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Thursday, April 26, 2007

8th October, 2005
Dawn, after a long wait
Tarun Vijay

After more than five decades of wait and continuous struggle of public interest societies and movements, finally the Right to Information act shall arrive on 12 th of this month. Though it derives it powers from the fundamental right of expression enshrined in the constitution, it was the Vajpayee govt. who took initiative to draft and introduce, what was know then as freedom of Information Act. Acting fast, it had the ball rolling in 1996 itself when Justice P.B.Sawant, chairman Press Council, prepared a draft bill and later the Institute of Rural Development, Hyderabad also prepared a bill in 1997. Both the bills initiated a national debate on the issue of Effective and Responsive Administration. The Govt. of India appointed a working group on January 2, 1997 under the chairmanship of Common Cause's H.D.Shourie. The group gave its report on 24th May 1997 contributing significantly to make the bill more effective. Besides, organisations like Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangthan, Peoples' Right to Information Movement continued their pressure and came with a lot of suggestions to have a bill created that would be able to change the socio-political profile at micro level in a big way. In fact the bill has been hailed as the single biggest step towards empowering the common citizen and an effective tool to check corruption at all levels.
While introducing the Freedom of Information Bill 2000 the Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee stated, the Government wants to share power with the humblest; it wants to empower the weakest. It is precisely because of this reason that the Right to Information has to be ensured for all. This act was named Freedom of Information act and was passed by the parliament on 4 th December 2002 and the President put his signatures on 6th January 2003. it took a long time to see that the appropriate rules are framed to make it effective at the all India level.
Meanwhile the NDA govt. fell and UPA's newly constituted National Advisory Board thought it prudent not to give credit for it to the previous govt. and in the name of 'adding more teeth' to the bill it got it 'revised and renamed' as Right to Information Bill 2005. One of the 'adding more teeth' acts of the UPA govt. has been to replace the Chief Justice of India from the appointment committee to the Central Information Commissioner being appointed under the act by the Prime Minister's nominee, which has invited criticism from various groups who have alleged that the committee has been made fully political now, with PM, Leader of the opposition and a nominee minister in it. Nevertheless, a good beginning has been made and without going into the partisan politics of the credit gathering, one must hail the bill as a decisive step towards ensuring peoples' empowerment and good governance.
But the moot question is how is it going to be used by the people. So far only a handful of NGOs, especially organizations with distinct and extreme ideological hues have been actively training their workers to make full use of the act. Media has become too politicised to give enough space to such a significant act for the democracy and is rather busy in covering Bihar and other kind of election politics. Given a chance, this Act may change the lives and the pattern of governance forever and help define a real swaraj of Gandhi's dreams. At every level and in public offices a Public information officer has been appointed with an appellate authority over him in case a citizen gets no satisfactory response at the PIO level. If the information is not provided within the stipulated time, a fine of Rs 250 per day (max 25 thousand) shall be levied on the erring officer. It's the easiest procedure and people should be educated about it thoroughly. For instance three steps to get information from any office are these-
1. Apply in writing or through electronic means in English or Hindi or in the official language of the area, to the PIO, specifying the particulars of the information sought for.
2. Reason for seeking information are not required to be given;
3. Pay fees as may be prescribed (if not belonging to the below poverty line category).
And in case you want to know the time limit to receive what you have requisitioned, the act provides that the information should reach you within

1. 30 days from the date of application
2. 48 hours for information concerning the life and liberty of a person
3. 5 days shall be added to the above response time, in case the application for information is given to Assistant Public Information Officer.
4. If the interests of a third party are involved then time limit will be 40 days (maximum period + time given to the party to make representation).
5. Failure to provide information within the specified period is a deemed refusal. And about the fee structure the rules say-
1. Application fees to be prescribed which must be reasonable.
2. If further fees are required, then the same must be intimated in writing with calculation details of how the figure was arrived at;
3. Applicant can seek review of the decision on fees charged by the PIO by applying to the appropriate Appellate Authority;
4. No fees will be charged from people living below the poverty line
Applicant must be provided information free of cost if the PIO fails to comply with the prescribed time limit.
The Act has a list of departments exempted from providing information, and thee include Raw, IB, Cabinet papers and other defence related matters unless some financial irregularities are suspected.
We have laws for everything, but the real problem lies in their use and implementation. For instance, every child is expected to attend school and all voters to vote. But the real scene presents a different picture altogether. Lets hope the citizens in the direction of ensuring good and a transparent governance shall use this Act. Ends

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