Hello, Right to Services Act !

One of the earliest requests that was made by the local organizations of Munsyari soon after this writer re-located himself there, was to fix a day in the month when this writer, who has had the privilege of serving in the government for more than four decades, could be available to meet any one for any advise or assistance. The Last Day of Every Month ( LDoM) which also happens to be the Closed Market Day, under the Labour Laws, for all commercial establishments, eateries and medical drugs dispensing units of course are exempted, was found most convenient.

Last Day of the Month ( LDoM ) Meeting

Tiksen bazaar, as the main bazaar located in Bunga cum Ghorpatta villages is locally known, as said remains closed on this day. So far the shop-keepers, especially the younger lot, used to utilize this day in organizing picnics with their families to a few places of local interest. This closed Day is now being made more fruitful and inter-active with the help of this LDoM. This LDoM which is fixed for 11 am and lasts usually till the lunch-time, is ( i ) used by this writer to share all information of public interest received on applications file under the RTI Act, explaining their effect and also in discussing any follow-up action, ( ii ) discussion on matters of current public interest e.g. natural calamities, progress of construction of Munsyari-Milam National Highway, distribution of relief to calamity affected families, ( iii ) any new public issue raised by a person attending this LDoM meeting, and ( iv ) sharing new developments which the common man should know or new schemes launched during this period. While Johar Sangh makes the meeting hall facility available it is the Malla Johar Vikas Samiti, which takes attendance of individuals as well as the secretarial assistance. This writers’ services, pro-bono, is assumed and willingly extended, which includes writing articles in Garhwal Post/website, drafting and filing of RTI applications, first and second appeals etc. My earliest impressions about these meetings are that nothing could be more satisfying from learning point of view. All retired government servants, if they could organize similar events in their villages, back-home, they would be rendering a great public service. Needless to add that a great amount of patience, empathy, forbearance, “shedding-of-rank and status”, home-work, adjustments, follow-up work is involved, which one should be willing to shoulder. It takes a different kind of skill to make such interfaces purposeful.                                                                                                                                                               



Right to Services Act, 2011

As the most important event of July 2014 was swearing-in of Alok Jain, former Chief Secretary, as the Chairman-cum-Chief Commissioner of the Uttarakhand Service Commission, with  his taking over the new Commission became functional and for all citizens now it is time to look at what this law has in store for them, what all has been provided for, how convenient it looks in practice and how its operationalization can be made so effective that all services notified under section 3 of this law can become accessible ? So this writer decided to share this new law with the gathered assembly on 31st July, which happens to be the Last Day of July 2014. Besides what this law is all about he also discussed with them their first impressions about its existing provisions and towards the end what more could be suggested for addition, looking at the situation as it obtains in this remotest place of the state ? This LDoM meeting started at 11 sharp and ended around 3 pm, entirely dedicated to this law.

Official Apathy                                                                                                                                                                 

Like all the previous laws notified in this country, especially those aimed at empowering the common man, there is no effort on the part of the government to publicize that these laws are being implemented for their benefit through various means, including all local senior officials holding say meetings like the LDoM meeting, where in an informal manner such disseminations are extended, informative literature in simple local language is distributed. In short, thorugh pro-active reaching out measures. So it was not very surprising that not a single person present was aware of the Act, what it provides for, or aware of the fact that Mr Alok Kumar Jain, IAS (Retd) has taken over as the first Chief Commissioner of the Uttarakhand Right to Services Commission ( sec 12 ).

So this law is now fully functional and now it is also up to the public to ensure that the Commission becomes active immediately and it makes all possible efforts to see that not only all ‘notified services’ are being made available but more and more public services  are brought under its purview. One clear target of this Commission should also be to see that every Department and Office that gets ever created must immediately identify which of its various ‘services’ can be got notified by it and the importance of each department should be measured by the number of services notified for it under section 3 and their timely and effective delivery. This new Commission’s resolve should be to “push the envelop” to its bursting-point and include as many departments, and the services they are supposed to provide, to be brought under section 3 ( i ), though its Annual Report ( sec 17 ( i ) ( f ) , and hold large scale consultations down up to the Blocks level, seeking public opinion regarding notification of new services ( sec 17( i ) (c) of the RSA, 2011.

A similar official apathy has been exhibited about RTI Act. While crores of rupees get spent on advertising the so-called achievements of a particular Government via huge hoardings, full-page advertisements in all national dailies there is no evidence of State governments taking steps to empower its citizens on and about exercising their rights either under the RTI or any other right-based laws that have been enacted on information, consumer rights etc.     

Main Provisions of RSAct, 2011

As no Hindi version of the RSAct 2011 has been made available by the internet service the assembled gathering was informed that it is a small compact  Act, with just 21 sections, as compared to 31 sections in the RTI Act notified in October 2005. Even the 21st section is an enabling provision, aimed at removing any difficulty that may be encountered in its implementation within 2 years of its operationalisation. Simply stated, its pith is its section 3, which defines  any “service” that gets notified under section 3 of the Act, for which various provisions of this Act and the Rules that will get framed under section 20 of this Act, are to be essentially used. A Notification has already been issued on 28 October, 2011 which lists ( i ) 2 services of Food & Civil Supplies, ( ii )  8 services of Revenue , ( iii ) 6 services of Medical, Health & Family Planning, ( iv ) 10 services of Housing i.e. SADA, Urban & Village Planning and Regulated Area, ( v )  4 services of Transport ( vi ) 3 services of Drinking Water, ( vii ) 4 services of Social Welfare, ( viii ) 7 services of Urban Development, ( ix ) 2 services of School and finally ( x ) the largest number of 16 services of Home ( Police ) department; all told 62 services have been notified by just 10 Departments. By the way each “service” has its sub-services i.e. specific service that is being rendered and these number about 110. Every Department that has been covered initially has to Designate one Officer who “shall provide the service to the eligible person” ( sec 4 ) and an application has to be made, this officer will either provide the service within the time limit, which is also notified, or reject the application within the same time limit “ recording the reason for rejection in writing” and it is also his duty ”to intimate the same to the applicant”. Like the RTI Act it was explained now every thing has to be in writing, including reasons for rejection, and there is no more “Ganesh Parikrama of offices”, as even if the request for service is rejected it has to be intimated to the applicant. Full postal address at which service has to be delivered, or rejection in writing for that matter, should now be mentioned in the request application so that the service may be delivered at that point of place. This, if implemented effectively, now makes it totally unnecessary to make rounds and rounds of the related office ( major complaint of every one who has to visit any office for any service today ), either for the delivery of service or even to know that it is not going to be made available. Here there is a similarity between the RTI facility and this Service facility ( sec 5 ). It is now well known that the information is provided by postal- “dak” to the applicant and he need not visit the office concerned. RTI has been liberally used in Munsyari for private and public purposes during the past 8 years.     

 62 Services with 110 Sub-Services Notified

Great interest was generated  when we started going though the list of services which have been notified  for the 10 Departments initially, totalling up to 62 in all, with 110 sub-Services with specific time-limits. The 2 services notified by Food & Civil Supplies and 8 of Revenue were considered of great relevance for the rural populations of Munsyari. Time allowed was also considered as reasonable, from a minimum of “ On the Day of Application” for a copy of the Khasra ( Land Map , sr no 7 of Revenue ) to generally 7 or 10 days and a maximum of 45 days ( Character Verification, under the jurisdiction of Revenue Police, serial no 2, Revenue ). This writer brought it to the notice of all that this RSA is an improvement even over the provisions of the RTI Act, in all cases where the time limit is less than 30 days, which is a minimum under the RTI Act, except of course of those two provisions where the limit is just 24 hours ( threat to life ).

It was also noticed that in the case of Revenue department’s 8 services notified, except the case of Character certificate ( sr no 2, Revenue ) all services ( many of them of providing document or information also covered by the RTI Act ) as the time limit is far less than 30 days, it would be better to go for this RSAct rather than the RTI Act. Another way to look at this situation is that in place of just RTI Act we now have another Act also to get the same or even better services. This discussion and discovery made all of us look at all services now included under the RSAct, where the time limit for providing the service is less than 30 days, to consider first opting under the RSAct than the RTI route. Nothing, of course, prevents an applicant to file applications for relief under both the laws, where possible. As the application fee is quite affordable, with the BPL being exempted, so much the better, to speed up delivery of a required service. We found out that there were broadly two kinds of Minimum Time-Limits for services,

( a ) Less than 30 days i.e. better than RTI’s 30 days, as many as 64 out of 110 sub-services had time limits less than 30 days, with several having same day or 2 to 3 days delivery mandates, and

( b ) Same as the RTI time limit i.e. 30 days minimum, 46 sub-services with time limits of more than 30 days.

Proof of RTI Complaints of Deliberate Delays

This much shorter time-limit for providing services mainly related to the Revenue and some other departments also in a way validates the complaints that were being made that the PIOs of these departments were deliberately delaying making such information available while the same could have been done much faster. Many of the so-called services of Revenue departments, which can also be availed now through the RSAct, go on to prove the fact that the same department has now crashed down the RTI maximum time limit of 30 days into just one day, under the RSAct ! The fact remains that this was always there and even under the RTI Act the same time limits should have been followed. For those who are more conversant with the provisions of the RTI Act, it would also prove the point that even under the RTI Act, there could be two Rules with regard to making information available, the second Rule drastically cutting down the maximum time limit allowed to the PIO, from 30 days to even just 24 hours ! It is a subject of administrative reform, all that is required is the empathy that the officials need exhibit. As far the citizens are concerned they should be applying pressure on their state Governments to undertake a minute review of all existing services and fix much stricter time-regimes, as is apparent now and actually done under the RSAct.

Expanding Options for the Citizens                                                                                                                                                                   

This preliminary discussion of the 10 departments 62 Services, inclusive of something like 110 sub-services with specific time limits for delivery of service or rejection thereof, revealed that this Act certainly can prove to be an improvement over the RTI Act, where not only INFORMATION but even the DELIVERY OF NOTIFIED SERVICE ( including those covered by RTI also ) can be made accessible to the citizens. By way of abundant caution that the citizen should now consider both the options which are now available to him/her. As is already happening after the RTI regime became operational people who are going for some investments first take recourse to the RTI Act and after official authentication under that regime use that as the base for making their future investments. Now, with this the facility, which in fact was already existing in the Revenue and some other older departments ( High Court Rules are other examples of more liberal time dispensation ), the minimum time-limit has been very effectively crashed in those cases where the time limit is less than 30 days, and there are many such services.

The next agenda for the citizens is to closely examine the time limits where it is more than a minimum of 30 days, or for that matter even less than 30 days, and opine whether this time limit is justifiable ? This issue should be taken up wit the Chief Commissioner of RSA Commission, as he is mandated to look into all such related matters, and also with the related Administrative department’s Secretary. In those cases where the time limits notified for delivery of service should be got reduced giving rationale for its reduction. It should also be highlighted where there is any back-tracking, that is the suggested time limit has been made harsher through this Notification. The objective should be less and less, where justifiable.

Bring All Services under RSA

Even in an impromptu discussion like this LDoM Meeting in Munsyari, on this forward-looking law, it became very logical to examine how many more services should similarly be notified under section 3 and why any Department should be left out of its coverage at all ? All departments are after all created to provide various kind of services to the citizen and therefore there should be a Movement to Include All Departments under the RS Act, 2011. This writer, having had the privilege of founding the Uttarakhand Information Commission and going though the process of its operatonalisation shared various shortcomings which ought to be taken on board, both by the Government and the RS Commission, and start taking action on it. The top priority has naturally to be given to widely disseminate the provisions of this land mark Act and tackle its logistical problems. Wide publicity through various channels of communication, large scale elementary legal training which would be required for all those who will be using the civil court powers, as the First Appellate and Second Appellate Authority ( secs 6 and 7 ), and as has been revealed by the experience of the Information Commission, even of those Commissioner who may not have had any opportunity of dealing proceedings that are involved in hearing of Revisions ( sec 9 and 10 ) e.g. those without any administrative experience e.g. Public Administration having a Doctorate in Philosophy with an experience of teaching in a University ( sec 13 ( 3 ), widest publicity about Designated Officer ( sec 4 ) and updating through website and other means where website/broadband facility does not exists ( sec 3, 11 ).

Prime facie, especially as the preliminary stages of operationalisation is hgoing to take some time,  the Commission with the Chief Commissioner mainly responsible for making the Commission and the implementation of the RSA really effective, will be required to, and expected by the citizens, to liberally use the unfettered powers under section 17(1)(b), namely, “ take suo moto notice of failure to deliver service in accordance with this Act and refer such cases for disposal as may be appropriate”, accompanied with those included for inspections of offices, recommending changes in procedures for delivery of services etc.

No Nuclear Science: RTI Next Steps

That most of the well established departments, as they are old, need to change drastically the way they deliver their services, e.g. using modern technology, especially the means of transfer of funds, informing delivery of service etc  and most of the newly established department, do need to take recourse to these mew channels of delivery of services, is an agenda which is nothing but Administrative Reforms Agenda, and not a matter related to nuclear science. This should be done almost on day to day basis. Several areas of service delay and unjustified delays have come out through the application of the RTI Act since October 2005. All those learnings should now be converted into addition of new services under section 3, in all departments. RTI Act has already mandated preparation of as many as 17 Manuals, under section 4 of the Act, including a Compilation of all Government Orders. These Government Orders, or GOs in common parlance, are anything but the manner by which a particular service, for which that department is mandated, is going to be delivered. Just a two way action, first ( i ) Completion and Updation of all Government Orders, and second ( ii ) Selection of various services, from all existing GOs into services to be notified under section 3, with time limit for service delivery, needs to be completed. Using recourse to this two way process the RS Commission will be able to not only make its own presence felt, though effective service delivery, but also concomitantly improve implementation of the precursor RTI Act as well.



Need for Synergy

This preliminary and very impromptu discussion even a remote location like Munsyari has highlighted a clear need to work on this Act, as a Next Step of RTI Act, which has brought about such a remarkable transformation towards a more transparent India. How to make a more transparent India also a More Accountable India, especially its public authorities, has some action-points which emerge from the Right to Services Act. A synergy of action by the RTI activists with those who may now come forward as eligible applicants for various notified services is an obvious development which must be precipitated. Uttarakhand is one of the few States where a civil society organisation like the RTI Club came into existence in 2005, the year this writer was completing his 5 year term in the Information Commission. It was his privilege to accept this Club’s patronship and thus be a part of this movement. This writer sees no reason why the RTI Club should also not include the RSAct also in its mandate, as it is only the logical Next Step as well as a vertical expansion. In several areas where the RTI Club felt constrained can now be over come with the application of this law.                                                                                                                                                              

However, this was an aside. Coming back to the LDoM meeting, besides the engrossing discussion on this fascinating law and the potential it promises, former President of the Malla Johar Vikas Samiti brought forward a Memorandum that he has addressed to Chief Minister Harish Rawat, now the local MLA as well, drawing his attention the huge delay that has taken place in completing the Munsyari-Milam , 65 Km, border road by the much maligned Border Roads organisation. The memorandum drafted by Govind ( aka Gulab ) Singh Pangtey was unanimously voted for mass signature, which were appended then and there. This writer, in an another piece, has already high-lighted how unpopular this once admired Central outfit has become in recent years, in the border-regions of Uttarakhand, due to its delays, inefficiencies and rampant alleged corruption through its several acts of omission and commission. On the 2nd a call for all-Kumaon “Mahabandh” has gone out and which is likely to end in a demand for Open CBI Enquiry and Appeal to Centre for changing this organisation by some other construction agency, given the increasing threats that are now perceived by a massive build up in neighbouring Tibet Region, seriously compromising the security of these sensitive border parts. The Deafening Silence of our 5 BJP Members of Parliament from Uttarakhand is bewildering indeed, to say the least.

An Elitist & strong Urban Bias

The first impression about the services included in the first tranche was that it is heavily tilted towards our urban populations and for more than 80 per cent of Uttarakhand population services included under sectors like Housing, Regulated Areas, Urban Development, Transport etc were meaningless. More than 65 % of police area falls under the Patwari system, who is a two-in-one official, and arrangements for receiving applications etc needed to be looked at. Under this system who will substitute for a Circle Officer ( see sr no 1 to 16 of Home, various Designated Officer and First Appeal Authority ) or a LIU Inspector or OC Police etc are issues which need to be not only addressed but also solved practically for the field. Absence of any information about Forest and Rural Development related services are severely impacting on rural and mountain regions. Their absence reflects the apathy of administration towards the rural life, this impression is evident from the priority- an elitists and urban-centric. This adverse impression about priority must be addressed immediately.

A great amount of learning that has taken place about designating PIOs and First Appeal Authority under the RTI Act which should be applied here. There are two sets of departments, those that have expanded the number of their PUIs with appropriate authority being named for the hearing of the First Appeal, and others have shown a shirking trend, throwing the PIO status down and down. It would an interesting contrast to compare experience of the RTI Act with the RSAct, as in the case of the latter, the power to punish a delinquent level rests on his/her higher authority. In a state where any official hardly gets censured leave aside punished, relegated in rank, wit no evidence of “adverse remarks”, every one expecting and getting an “outstanding” annual assessment it would be new chapter heralded by this new Act where the senior official will be expected to order fines and recommend departmental proceedings ! Not many people believe that this will happen even in this State !

This writer distinctly recalls how amused he was as Chief Information Commissioner when he received an early morning phone call from a senior IAS officer of his own Cadre who complimented him for ordering a heavy fine on a PIO and an adverse remark against a Commissioner of a Division, the latter for not taking his Appellate Authority responsibly under section 19 (8) (b) and (c) of the RTI Act. The caller had called it a “ Historic Order ” ! This writer would not be very surprised if the Annual Report of the new Commission reports ‘Zero’ and ‘Zero’, when it comes to ‘fines imposed’ and ‘fines realized’. He, however, would be most happy to be proved wrong and try to emulate the IAS officer who had rung him up, years ago. Indian senior bureaucracy is perceived today as a pale shadow of the once famed  “Steel-frame” of Indian Empire or “ the Best Gift of Britain to India ” ( John Strachey).  

Tail-piece : Enlightened Voters

Readers will be happy to know that just under two hours not only the gathering was able to get the “hang of the RSAct”, if you please, but were able to suggest that as far Munsyari and our other difficult mountain areas were concerned services related to ( i ) electricity – new connection, over-billing correction requests, ( ii ) LPG delivey –new cylinders, transfer of location, (iii) Sub-Treasury ( Tehsildars )- pensions, delivery of pension complaints, ( iv ) SRTC public transport services –  their regularity, their itinerary correction, and the omnipresent department, Forests, ( v ) Petty Demand ( PD cases )- and other Rights & Concessions, the firs charge of mountain-people, came for consideration on priority. The BSNL services, so very crucial in Uttarakhand, were not discussed, as some one from the audience was quick to remark: “ but that is a Central subject” ! RTI experience of last 8 years has had an impact, people distinguish between the services for which the Central and State Governments are responsible ! Our politicians, every where, please be beware, citizens are now increasingly going to vote based on “Delivery not Promise”!    

R S Tolia

Late Dr. R.S. Tolia, Ph.D., was former Chief Secretary ( 2003-05 ) and Chief Information Commissioner ( 2005-10) of Uttarakhand. He also served in various voluntary positions after retirement and devoted his time for Mountain Development Agenda.

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