When it comes to transparency and providing information to citizens, Tamil Nadu has a rich legacy. The southern state was a front runner in passing the Right To Information (RTI) act in 1997, eight years before the Centre passed it in 2005.
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The Act proved to be a game changer. To cite just one example, an RTI activist exposed a scam by the Tamil Nadu Housing Department (TNHB) in December 2010, where selected government servants were provided with houses, under the Government Discretion Quota. Through the RTI reply and further investigation, it was learnt that undeserving people were categorised as social workers and were allotted houses at lower-than-market rates. The uproar over this act of corruption was enough for the state government to terminate the scheme, within one month.
This and several other instances proved that the law had indeed had a significant impact on curbing institutionalised corruption, which is all the more reason why the current reality should worry us as citizens.
Staring at a grim future
The dynamics of RTI is vastly changed now. Monosyllabic answers, intentional procrastination and strategic replies are the norm of the day. Transparency is not on the cards of the government anymore.
The Public Information Officers (PIO), who are accountable for sending a reply within 30 days of an RTI application being filed, rarely meet this timeline.
An RTI activist, V Gopalakrishnan, filed an RTI application to Chennai Corporation, requesting a measurement book, in connection with the canal work on 65 feet road in MGR Nagar (photo above). The measurement book, usually, has the plan details approved by the concerned assistant engineer. In this case, the book would specify the canal distance and width.
“The canal work that was in finishing stages in 2015 December is yet to be completed, due to which our locality gets flooded even after a small shower. I want to know if the work happened as per the orders mentioned in the measurement book,” said Gopalakrishnan.
“We are searching,” goes the reply from the zonal office.
In another instance, Gopalakrishnan sought the list of beneficiaries of old age and widower pension schemes from the Namakkal collectorate. The PIO had asked the applicant to visit the office, to collect the information. “The reason they gave was that the list is confidential since it has Aadhaar numbers of the beneficiaries. In the world of technology, how difficult is it to blur a section using Photoshop? It is unfortunate that the officer wants me to travel 390 kilometres for this information,” the activist sighed. He has now appealed to the appellate authority about the possibility of using technology and sending him a quick reply.
How the various departments fare
Analysing the versions of seven RTI petitioners, one can deduce some basic facts regarding the response to RTI applications heard in the state:
- Revenue department receives the highest number of RTI applications regarding income and community certificates and land documents. The department is known for its poor response rate and apparently comes back only after the first appeal has been sent.
- The district collector’s office and local bodies follow next in terms of the number of RTI applications received. Activists say that they usually don’t respond within the stipulated period of 30 days.
- In contrast, the state election commission, due to less burden of work responds to RTIs within 15 days.
- Southern Railways, which also receives a fair number of RTI applications, asks applicants to visit the concerned office to access information. Applicants, if they do visit, are made to run from pillar to post.
Decoding PIO strategies
There are numerous instances shared by RTI activists in the city that reveal how the basic purpose of the Act is defeated by the responses, or lack of the same, from the Public Information Officer or PIO.
Ramiah Ariya, filed an application to know specifics pertaining to the work orders of Kudimaramathu project, which involves cleaning of water bodies with the help of citizens. Ramiah is in a fix, because if it is filed in a tabular form, so as to compile the status from all the districts, the PIOs deny furnishing the information, stating that they are not bound to respond to tables.
“If I ask for work orders of all the water bodies, they decline to respond, stating that the information is voluminous. The only way is to file for every lake separately, if you are determined to know the details,” says Ramiah, who has filed hundreds of applications.
Again, Regional Transport Offices in Chennai have not responded to tabular columns filed by Ramiah, seeking information about the number of citizens attending the learner license test and the pass percentage. “If the information is not available in a single document, they deny the application. How long would it take to access the soft copies?” he questioned.
In a recent application filed by Mahesh Kumar, Secretary of Satta Panchayat Iyakkam, the PIO has failed to respond with the information sought. “ I had asked Anna University for the data of government school children who joined government engineering colleges in the past eight years, after entrance exams were cancelled in the state in 2010. Despite being the nodal body, they said they do not have the data,” said Mahesh Kumar
Senior government officers who multitask as PIOs do not prioritise the Right to Information act. “Our responsibilities are wide. There is no time to send information to citizens. Tamil Nadu has more than one lakh PIOs, who also have other important responsibilities,” said a PIO from Southern Railways, seeking anonymity.
Meanwhile, there is also a conflict of interest in the procedure. “The officer who sends the information would not maintain transparency, if the questions pose any kind of threat to the reputation or track record of his department. They try their best to push it back,” notes Mahesh.
As the outrage over access to information gets more intense with each passing day, it is sad to see a powerful tool like the RTI being sidelined in Tamil Nadu. “Data in the state is non transparent, leading people to suspect the data which is available in the public domain,” feels Ramiah.