Thursday, October 12, 2017

Gujarat witnessed 10 RTI-related murders, 43 serious attacks, as official denials for critical info pile up: MAGP

By Our Representative
Marking the 12th anniversary of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, Gujarat's independent RTI watchdog Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP) has regretted that though 55% of those using RTI are from rural areas, and seek answers on issues related to panchayat functioning, rural jobs guarantee scheme NREGA, housing, pension schemes, land matters etc., women RTI users are less than 5%.
Giving details of what has been and what hasn't been achieved under RTI, MAGP says, while the "quality of RTI applications has improved" and "people do ask specific questions, and seek copies of particular documents", with MAGP claiming it's contribution for the same, the top RTI watchdog, however, says, the quality of replies by government officials has "worsened."
The result of increased awareness of RTI, on one hand, and official inertia to provide information, on the other, is that over the last 12 years there have 10 murders of RTI applicants and 43 serious attacks. "Applicants are threatened and pressurized to withdraw their applications, especially in cases of illegal mining, encroachments, allotment of land and permissions/clearance to companies/industries", MAGP notes.
Calling it "greatest issue of concern", MAGP executive director Pankti Jog in a note says, it has been found that public information officers (PIO) do not give specific orders, underlining, "Section 8 (denying information invoking privacy or security clauses) and third party provisions are applied without application of mind and logic."
Pankti Jog
Insisting that "this shows poor quality of training inputs to PIOs and opposition to transparency and accountability", Jog says, the usual replies while denying information even include such flimsy grounds like "record not traceable, record is very old, record is too huge, application is not clear" and so on. She adds, often replies are denied saying they violate court orders "without giving rationale of how does that order applies."
While expressing satisfaction that the posts of state RTI commissioners has been increased to four, MAGP says, this happened "due to repeated petitions in the High Court", adding, "The procedure for appointment of the commissioner is not transparent", there is no "diversity in the commission" and "we do not have single commissioner other than ex-bureaucrats", unlike other states where "people from other backgrounds like journalism, social worker etc." are also chosen.
Agreeing that the number of pendency cases at the commission has reduced to 3900, as these were "always above 7500", Jog says, more often than not, "orders are not complied with", and the government's " general administrative department does not keep any track of this", adding, this shows "the attitude of the system to disobey the orders from the highest authority, which makes RTI inefficient and creates an environment of disappointment."
Jog further says that though online tools are now being used for RTI, the "public authorities in Gujarat are very poor in pro-active disclosures" and their compliance ratio on this score is "below 50%".
She adds, "Websites show outdated information. Some of the striking examples of non-compliance of pro-active disclosures are: Information on budgets and expenses are not on website in MIS form; no information on disposal of claims under the forest right Act, disbursal of amount for toilet, or housing schemes on websites."
Pointing out that there is "no online tracking" of RTI pleas, MAGP says, "Statistics of different departments show that only 10 to 12% of the applications are answered fully within time limit" at the PIO level and "another 20% are getting information at the first appellate authority (FAA) level with a delay of more than 50 days."

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