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RTI lessons for civic officials

Bidhannagar Municipality has woken up to the need to train its officials and elected representatives in the nuances of the Right to Information Act seven years after it was passed.

A day-long workshop was held on November 19 at Poura Bhavan where a teacher of the Administrative Training Institute in FC Block explained the act to councillors and civic officials and answered their queries. The institute is a nodal agency for the project ‘Strengthening, capacity building and awareness generation for effective implementation of the RTI Act’ under the department of personnel and training, government of India.

The initiative of organising the workshop was taken by municipality executive officer Malay Mukhopadhaya. “Councillors and staff members keep coming to me with queries on RTI. It is not possible for me to explain the Act to each of them individually. So I thought of organising a training programme for everyone,” said Mukhopadhaya.

The municipality has appointed an assistant engineer of the civic body’s public works department, Ronen Sengupta, as the public information officer (PIO) in July 2011. “In the past nine months, we have received 220 RTI queries. The subjects on which most RTI applications are coming are building plan, trade licence, hoarding and allotment of shops inside markets,” said Sengupta.

But he could not say how many queries were satisfactorily responded to. “Sometimes we did fail to provide a response to the applicant and had to appear for hearings at the state Information Commission at Bhabani Bhavan. But we were largely successful in providing the required information in most cases,” said Sengupta.

During the tenure of the Left Front-led civic board, Amol Sengupta, the then sanitary and food inspector of the municipality, had the additional charge of handling RTI cases.

Nandagopal Bhattacharya, who was a chairman-in-council member in the earlier board, recalls: “Sengupta was not given any training on RTI but he learnt on the job. Other officials well-versed in RTI used to help him.” He admitted that no initiative had been taken to train councillors and officials on the RTI Act but pointed out that few RTI applications used to be filed earlier. “Compared to the present volume of RTI cases being filed in the civic body, the number received during our tenure was insignificant.”

He warded off allegations of the earlier board being lax in dealing with RTI. “If the administration is transparent than people do not need to file RTI cases. A transparent civic body presents all details of its work to the public and there is nothing hidden,” said Bhattacharya.

Lawyer Soumyajit Raha, a resident of HA Block, says he is getting more and more clients seeking information under the RTI Act. “People seek legal help before filing RTI queries. Residents of Salt Lake are especially interested in information on empty plots — the character of the plot, whether it had been allotted or not, if allotted then why it was still lying vacant…. The second most popular subject is information on tender processes,” said Raha.

The FE Block Residents Association perhaps was the first to feel the need to educate people about the act. As early as December 2006, it had organised an interactive session on the topic, inviting speakers from the legal fraternity. Says block resident Digendra Kumar Sengupta, who had attended the event at the block community hall: “That year we had submitted a joint petition to the civic body seeking information on a number of topics but we never got a reply. That is what prompted us to educate ourselves about the new act.”

Lauding the civic administration for organising the RTI workshop, though belatedly, he urged the authorities to organise similar awareness-building programmes for residents as well.

Mukhopadhaya, the municipality executive officer, said the civic body was in no-position to organise RTI training programmes for residents. “We organised the workshop so that our officials can deal more efficiently with RTI cases. But the RTI Act does not direct civic bodies to conduct training programmes for citizens,” he signed off.

Time limits for providing response

30 days: From the date of receipt of application

35 days: If application is received by the assistant PIO

48 hours: If the information sought concerns the life and liberty of a person

40 days: If third party is involved

45 days: Information pertaining to violation of human rights. Approval of Information Commission is required for the release of such information.

The time period between the date of intimation of the cost and the date when you pay is excluded from the time limit.

Application can be submitted on plain paper in English, Hindi or local language, addressed to the PIO. You are not required to give any reason for seeking the information.

Have you ever used the RTI Act to seek information from a government body? Write to saltlake@abpmail.com