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The RTI Farce

The RTI Office at Panjim


Trampling on our Right To Know

For nearly two years Abhijeet Prabhudessai, dosage an active campaigner for land use regulation, has been trying to get hold of data on dubious submissions made before the Town and Country Planning Department. The information he seeks still eludes him.

 “There are various ways and means by which officials bypass the law and deny you information,” Prabhudessai said, recounting his trials. “A typical excuse is that the files are voluminous. They ask you to come and inspect the files. When you reach there, they ask you to come later, at around 4:45 pm. At 4:45 pm, one gets only around 15 minutes to go through the files. If you ask them whether you can come in the morning, they decline the request.”

Prabhudessai is asking for this information under the Right To Information (RTI) Act, enacted in 2005 by the central government to increase transparency in government functioning. It promises applicants information within 30 days of seeking it.

Prabhudessai says that when one doesn’t get the information asked for, one can file an appeal. But it’s a tedious process. Officers and staff refuse to divulge information that they ‘guard’.

Take Abdullah Bashir’s case. He had asked the mamlatdar (government official) at Valpoi details about the kerosene quota (Kerosene is one of the few items still rationed in India). He was given a prompt and brief reply: “The file is untraceable”. Bashir approached an RTI activist, Rajan Ghate, who asked the mamlatdar to explain what she meant by untraceable. She replied, “It could be either misplaced or damaged.” Ghate then asked her whether there had been a flood. Or a fire. Or did rats eat it? A livid Ghate said: “A government official is a custodian of documents under his/her charge. She is being paid taxpayers’ money to do her job.” Ghate added that only after the officer concerned was given a dressing down did she relent and give the information without charging any money, as it was beyond the 30-day period.

Abhijeet’s and Bashir’s cases are common. Securing information from government department is a tedious process. Officials across departments try every trick in the book to decline parting with information.

Sometimes they say they haven’t understood the question, sometimes they say the information is “voluminous”. Or they say the information is not available or is not traceable.

Solano D’Silva, another land use campaigner, had sought details of the submissions made before the Town and Country Planning Department, based on which changes were incorporated into the Regional Plan 2021.

“Many persons including myself have used the RTI to know which of the 8500 requests were processed and incorporated in the finalised RP2021. This information is continuously being withheld. After much haggling I managed to get material of only two talukas — Canacona and Pernem,” said D’Silva.

This writer too had applied for information under the RTI Act, but was told that the hunt for the information would severely impair the daily functioning of the office, hence could not be given.

But the problem of implementation of the RTI Act is not just giving applicants the information they seek. The RTI Act mandates that records should be organized, catalogued, computerized and networked across the nation.

When Goa Streets contacted Leena Mehendale, the State Chief Information Commissioner under the Act, she admitted that to a large extent records in government offices were disorganized because the custodians of these documents did not prioritize the maintenance of records.

That itself is a violation of one of the very first sections of the Act, which maintains that officers “maintain all records duly catalogued and indexed in a manner and the form which facilitates the right to information under this Act.”

Mehendale said: “This needs to be done on a daily basis. Unfortunately officers do not consider this as a job they should devote time to. When they reply that the information is untraceable, they really don’t know where it is.” She added that she had already written to the Chief Secretary to call a daylong meeting between Public Information Officers and Government Secretaries, to sensitize them on the issue of supplying information to the public.

The RTI Act also mandates “every public authority to take steps to provide as much information suo motu to the public at regular intervals through various means of communications, including internet, so that the public have minimum resort to the use of this Act to obtain information.”

A cursory glance of government websites reveals little about the functioning of its departments.

The Act mandates a list of 25 functions of each department that they have to voluntarily disclose including “the procedure followed in the decision making process, channels of supervision and accountability, the monthly remuneration received by each of its officers and employees, the budget allocated to each of its agencies, indicating the particulars of all plans, proposed expenditures and reports on disbursements made; the manner of execution of subsidy programs, including the amounts allocated and the details of beneficiaries of such programs,” etc.

The gulf between that utopian mandate and the current reality is huge, to be sure. But officials insist they’re starting to close it.

Mehendale has promised that the seminar to sensitize officials about the RTI will happen “soon” and periodically every six months thereafter.

Wishing the lady (and us) good luck.