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Odisha to rejig its ramshackle RTI regime before enacting Right to Public Services Bill

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  • Chitta Behera
    Odisha to rejig its ramshackle RTI regime before enacting Right to Public Services Bill (Third Part of the Keynote Address by Mr.Chitta Ranjan Behera a social
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 10, 2011
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      Odisha to rejig its ramshackle RTI regime before enacting Right to Public Services Bill

      (Third Part of the Keynote Address by Mr.Chitta Ranjan Behera a social activist at Rushikulya auditorium, CYSD, Bhubaneswar at the Seminar organized jointly by Transparency International Odisha Chapter and CYSD on 31st October 2011. After a note of welcome delivered by Mr.G.H.Khuntia retd Director Orissa Mining Corporation, Prof Bimalendu Mohanty, Chairman of Transparency International Odisha Chapter and Convener of the Seminar spoke about the main objective of the Seminar i.e. whether Odisha should go for enacting a State law for guaranteeing time-bound delivery of public services just as some other States in the country have done in recent times. He was followed by the key-note speaker Mr. Chitta Ranjan Behera.)

      The enthusiasts of a Right to Public Services Bill for Odisha ought to know that RTI Act 2005 has already occupied a pivotal position in the labyrinthine maze of laws affecting the country’s governance. Earlier to its enactment, any officer could flatly deny any information, even the entry of a common citizen to any office quoting the ruling gospel of bureaucracy Official Secrets Act 1923. The RTI Act has not only overridden all such hideous provisions, but also made the disclosure of information a rule and its withholding an exception. Besides, the Act mandated every public authority under Section-4 to disclose suo motu 17 categories of information concerning itself, in addition to its routine duty of responding to specific queries made under Section-6. In fact, the RTI Act as evident from its performance in last six years has shown its unique potential ‘to contain corruption and to hold Governments and their instrumentalities accountable to the governed’ as promised in its preamble. But for this Act, such mega scams as concerning 2G Spectrum, Adarsh Housing Complex or CWG wouldn’t have grabbed the limelight and notorious biggies put behind the bars. However, it should be a matter of serious soul-searching for the people of Orissa as to why the RTI magic has failed to do its trick in exposing any single big misdeed of corruption in this State, though it is an open secret that the State has been bedeviled by mega corruptions involving misallocation of land, water and mines, diversion of forests, supply of sub-standard Dal for Angawadis and Midday meals, misappropriation of wages and funds of MG-NREGA, bungling of Paddy procurement and recycling of PDS rice etc. Unless and until we find a valid answer to this all-important question, the move for enacting any new anti-graft law, be it around Right to Public Services or a revamped Lokayukta Act, would surely obfuscate the situation already sickened by a ramshackle RTI regime.   

      Assuming that Odisha enacts a strong Right to Public Services law without setting aright its faulty RTI regime, would it serve the purpose of guaranteeing the redress of citizens’ grievances as being promised now? Not at all, because the faulty RTI regime would also help the defaulting appellate grievance redress officer in denying justice to the aggrieved applicant. For the sake of illustration, it may so happen that the highest appellate grievance officer under the proposed law may not respond at all to an appellant about his appeal arising from the failure of the grievance officer in providing time bound delivery of public service to the applicant/appellant. The question arises, how can the aggrieved applicant prove that he submitted his appeal before the appellate authority for redress of his grievance? He can prove it only by using RTI Act for seeking information on the status of his appeal. The PIO in the office of Appellate Grievance Officer, out of fear of penalty under Section 20 of RTI Act, would in all likelihood provide the information on the status of the appeal so made. However, presuming that there is no properly constituted RTI regime in place in a state as is the case in Orissa, the concerned PIO and even appellate authorities appointed under the RTI Act may jolly well refuse to pay any heed to the applicant or appellant seeking information concerning the status of his appeal. Thus, RTI Act acts as the main driver of a people-centric, rights-based governance across the country. Wherever there is a blockage in the normal flow of information across the system, it is only the RTI Act with its clearly laid mandate about the obligations of the public authorities and penalties against the errant officers that can clear it in a predictable manner.

      Coming to the specific context of Odisha, its RTI regime is chiefly colored by Orissa RTI Rules 2005 notified on 1st Oct 2005 which is out and out anti-people and ultra vires the parent Act, coupled with a malfunctioning State Information Commission which right since its commencement on 20 November 2005 has been acting erratically and dubiously caring a fig about its obligations and limitations stipulated in the Act. Though Section 3 of RTI Act endows all the citizens with the right to information, the State Rules has been framed in such a way as to deprive a vast bulk of the citizenry of any scope to exercise this right. For instance, the compulsion of an RTI applicant, as per the said Rules, to attach a copy of voter’s card to his application in Form-A as a proof of his/her citizenship has deprived at one go the entire young population of the country who are below 18 years of their statutory right to apply for information to any public authority controlled by State of Odisha. Secondly, look at the prohibitive modes of remitting the application fee; one has to pay it either by hard cash or through treasury challan. It means that a person residing outside Odisha can’t submit his/her RTI application to any Government office of Odisha, simply because he/she won’t get any Challan acceptable to Odisha’s treasury. Thirdly, keeping in view the need for protection of whistleblowers, the Section 6(2) of RTI Act obligated an applicant to mention only the contact address, and categorically prohibited the disclosure of ‘any other personal details’ in his/her RTI application. But the 11-column format for Application, namely Form-A as prescribed under State Rules is stuffed with such sensitive queries as permanent address, name of father/spouse and ‘particulars in respect of identity of the applicant’, which render him vulnerable to victimization by the vested interests, whose acts of corruption might be exposed through the RTI application. Fourthly, flouting the Section 7 (3) the Form-B prescribed under State Rules as the PIO’s letter of intimation does neither contain the break-up of the total amount demanded towards cost of information, nor mention the particulars of the appellate authority to whom the applicant, if aggrieved, would turn up for redressal. Fifthly, the 9-column Form-C prescribed under the said Rules as the format for rejection of an application is a horrendous miscarriage of the letter and spirit of the parent Act, since it gives an arbitrary handle to the PIO to reject any RTI application on any such flimsy grounds as ‘your application is not complete in all respect’, ‘your identity is not satisfactory’ and ‘for any other reason’. Sixthly the Form-D and Form-E, prescribed for 1st Appeal and 2nd Appeal respectively along with Rs.20/- and Rs.25/- as fees for 1st appeal and 2nd appeal to be paid through court fee stamps are also ultra vires the parent Act. Seventhly, the mode of payment of fee towards cost of information i.e. through hard cash, as prescribed under the said Rules is highly prohibitive against any person wishing to seek information by way of an RTI application to any government office in Odisha. While the easy and cheap IPO (Indian Postal Order) is the standard mode of payment at Central level and in rest of States across the country, Odisha Rules compels the RTI applicants even including those who are stationed outside Odisha to physically visit the concerned offices in Odisha simply to remit the cost of information. So long such absurd and anti-people Odisha RTI Rules exist in force, the citizenry of the country including Odisha would continue to suffer debilitation in exercising RTI Act for seeking information from any public authority controlled by Government of Odisha.

      As a matter of fact, the Odisha Information Commission using its powers given under Section 25(5) of RTI Act could have wrought a big difference to the above scenario of misdirection and misfeasance plaguing the RTI regime in the State. But, as irony would have it, the Commission right since inception played such a retrogressive, nay nefarious role as to further degrade and downgrade it non-stop. Flouting the mandate of parent Act, it hijacked to itself Rs.3.25 crore, meant for awareness raising programmes to be carried out by the State Government as per Section 26 of the Act. Ignoring their legitimate duty to adjudicate complaints and appeals, the Commissioners were found briskly busy in inaugurating and addressing decorous ceremonies funded by them. On the other hand, their arrogance knew no bounds as they issued self-concocted fiats one after another taking away the very rights of citizens which were guaranteed in the parent Act. For instance, it is they who ruled that no complaint lodged against the non-disclosure of suo motu information under Section-4 of the Act could be heard by the Commission. They also dictated that the BPL persons were to pay the cost of information, as against its exemption provided under Section 7(5) of the Act. They further ordered that the onus of the proof in any proceedings would fall on the appellant/complainant, though Section 19(5) and the proviso to Section 20(1) put it on the PIO who denied the request for information. They went on exonerating the defaulter PIOs on this or that flimsy plea. In one case, they closed the proceedings altogether against a defaulter PIO on the arbitrary ground that the latter had absconded from the office, whereas they could have invoked Section 18(3) to institute an enquiry against the absconder and compelled his appearance. On the contrary, Mr.D.N.Padhi the then Chief of the Commission, going against all norms of natural justice dashed off summons to an RTI activist Mr.Pradip Pradhan simply to threaten the latter into submission. They also turned the Annual Reports of the Commission into a photo gallery for themselves in flagrant neglect of the tips provided in Section 25 of the Act in respect of the contents of such Reports. Another horrible blunder the Commission continues to indulge in with impunity is that it is presently armed with 49 nos. of staff, highest in the country, all of whom have been illegitimately recruited bypassing the mandatory notification in the Orissa Gazette as required under Section 27(2-d) of the Act. And to cap it all, the former Chief of Commission Mr.D.N. Padhi shortly before his retirement, did clamp a defamation suit amounting to Rs.1 lakh against this speaker and his colleague Mr.Pradip Pradhan so as to stamp out any vocal criticism against his corrupt and illegal practices. The said case is being pursued now by his successor Mr.T.K.Mishra with the same zeal and vehemence as was typified by Mr.Padhi himself.

      Under the circumstances, keeping the messy RTI regime in tact as before, any move to usher in a kindred draft law called Odisha Right to Public Services Bill is bound to further worsen the stinking state of mal-governance the poor, corruption ridden Odisha is presently afflicted with.
      (Transcript of the talk prepared by the speaker himself Mr.Chitta Ranjan Behera, 4A Jubilee Tower, Choudhury Bazar, Cuttack-9, Orissa, Mobile: 9437577546 Dated 10th Nov 2011)  
           
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