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Sunday , November 22 , 2009
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Comic questions

It was a query that eventually went to the bin. An “aggrieved” citizen filed a petition, invoking the Right to Information (RTI) Act. All that he wanted to know from the Prime Minister’s Office was the “specification of undergarments” that could be worn before the Indian Prime Minister.

Bizarre though that may seem, the Delhi resident had reason to be miffed. He had been arrested for stripping down to his briefs scribbled with anti-government slogans at a convention where the PM happened to be speaking.

But while the 2007 case was deftly negotiated by the Central Information Commission (CIC), it was perhaps only the beginning of a trend that would have officials tearing their hair in frustration in the months to come.

Four years after the RTI Act was ceremoniously passed as a tool to empower the common man and ensure governmental accountability, some people seem to have developed a tendency to use it in rather unconventional ways. Some queries are absurd, and a few plain funny.

In 2006, a citizen asked the government for a host of information on the Indian Railways, including names and details of its employees, telephone numbers, as well as information about numerous health centres run by the organisation. In 2008, a Delhi resident asked the Press Information Bureau to supply him with information regarding the annual income of all accredited freelance journalists in India.

Earlier this month, a citizen sought information from the Firozpur Cantonment Board on 48 counts, including the number of fans and tubelights fitted in residential quarters.

Or take this case, which actually happens to be sitting on the CIC’s table these days. Filed by a clerk who worked for a government-owned insurance firm and was recently dismissed from service, it seeks information related to his dismissal from the company. Sounds perfectly reasonable, that, until you’re told the applicant happens to be seeking information on a whopping 446 counts.

“Just look at this nonsense! Most of this is not even remotely connected with his dismissal,” rants the information commissioner handling the case, flipping angrily through the lengthy document. And it’s not an isolated example, says the officer. “Nearly 30 to 40 per cent of cases which come to us are completely frivolous. Not only are they frustrating to deal with, they also clog the information channel and make things difficult for genuine information seekers. If you ask me, it’s a stupid thing that is slowly transforming into a real menace,” says the officer, wishing to remain anonymous.

Even worse are those petitions which seem to be built on rather dubious premises. Some years ago, an applicant filed a petition wanting to know where question papers of the Aligarh Muslim University were printed, and where they went for checking. An aspiring (but eventually unsuccessful) lecturer wanted Delhi University (DU) to tell him in what ways his own answers at the selection interview were inferior to those of the other applicants.

DU is apparently a hot bed for RTI applications. In the early days of the law, A.K. Dubey, then registrar at DU, received as many as 30 petitions filed by students under the RTI Act daily, almost half of which, he adds, were totally baseless. “I felt it was being used more as a grievance redress mechanism, apart from being seen as a means to solve problems,” says Dubey.

Besides, there were times when people deliberately misused the law. “Students would file cases asking for duplicate marksheets under the Act, simply because they thought they could have it for a paltry Rs 10, and thus bypass the requisite marksheet fee of Rs 500.”

But as officials complain about such rampant misuse, others think less critically of the issue. “As long as the benefits of RTI far outweigh the pitfalls, I believe it’s okay,” says social activist and Magsaysay award winner Arvind Kejriwal, a force behind the RTI movement. “I agree that there will be a few aberrations here and there, but I doubt they amount to more than five per cent. To criticise the law would be like saying that it’s okay to dissolve Parliament just because politicians fight there,” he argues.

Kejriwal’s argument seems to hold water. A recent study conducted by Shekhar Singh, scholar and convener of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, indicates that since its implementation in 2005, India has seen more than 5 lakh cases filed under the RTI Act. Even if the CIC’s claim that 40 per cent of these cases are frivolous is true, it would mean that more than 3 lakh queries have been taken seriously.

Not everyone buys the CIC’s figures in the first place. “During our research, we found little evidence to suggest that there are such high numbers of frivolous petitions,” says Singh. “Besides, what do you consider frivolous,” he asks, citing an example where eight months ago a petition was filed to seek information on the travelling expense of judges. “To an outsider, that might seem apparently frivolous and aimed solely at harassing officials. But in truth, judges were flying from India to South Africa via the US, running up several lakh rupees of bills in air fare. Since the petition was filed, the costs have actually come down. Baseless or not, the petition has indeed worked,” he reasons.

There have indeed been several instances in the past when the RTI has proved to be a great intervention. Take, for example, the September ruling by the Delhi High Court, which said that Supreme Court judges were not immune from the ambit of the Act, and would have to make their assets public if asked. Or, for that matter, an earlier ruling by the CIC in an RTI case filed in Karnataka, which said that public servants would have to furnish a list of their private assets to the public if requested under the Act.

There are some who believe that information commissioners are still caught in a time warp, and are often reluctant to part with information. And by describing petitions as “frivolous,” attempts are being made to bypass some uncomfortable questions.

“What is frivolous to the government may not be frivolous to villagers who are exercising the RTI Act to demand answers from the government,” says social activist Aruna Roy. A long-time advocate of the RTI movement, Roy also points out that the CIC’s opinions are based solely on the cases which come to it, and not the cases which are dispensed with in the lower rungs of the information system. “It’s only the tip of the iceberg that they are looking at. To base an assumption merely on the few cases which come to the CIC would be an exaggeration,” she says.

Differences apart, most debaters seem to agree that the RTI Act, being a relatively new law, will take time to settle down in the country’s legal framework. “Give it 10 years, and I’m sure a balance will be struck,” says Dubey.

Meanwhile, experts agree that some public sensitisation regarding how to best exercise this law might have a positive effect in the long run. “I’m sure it would substantially reduce instances of the law being misused in future,” says Dubey, now with the Kerala government.

Till then, the irksome petitions will continue to be filed. Last heard, someone in Uttar Pradesh has been trying his best to seek information on a petrol pump. The petitioner wants to know its security arrangements for the night.

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