RTI Forum of Uttarakhand

By R S Tolia • Random Thoughts • 28 Oct 2015

Munsyari. The first fortnight of October, away from Munsyari, packed by the Fourth Sustainable Mountain Development Summit ( 7-9 October, 2015 ), at Itanagar, the capital of of Arunachal Pradesh, followed by the Decade of RTI celebration at Dehradun and Birthday celebration of President APJ Abul Kalam, the Scientist-Saint, meant virtually meeting of intellectual-technical-development cream of Indian mountain states. This writer had the rare privilege of meeting hundreds of best theoreticians and practioners of Indian mountain systems, a much larger number of well-wishers and arguably a far larger number of those who are destined to be benefitted by the first two groups' indibvidual and collective endeavours, during this short period of time. Garhwal Post has already carried the homage paid by some of the ardent admirers of our late President, the affable and a humanist par excellence head of the state ( The Philosopher King at Vigyan-dham ). APJ Abdul Kalam demonstrated that ruling the hearts is far more enduring than ruling a country as big as India. As the sequel to this writer's other curtain-raiser ( Hello Itanagar, Garhwal Post ) might deserve a much larger coverage, and partly as some of its outcomes have been very widely covered by many public -men ( Health Minister Surendra Singh Negi's press coverage of Itanagar Mountain Summit ) this piece covers another major milestone in Uttarakhand's passage to progress, its remarkable journey in a mountain state and the issues it has helped raise..

 

RTI starts at Palam

Some of the Uttarakhand delegates returning to Dehradun from Guwahati after attending the Fourth Sustainable Mountain Development Summit at Itanagar on the 11th October met Leeladhar Jagudi our celebrated poet-thinker. When informed Leeladhar Jagudi mentioned that he is also gracing the Decade of RTI event jointly organized by the Uttarakhad Informston Commission and the RTI Club of Uttarakhand at Manthan Auditorium, the next day. Jagudi has suffered serious loss to property in Uttar Kashi district during June 2013 floods, whe his hotel built along the Bhagirathi collapsed and his repeated petitions to the loocal authorities proved of no avail. This writer was taken aback when Leeladhar Jagudi acknowledged that he had not thought of  seeking exact position via the most popular route, the RTI Route ! As Dr Piyoosh Rautela was also in the Itanagar delegation he took no time in contacting his district Disaster Management Officer and informing him how at the official level due to certain shortcomings in documents presented by the writer the claim remained in limbo. This highlighted how important awareness raising remaining an issue, as far a far popular application of RTI was concerned. Sure enough, the next day at the Manthan Auditorium, much of the time between the UIC office bearers and representatives was consumed as to whether who was responsible for this lack of awareness, even among our most literate sections of the society ! As mentioned, Leeladhar Jagudi did raise his own personal case to cite how a simple matter as disaster relief compensation remained unsettled for want of adequate awareness of various successful channels, as the RTI route of seeking information. RTI discourse thus had indeed begun at the Palam Airport itself, and continued the next day in the day-long consulatations at the Manthan Auditorium.

A Decade of RTI

This writer had been very graciously approached by the In Charge Uttarakhand Information Commission, Prabhat Dabral, who had sought a formal permission to re-print a Handbook of Public Information Officers under the RTI Act, first in Englsih and later on popular demand translated in Hindi, both by Natraj Publishers.Prabhat Dabral has added his Introduction to this re-print, both in English as. This writer was a bit apprehensive about the outcome of this Consultation with Stake-holders, on many counts. First and foremost, by general perception the relations between the State Government and the State Information Commission, were arguably at this stage anything but very cordial. Two of its seniomost State Information Commissioners, Prabhat Dabral and Anil Sharma, about to complete their respective 5 years' term towards the end of October itself ; the last Selection Committee meeting resulting in without a result, neither filling a vacant post and without a consensus on the Chief Information Commissionre's post, the latter disagreement resulting in allegde refusal of the state government to grant pension to retiring State Information Commissioner, and so and so forth.

The Decade of RTI celebrations was planned in three sections, the Inugural Session with this writer making the Inagural Address followed by the addresses of two eminent Padm Awardees of the state, Leeladhar Jugudi and Awadkesh Kaushal, the celebrated PIL activist and redeemer of Mussoorie, once blighted by lime-stone querries. This writer shared his experience of a similar event, Five Years of RTI, celebrated in 2010 at the IIPA, new Delhi, where all eight South Asian countries praised India to skies when they mentioned how in India RTI has been a cause for celebration, even though India wages a relentless and seemingly un-ending war against abject Poverty, inexcusable Malnutriton among children and women, rampant Corruption, universal Mal-Governance, you just name a malady, and it is King Size in India ! Yet, it is India which has led the South Asian region in Transparency and making it succeed despite all the odds, named above. In South Asia India is head and shoulder above any country ! This had made, some five of CICs, including this writer, suddenly proud of what they have been able to achieve ! Our efforts were more than rewarded when delegates after delegates from Afghanistan, Pakistan to Sri Lanka qiizzed us about how we did it and we all shared our modest achievements, which suddenly appeared higely magnified, with the dismal background of the transparency records of immediate neighbours !

This sharing seemed to have its impact further five years down the line, and Manthan Aiditorium atmosphere suddenly appeared to shrugg its passsimistic fervor and speakers started warming up, opening up enouraged by this brighter note. Awadhesh Kaushal shraed his days with Aruna Rai, one of those rare civil servants, who braved every thing and showed that good work is no some one's monopoly alone; as she and her husband, Bunker Roy, demonstrated very tellingly.Bunker Roy is also well known to those who have spent time in concentrating on rural India, especially in Rajasthan.He particularly drew the attention of the problem faced by near illetarate women Pradhans, who now occupy at least 50 per cent of elected seats in our PRIs.As PIOs they are expected to respond to RTI related matters while the Panchayat papers are all handled by the Gram Vikas and Panchayat Adhikaris. This writer had also adjudged that no Pradhan, woman or man, need not be burdened by this responsibility, given the socio-economic conditions of our rural women and the severe limitations under which they presently operate. The case of their empowerment and training, bei ng taken up by RULEK, the organisation headed by Kaushal, was very well brought out. He also mentioned the PIL that has been brought out against a totally unjustifiable continution of privileges and perkas, including banglows and huge security staff, to the ex-Chief Ministers. On one hand we cry horse about the limited resouces available to the state and on the other hand we allow such an unjustifiable expenditure from public exchequer on public men who are no more in office. Here both the major parties are at fault and according to Kaushal deserve to be roundly condemned, particulatly at the hustings. Leeladhar Jugudi, spoke about Constitutionally compliant direction and NOT based on just Faith; he distinguished between Religion and Constitution, favouring the latter. He emphsized on the admirable skill of listening and alluded to the great Indian tradition of "Bahu-shrut" ( listening and watching, and rule of logic or law ).

Invaluable Insights & Free Sharing  

Forenoon session was simply enlivened by the addresses of State Inromation Commissioner Rajendra Kosthiyal who wished to know from the state representative as to how much budget has been spent on publicity for promotion of transparency, as required under section 26 of the RTI architecture; state of RTI activists and how arguably some of the activists are 'black-mailers' masquerading as activists, admirable efforts in bringing out Collections of GOs, CDs,a dn need to bring our High Court Orders;  State Commissioner Surendra Rawat poiting out how the Indian RTI is better than that of the USA and UK, as in the USA the Judiciary and Parliament, both are out of RTI jurisdiction, but not so in India, all three organs of the State, are covered by the RTI law. It was indeed an eye opener when State Commissioner Rawat chided the state machinery on how a retired Chief Engineer, after his retirement, had been made to run from pillar to post, and how after the second appeal the Info Commission delivered him the succour that should have come from the Government ! He cited cases where RTI delivered wher even the courts of law had failed. Commissioner Rawt belted out several shortcomings  e.g. section 4 compliance, highly objectionable feeble role played presently by the departmental First Appela Officers, passing routine orders, tantamounting to waste of time and effort, all round. Participants were enthralled by a no-holds-barred criticism of Commissioner Rawat of various shortcoming that he has found after joining the Info Commission. Indeed, no one expected him to come out this boldly, including this writer !

Prabhat Dabral, heading the Info Commissioner, rounded off the open discourse by admitting the the Public Information Officers ( the PIOs ) are the worst off. among all stake-holders who are involved in the RTI regime. Near total responsibility lies on the PIOs and it is they who are subjected to punishment, the only party so affected. He hailed them as the First Soldiers of the State Information Commission ! He batted for the empowerment of the PIOs, he went to the extent of exhorting them that they all should feel at home in the Info Commission ! State Commissioner Prabhat Dabral was of the firm opinion that during the past five years i.e. 2010 to 2015, RTI has weakened and the politicians and the executives have hatched a conspiracy to weaken it, only as they can. Out of 30 states according to him today in as many as 3 states there is no Info Commissioner; at the Centre for 3 long months there was no Chief Information Commissioner, coming home, in Utarakhand there had been no Chief Information Commissioner for the last six months ! As we gather to celebrate a Decade of RTI, the sad fact is that it is a headless- wonder, which is worst than a dead one ! Dabral pointed out that the celebration of RTI Decade could have been without this tinge of bitterness, he pointed out that as far he was concerned the "past five years of his life have been without a doubt the best years of his entire career" and woking here had been like particopating in a Yajna ( a pious ritual of sacrifices ) and feels that who is engaged in such an act need not visit any temples, after doing so !

Turning Point

This evocative appeal and self-admission became the turning point and the celebration took up the shape of a discussion that befits self-introspection, on the part of every one, a Forum where openness outshines 'one-upmanship'. Vinod Sharma, Director General, Information, countered by saying that he joined the Forum without being invited, as the Ifo Commission had extebnded invitation to the 'Public Information Officers' only and no senior officials, none from the government were invited. Vinod Sharma countered by informing that subsequent lowering of the stature of the PIOs, from earlier Addition Secretaries to the Section Officers or even Sameekasha Addikaris was not out of spite but after realizing the fcat that as PIOs the Section Officers and the senior officials could not be expected to be in attendance at the Info Commission, as there was an acute paucity of middle and senior officers. For many of us , who have been a part of the Info Commission, a new but realistic state ment of fact as during the past ten years it has been a constatnt refrain on the part of the activist that the lowering of the levels of the PIOs, is manifestation of the low esteem in which Info Commission or the RTI work that is helf by the Government. The hard fact, however, reamians that had the Info Commission insisted on the attendance of Secton Officers and Additional Secretaries of the new government the actual government work would indeed have suffered immenseley. The Info Commission and the activist must carry out a quick research into this clarification and they would admit that but for Vinod Sharma's clarification many among the participants would have continued with the adverse image of the state government on this count. At least this writer would like to place it on record that he himself ( even though he never took any notice of this change during his tenure in UIC, as he thought it as the privilege resting with the government ) would like to admit that this reality was never brought out so clearly and forcefully, before Vinod Sharma very boldly stated the stand of the state government. Full marks to Vinod Sharma batting for the state government and one could bet that he said so with all certainty and dignity at his command. He also cited the first GO of 18 July 2005, one of the most peioneering orders of any state government in entire India, and the silent work done during early days of RTI law in India; particularly the work completed during Secretary Kotia's days. This writer has also cited Secretary Kotia's most admiravble contributions to the RTI cause, in Uttarakhand. However, he allowed this remark by Commissioner Dabral when he pointed out that the publicity budget of the state government is thrice the size of our neighbours, Himachal Pradesh, and being a former member of the Fourth Estate, he knows that it is unlikely to bear the intended fruits, to by pass. Well, if the activists by passed Vinod Sharma's claims to state govt's early activism and good work in RTI, one guesses that he also had a similar right, to keep his own counsel. Scores, even.

Emergence of Uttarakhand RTI Forum

This writer shall never be able to live down the fact that despite many a discussion in the then Info Commission he could not convene a meeting of a Forum that was to be entitled the RTI FORUM of UTTARAKHAND, which was expected to be in the form of a Forum of Round Table where the representatives of ( i ) the Citizens via their organizations, ( ii ) The Info Commission and ( iii ) the representatives of the State Government/State assembly and Uttarakhand High Court ( the three organs of the State ) could meet in a most informal way, sharing what issues that they consider as worth discussing, allowing them an absolute freedom, to broach any issue which they felt was not envisaged under the RTI law or scheme of things. These issues from all three stake-holders could be listed up and discussed in an open atmosphere with the sinecre most intentions of being resolved via open discussion, under this Forum. This writer found the RTI celebration gradually slipping int this self-introspection mode, almost on the part of all, which need no further elaboration here, with the few examples already quoted.

The space allowed by this small piece prevents this writer going on with the subsequent sessions that found admissions of mistakes having been committed in a case where an engineer was found wrongly fined, with higherst pecuniary punishmnet of Rs 25,000, and he finding it a better option to pay up rather than go to the High Court, as there was no provison of a review or revision, under the present law. The doors of Compliants iunder the law, shut or not encouraged, and the Info Commission not exercsiing its autonomy of function or adopting procedures to adress such issues. Training of PIOs, victimisation of RTI activists, Grey Areas of RTI law, soft belly of RTI law ( role of First Appeal Officers ); principle of Natural Justice, genuine problems faced by the PIOs, attitudinal change, definition of 'public interest' , involvement of youth and students and the awarenes and use of RTI were issues that were raised in the subsequent sessions. Its indeed to the credit of all who participated in the Decadal assessment of RTI in Uttarakhand that all took part in it with a sense of responsibility and certainly a certain sense of achievement, ultimately a victory of the citizen. The day long free and fair discussion surpassed the expectatins of every one present, who had gone to it with a certain sense of apprehension, frankly expecting to be a show-down between the state and the Info Commission, at worst, and a joint appeal to both the major political parties to sink their differences, and without losing a day appoint the much awaited Chief Information Commissioner, without whom, no Info Commission can truly be called a Info Commission. It proved to be neither, there was no show of acrimony, but there was no sense of loss either, as no one moved a resolution that the Information Commission does not deserve to be a head-less wonder. 

Citizens of this state do deserve a far better treatment and they must not be taken for granted by any one, on either side of the fence. Let this piece rectify that omission and let this be treated as an appeal to all members of the Selection Committee, Messers Chief Minister, Leader of Opposition and the Third Member of the State Cabinet rank, not to lose another day, and select some one acceptable equally to all of them. Acceptable and also Qualified to head the Uttarakhand Information Commission, and let us not joinly trash one of the few excellent institutions that this new state has created since 2000. Let this be a Joint Political Gift to the Citizens on its 15th Anniversary !

Tail-piece: Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently admitted that RTI disclosures are nothing but an Agenda of Administrative Reform for the department that is the subject of such a disclosure ! The Handbook for PIOs, mentioned above, stated it in so many words, almost more than a decade ago !

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