RTI unwelcome in Tamil Nadu, say people’s groups


Chennai : Meet Humauin Kabir, the man who has earned the sobriquet "habitual RTI user" has been warned by the Information Commissioner in Tamil Nadu not to keep filing petitions using the RTI Act.

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Kabir, from Aruppukottai in Virudhunagar district, about 800 km south of Chennai, has gained the government's displeasure because he asks uncomfortable questions under the Right to Information Act.

The municipality of Arupukottai says it has spent Rs.5 million in development work. Kabir wanted copies of the tender document and relevant papers but got no response. He then appealed to the state Information Commissioner.

The municipality, in its reply, told the commissioner that Kabir was asking "unnecessary questions not connected to him" and his queries "are affecting development work of the municipality severely, not allowing us to do our job".

On another occasion, Kabir asked the public information officer (PIO) – who is the sub-district level administrator – how a public water tank was filled. The official told him: "No post of PIO exists here."

Kabir also filed a petition asking for a status report on an overseas employment cheating case in Sivaganga, pending for seven years.

He is still to get his answers but Humauin Kabir is a marked man before Tamil Nadu's Information Commission.

"Is it a crime to seek information under RTI?" Kabir and other activists in Tamil Nadu are asking.

Can one person ask many questions under several RTI applications? This was another issue raised at a consultation on the working of the RTI Act in Tamil Nadu held Saturday.

Community groups, trade unions and NGOs from 20 districts participated and 120 people, among them Kabir, narrated their personal experiences with the RTI Act and the government.

"The meeting revealed problems at every level of implementation of the act," said the Right to Information Campaign, an umbrella group.

"In the more than one year of its existence, the commission found 96 cases where PIO had illegally denied information. Despite pompous pronouncements of Rs.25,000 penalties against errant PIOs, not one errant PIO has been fined till date," the organisation pointed out.

"In the absence of any time limit on adjudication of disputes, the three-member commission has more than a three-month backlog on even the most routine information requests," it said.

The Tamil Nadu Information Commission has no website. The state has not published its list of PIOs and assistant public information officers (APIOs) of government departments in local newspapers.

In many public authorities, finding the PIO or APIO itself is a problem. The act has not been officially translated into Tamil, nor are copies of complaints provided to petitioners.

The law provides for up to 10 Information Commissioners, including eminent citizens and academics. The state government has just appointed three retired bureaucrats as its commissioners.

"Many people, particularly from among working classes, Dalits and women, report harassment at the hands of the PIO when they go to file RTI applications," the Campaign said.

Both the PIOs and appellate authorities are "poor unfriendly" and RTI success stories are generally from NGOs, activists pointed out.

The consultation also concluded that much too often "PIOs deny information, through ridiculous uses of definitions of national interest".

A case in point was that of the deputy director of health services in Theni refusing to divulge data on sex-selective abortions, saying instead: "Many NGOs are misusing government data and, thereby, they cause panic among the public."

His letter denying the information invoked an exemption clause in the act to withhold data on abortions, because "it will prejudicially affect sovereignty and integrity of India"!

As part of a nation-wide RTI implementation exercise, the Madras High Court was asked how many official cars did judges have and in how many cases in court have judgments been reserved? The court sought immunity, saying high courts cannot fall under the RTI Act.

"If the government wants to be taken seriously about transparency, it should put its money where its mouth is and increase the budgetary allocation for implementing the act," the Campaign said.

It has recommended that two more Information Commissions be set up in the southern districts.