“The Chhattisgarh Legislative Assembly has decided to charge Rs.500 as application fee to acquire information on the secretariat of the Vidhan Sabha under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. This is 50 times more than the application fee of Rs.10 that is prescribed or charged in various government departments. While this move has been chastised by most RTI activists all over the country, calling it so much as ‘obtuse’ and ‘uncalled for’, the Legislative Assembly defends it by that the assembly already functions as information dissemination institution whenever it remains in sessions. It is thus required to discourage those who just file applications with ulterior motive.”
Source: Hindustan Times
Video Link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9Ej59gTz_Lw
This could be a wake-up clarion call for all run-of-the-mill stargazers. For if you wake up in the morning seeing the world through your rose-coloured glasses, you might unfortunately need to check the number of coins jingling in your pocket, or the crispy green rustling in your piggy bank, before you assume that the vision in your head can change the world. Yes, the world just got pricier. And this time it’s not the usual price rise in petrol that could be bothering your engines, it is the afore mentioned move by the Chhattisgarh Legislative Assembly to increase the price for information sought regarding the Assembly itself from Rs. 10 ( that is the uniform price across all the state departments across the country) to Rs. 500 . This unpropitious “50 times rise in prices” came as a shock not only to the under-privileged information seeking lot, that is now almost debarred from questioning any ad hoc government decisions, only because they are a little behind the eight ball financially, but also to the RTI activists across the country, who see this as a move out of desperation to curtail the power of the RTI.
This outrightly hasty, and seemingly unthoughtful decision also goes on to add that a copy of documents provided(for an application concerning the assembly decisions) will also cost more, setting the citizens back by Rs.15 , instead of Rs.2 that is charged elsewhere in the country. Shailesh Gandhi, the Central Information Commissioner of India, is proving to be the GAME CHANGER here. With his firm stand against this decision, Gandhi said point blank, in an interview to RTINation “The law talks of a reasonable fee. Given the fact that deciding the fee comes completely under the purview of the concerned authority( the Chhattisgarh State Assembly here),this decision is by no means out of the basic legal framework of the RTI, yet it is required on a moral basis to have a decent fee, and Rs.500 or Rs.15 per page is by no means reasonable.”
While the Chhattisgarh Assembly justifies this much sabotaged move saying that this shall allow them to consider an applicant’s intent before giving information under RTI , also adding that it might even refuse the application if it is convinced it has been made with a mendacious intent, this explanation really seems counterfeit. When the concerned authorities say that this is to do away with the frivolous and senseless applications that eat up the time and energy of the PIO, doesn’t it seem fair to ask if this is the only way they could possibly evade such applications, when it seems more like a move against the genuine applicants, those oppugnants that really ring the bells for the blissfully ignorant self-sufficient policy makers?
There are two strong observations in this regard. Numero Uno, questioning the reason for filing the RTI goes against the law, since the law makes it amply clear that any applicant shall never have to reason out with anyone as to why he wants that particular information. Even if we assume that reasoning out or considering the intent could be a way to deal with frivolous applications, then, doesn’t that eat up most of the time and energy of the government machinery too? Second, and perhaps more important observation, is that if frivolous applications really bother the system so much, why don’t the government departments consider putting up all the sought after and relevant information on their official websites, or make it public through some official procedure? If the department is really so frustrated answering all the senseless questions that it’s asked, while helplessly vowing by its honesty, then why doesn’t it pro-actively facilitate the disclosure of as much information as possible, so that the need to ask itself stands ousted? The actual reason, that the Legislative Assembly is so smartly trying to ensconce in a flower bed, could be drastically different from the one that is has been clamouring over the past few days. Neatly stated, in Shailesh Gandhi’s words, “The hike in fee doesn’t seem to be targeted at frivolous applications at all. It is basically a decision taken out of arrogance and anger, the urge to hide things when you are forced to reveal too much. And in a rush of anger , you tend to make mistakes."
Despite the disastrous consequences that might ensue if this decision takes a serious shape, this decision has succeeded in finding some strong abiders. Their point remains that the Below Poverty Line people, who do not need to pay anything at all for filing an application, do not fall among the affected at all, and thus, a large part of the junta wouldn’t really care about the price so much since money is not a major issue when you are Above Poverty Line. What they have very conveniently overlooked is the fact that an ordinary middle class Indian, who works day and night to earn so much as 7000 a month, doesn’t have the luxury of either being called a BPL that opens all doors of seeking information for him, or the luxury of setting aside Rs. 500 a month just for an RTI application. Where do such people fall? Moreover, they say the fee hike doesn’t affect the BPL, well, it very much does, when they need to get a BPL card, which in our system, is procured only after your pocket sheds some of its weight. That is when the RTI comes in handy, and IRONICALLY, they still say, the BPL don’t have to bother about the price hike.
As Shailesh Gandhi says, “Bad practices get copied easily, and no sooner that other states follow suit, the RTI shall lose all its effectiveness and power, and become a lifeless piece of paper, a dummy of no pragmatic value.” Gandhi calculates, “Let us assume there are 1 crore applications filed across the country( state and central combined). Normally , the average time taken to dispose an RTI application by a PIO, if he does his job properly is 2 hours. So we are talking about 2 crore working hours in a year. Now given 6 working hours a day, and 200 working days a year, we need about 16000 full time employees working for RTI’s in a year. This is a really negligible percentage of over 40 lakh employees in central govt. and 80 lakh in state govt.” This calculation brings to naught all the arguments of the Assembly , thereby giving an uncanny feeling that the problem of govt. departments being understaffed is just an eyewash that the Assembly is giving us.
With criticism pouring in from most corners of the country, letters being shot to the CM of Chhattisgarh in this regard, Shailesh Gandhi is positive that this move shall be withdrawn. Dismally, however comforting this might seem, the bigger issue at hand is particularly unsettling. That is, the issue of perennial friction that goes on between the government and the RTI activists. When the government unflinchingly vows that it’s a government OF, FOR and BY the people, why then, does it obfuscate us of its real motives, by trying to dilute the RTI act? The trust-warping power of politicians is changing the geometry of the world of democratic politics and the tapestry of information that we live with.
“The bureaucracy succeeds by tiring us, hoping that we will give up. Often we do. But now it is time people stood up for their rights.”
Manish Sisodia , RTI Activist.
It’s about time we stand up against the political leaders who continue to drown us in the ablepsia of the past. Rise over the unknowing, dress down the decisions that snatch your power, believe, become. Act as if what you do makes a difference. It does.