make the broad mass of people across the State aware about the ‘illegitimate’ and ‘absurd’ nature of the provisions so made under the Orissa RTI Rules and thereby build up a pressure of civil society on the State Government to make amends.
To spread the message of the campaign, a bunch of bilingual publications (both in English and Oriya) were made such as:
1) RTI Act 2005, Central Rules and Central Appeal Rules,
2) The Template for Information Handbook under Section 4(1b) of the Act,
3) The RTI Act from the civil society perspective,
4) Orissa RTI Rules 2005, Why Absurd and Illegitimate?
The last named book that contained an in-depth and discrete clause-by-clause treatment of the Orissa RTI Rules along with contributions from eminent RTI protagonists like Aruna Roy, Maza Daruwalla and Shailesh Gandhi could bring round the mainstream intelligentsia of the State to the campaign’s critical position on the Orissa Rules. To carry the message of our campaign further across to other States and networks at national level, a website was also launched at http://www.orissarti.com and the events and memoranda of the campaign were displayed there for perusal by all.
Finding that the route of Section-6 of RTI Act has been practically rendered inaccessible and risky for a common citizen in the peculiar context of Orissa, the Campaign explored the alternative route of Section 4 to enable the people from all walks of life to get whatever information they wanted from a public office, and that too instantly and without having to submit any application or fees whatsoever. In fact the Section 4(4) of the Act enjoins upon each public authority to provide all proactively disclosed information free of cost or at their cost price, due to be prescribed by an appropriate Government. Since neither the Centre nor the State of Orissa prescribed any fee under Section 4(4), logically it becomes the duty of each public authority concerned to provide the said kinds of information for free to the desirous citizens. Moreover the Section 4(2) of Act mandated that each public authority ought to disclose liberally as much information as possible through the modality of Section 4, so that the people won’t have to invoke the other provisions of this law to obtain information. All these nitty-gritty were explained in detail to the groups of activists in series of training programmes held in quick succession across the State. On the closing day of each programme the trainees conducted experimental visit to the public offices to field-test their newly acquired knowledge on Section 4. In most of the cases they succeeded in obtaining the information they wanted on the same day without having to make any application or payment. This wonder experiment to get instant and free information from any public office on an oral demand, which was liked particularly by the poor and illiterate people of Orissa, and is perhaps the first of its kind ever conducted in the country went hand in hand with the broader campaign demanding a drastic overhaul of the State Rules which was ultra vires the RTI Act. And this double-pronged movement is still the dominant pattern along which the Campaign around RTI moves forward throughout the State.
Recognising the role of legislators in influencing the process of rule-making by the Government, the Campaign convened a Consultation with MLAs to convince them of the illegitimate and anti-poor nature of the Orissa RTI Rules and also canvassed them individually from house to house for the purpose. As a result, 11 MLAs all belonging to ruling BJD-BJP coalition (none from opposition was present then due to the boycott of Assembly by them on other grounds) rose in one voice on the floor of Assembly on 3rd April 06 to demand a thoroughgoing amendment of the notified Rules. Though the MLAs had suggested an alternative set of draft rules quite in line with the Campaign’s perspective, the Minister of State for Information and Public Relations in responding to the 3-hour marathon debate so held announced impromptu that the Orissa RTI fees would be reduced to bring the same in correspondence with the Central pattern and a few more discrepancies would be sorted out from the Orissa Rules.
As per the Notification made on 30 May 06 in Orissa Gazette, the cost of xerox or computer print-out of a page of A/4 or A/3 size would be Rs.2/- only in place of Rs.5/- and Rs.10/- respectively and that of a CD or Floppy Rs.50/- only as against the earlier Rs.100/-. The fees for 1st appeal and 2nd appeal would henceforth be Rs.20/- and Rs.25/- in place of Rs.40/- and Rs.50/- respectively. As for inspection, the first hour would be free, and Rs.20/- is to be charged for each succeeding hour, whereas earlier the inspection used to cost Rs.15/- per hour from the start itself. Moreover, a printed publication would now cost only the pre-fixed price, irrespective of its number of pages, whereas as per the earlier norm it would have cost at the rate of Rs.2/- per page towards xerox charges.
Another significant feature of the Amended Orissa RTI Rules is its spacious provision for allowing the visitors to access and inspect the proactively disclosed information as required under Section 4 of the Act. Moreover, the amended Rules does also provide that each public authority shall maintain the registers for recording the particulars of the persons seeking or inspecting information along with the fees collected from them, and the said registers shall remain always open to inspection by the public. Another amendment has sought to rectify an important omission in the original Rules. The applicant while filling up the Application Form shall additionally mention whether he or she wants the information through email.
Another Notification under RTI Act that was published in Orissa Gazette in March 2006 concerned the Orissa Information Commission (Appeal Procedure) Rules 2006. It is interesting to observe that while the Rule 12 of Orissa RTI Rules had provided for advance deposit of expenditure for evidence/witness etc. by the appellant himself, the Appeal Procedure Rules didn’t mention any reference to it, implying that the Commission was not serious about the earlier provision made under the original Rules. Moreover, the Appeal Rules appear to be the sanest of all Rules made so far by the Government of Orissa under the RTI Act. Its provisions including even the very words and expressions used therein are almost similar to those found in Central Appeal Rules, of course with only one significant and welcome exception. Unlike the Central Appeal Rules where there is no separate mention of Complaint under Section 18 of RTI Act, the Orissa Appeal Rules has made an explicit and elaborate provision for it (vide Rule 6). Under the new dispensation, a person can now lodge a direct complaint before the Orissa Information Commission under Section 18 of the Act, without having to pay any appeal fee whatsoever, since the appeal fees prescribed by Orissa RTI Rules are required to be paid only when one goes for 1st or 2nd appeal under Section 19 of the RTI Act, not for any complaint under Section 18.
Despite such amendment, the Orissa RTI Rules still remains afflicted with its original pathological character. So long the procedure to apply remains flawed, obstructive and skewed against the average citizen, the common people of Orissa won’t be able to exercise their right to information easily and smoothly as required under the RTI Act, no matter the various fees have been almost halved and appeal rules liberalised. The major omissions and commissions of the Orissa RTI Rules, which the Campaign had identified in the beginning and which still stamp these Rules as ultra vires the mother law do stare the RTI activists all over in face and continue to beckon all of us to carry the ongoing struggle forward to its logical culmination. The recent series of amendment of Orissa RTI Rules, which is but a small victory of the voice of civil society as articulated through our campaign, signifies however the promise that the said Rules may and shall one-day be fully re-written in tune with the civil society’s legitimate aspirations, provided we keep on flying the flag of the Campaign in the face of any odd whatsoever.
Chitta Behera M-98610-91455
Pradip Pradhan M- 99378-43482
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||16 Jul 2006 05:50:22 -0000