Amidst Lockdown, Pune Activists Zoom in on RTI Activism, Literally!
With 28 out of the 29 state information commissions (SCICs) across the country hardly working and with most public information officers (PIOs) and first appellate authorities (FAAs) too busy with COVID-19 duties, the use of Right to Information (RTI) act has almost come to a standstill.
 
The city of Pune, which pioneered the use of Section 4 of the RTI Act way back in 2005, which gives the right to a citizen to inspect files in any government office at a time when activists across states were reluctant to do so; has once again dropped conventional norms to pick up the challenge by campaigning through Zoom online meetings – the new normal. 
 
On Sunday, the Sajag Nagarik Manch, which works for RTI, organised a Zoom meeting for the public on Pune’s current civic budget, which is yet to be passed by the general body of the Pune municipal corporation (PMC) due to the lock-down. With the COVID-19 pandemic changing the circumstances and priorities of the civic body, the PMC’s budget proposal stands as null and void on various counts.
 
To dissect and analyse this issue threadbare, Vivek Velankar and Jugal Rathi, founders of the Sajag Nagarik Manch that pursues issues through RTI, invited former municipal commissioner Mahesh Zagade, for the e-talk. His conclusion that, under the pandemic environment, it is pertinent that the civic budget be revised and only ``the most essential’’ works, not even ``essential’’ works, should be made the top priority. 
 
The PMC has abided by the Section 4 disclosures under the RTI Act, by putting up the entire budget proposal on its website www.pmc.gov.in and citizens should go through it and submit suggestions for the amendment of the budget. Over and above that, he states that the mayor and the standing committee should mull over the budget once again and make the desired changes, as legally, budget expenditure for a particular item (which may be redundant in today’s circumstances) should be channelized for a more important item like public health.
 
This spurred Sajag Nagarik Manch to steer a campaign to put pressure on the corporators to change the budget. For this, the Manch will form an umbrella of 20-25 social organisations across Pune and involve important opinion makers of the city, to study the budget and make suggestions.
 
For example, Mr Zagade mentioned that ever since the swine flu hit Pune way back in 2009, the PMC, in every annual budget thereafter has proposed expenditure for masks, ventilators for the intensive care units (ICU) and so on. In the current budget, which is of Rs7,300 crore, Mr Zagade stated that,  “Rs9 lakh only have been allocated for emergency equipment for an epidemic while Rs1.5 crore have been allocated for loud speakers for public functions! It’s time that the PMC pulls up its socks and re-does a realistic budget in the current and post- COVID-19 situation. This should be done primarily by the mayor and the standing committee members, with inputs from corporators from every ward and citizens who could collectively come together. The latter must put pressure on the PMC and achieve this."
 
Mr Zagade further added that expenditure for insignificant causes like funding some arts committee; putting up more mobile towers, cleaning up tekdis, funding for Olympics and marathons (both are irrelevant now), several renovation works and so on, should be deleted from the budget and channelised for "most essential" use. 
 
rm He reiterated that a civic budget is not 'locked' but can be re-opened and money diverted for the most important priority today which is public health. Moreover he said, the implementation of the Epidemic Act and Disaster Management Act enforced to combat COVID-19 which has come into force for all the states and Union territories provides the power to make changes in the civic budget. This is because the pandemic is a catastrophic event and directly relates to providing quality public health and prioritises it over and above any other public expenditure.
 
However, as per Mr Velankar, the PMC has already begun spending for frivolous stuff like re-furbishing traffic islands, which he says can wait as Pune is in the red zone of COVID-19 of the pandemic.
 
In another attempt to continue the RTI campaign, Vijay Kumbhar, founder of the Surajya Sangharsh Samiti, which has successfully organised the RTI Katta in one of Pune’s public gardens, namely Chittarajan Vatika, for over 100 weeks, went online last Thursday, on Zoom.
 
 
While that meeting comprised a small group of RTI activists, former CIC and noted RTI activist, Shailesh Gandhi, proposed writing to the CIC to conduct online meetings to clear thousands of pending second appeals. The coming Thursday, the e-RTI Katta is open to public. The ID and password for Zoom will be posted by Mr Kumbhar on social media.
 
Unarguably, Pune has always led reforms and this one in RTI is indeed commendable. Like Pune, citizens across cities and towns must campaign for change in the civic budget to address post-COVID-19 issues.
 
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)
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    COVID-19 Puts a Brake on RTI Act; All 28 State Information Commissions in Limbo
    The COVID-19 pandemic has put a brake on the Right To Information Act (RTI) not only because the postal department is paralysed but also because public authorities are focusing their energies on managing the coronavirus pandemic and, more importantly, because all but one of the 29 state information commissions (SICs) have closed their offices, scheduled to open only after the lock-down.
     
    With the approach that transparency and accountability are indispensable during public health emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) recently conducted a rapid telephonic survey by calling up the 28 state information commissions (SICs) and the one Central information commission (CIC). 
     
    The findings reveal that all but one of the 29 information commissions established under The Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act) have shut down, in the first and second phases of the national lock-down.  It also revealed that, while the Delhi-based CIC resumed hearings in appeal and complaint cases from 20 April 2020, its counterparts in the states are not yet functional.  
     
    Shikha Chhibbar, programme officer with CHRI's access to information programme, made phone calls over five days, to all SICs across the country to find out whether they are functioning or not.  The report states:  “The CIC started working in right earnest during the first phase of the lock-down to resume case hearings on 20 April, 2020 onwards. Apart from internal consultations, it also held two rounds of external consultations with civil society advocates and former chief information commissioners about its plans for resuming work. The cause list displayed for the week beginning 20th April shows that the CIC scheduled hearings through audio conferencing in at least 337 cases. At close of business on 25th April (Friday), decisions in 279 cases had been uploaded on its website.” 
     
    Last week Moneylife had carried an article on this issue. (Read: CIC Calls for Contact Updates of Appellants To Conduct Online Hearings under RTI )
     
    As for the SICs, none of them is functioning and so the pendencies, which are large in most SICs, have been frozen until the lock-down ends.
     
    With most SICs having ineffective RTI online application facilities, the picture of transparency under the RTI Act is even grimmer. Elaborates Venkatesh Nayak, RTI researcher and programme head, access to information programme, “the lock-down has effectively prevented citizens from filing RTI applications by post. Post offices are refusing to accept mail that requires transportation outside the same village, town or city. Few governments have put in place online RTI submission facilities like those at the Centre, and in Maharashtra and Delhi.
     
    "Media reports and ad hoc helpline numbers are unable to effectively substitute the regime of transparency and accountability established by the RTI Act in which citizens play an active role as seekers of information. The COVID lock-down has turned most of the citizenry into passive consumers of information that the administration releases on a 'need to know' basis."
     
    The report states that there are various issues on which transparency is mandatory during this grave pandemic crisis. Some of them on which RTI should be filed are:
     
    The issue of lakhs of migrant workers being either in government or privately run camps due to quarantine restrictions or because borders between states are closed for passenger traffic. There is very little data in the public domain about their numbers and well being across the 718 districts in the country.
     
    State-wise data about the movement of food grains and other essentials is available in press releases put out by the concerned departments, but there is no transparency about distribution data at the district and fair price shop level. 
     
    Corona testing equipment purchased by the government is turning out to be faulty. There is hardly any detail in the public domain about the decision making process or who has been held accountable for approving purchase of poor standard testing kits. A district-wise consolidated list of COVID-19 treatment facilities is also not available for the whole country. 
     
    Scores of healthcare workers are contracting COVID-19 infection amidst complaints of inadequate distribution or poor quality of personal protective equipment (PPE). Front line health care professionals are losing their lives one by one trying to save other patients. There is no information about who is being held accountable for not providing adequate protection to the country's primary line of defence against the virus. 
     
    Police highhandedness in enforcing restrictions on people's movement is surfacing every day. There is no information about action taken against security personnel who beat up people, particularly the poor who are out in search of food and drinking water. Nor is there follow-up information about what the police do after arresting miscreants for attacking frontline healthcare workers. 
     
    However, the COVID-19 pandemic has come as a good excuse for the government to seal the open door policy under the RTI Act. As Pune-based RTI activist, Vivek Velankar states, ``This is the time to open tenders and I would like to use RTI to know who is getting the contracts for various works in the city. In this time of the pandemic, last week the standing committee of the Pune Municipal Corporation approved beautification of traffic islands of Pune. Is this is a priority? But even if I ask under RTI, it would be seen as insensitive. We have been forced to wait until the lock-down is lifted as many questions need to be asked on governance during Covid times.’’
     
    The Office Status of Various SICS (as per the CHRI Report)
     
    Only the SICs of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand were open during the first phase of the lock-down, with barely one or two staffers each. A security guard answered the phone in Haryana saying that none of the staff was present during the lock-down. The Uttarakhand SIC was manned by a couple of junior level staffers who were unsure about when the SIC would resume work.
     
    During the second phase of the lock-down (which is in force at the time of writing this report) nobody picked up the phone at the Uttarakhand SIC. An individual present at the office of the Haryana SIC, who did not identify himself, stated that hearings might be resumed after the lock-down ends. 
     
    During the second phase of the lock-down my colleague was able to get through to the SICs in Andhra PradeshGoa, Telangana and Tamil Nadu as well. The Goa SIC had started working with a couple of junior level staffers who were unsure when hearings would resume. They said, none of the ICs nor the senior staff were attending office. Only one staffer was attending office in each of the SICs of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana and Tamil Nadu. All of them said they were unsure of the exact date on which the hearings would resume in their respective SICs.  Goa and Telangana SICs were being manned by a lady staffer each.
     
    During the second phase of the lock-down, we learnt from a senior woman journalist of her experience with the Assam SIC. The SIC was open but the lone staffer refused to accept the second appeal which she wanted to submit. He is said to have told her that there was no certainty when the SIC would resume work. However when my colleague called up the Assam SIC office during working hours of both phases of the lock-down, nobody picked up the phone. 
     
    The Odisha SIC was also closed and none of its landline numbers was functional. My colleague tried their Helpline No. advertised on their website. Nobody responded to the call.
     
    In the Sikkim SIC, nobody answered the calls made to their landline numbers. When my colleague called up the mobile number of the secretary displayed on the website, a gentleman stated that he was no longer working in that position. Next my colleague called up the mobile no. of the state chief information commissioner (SCIC) shown on the website. The individual who answered the call stated that he was not the SCIC of Sikkim! He also indicated that the SIC would not resume work until the lock-down is lifted in May. The SIC's website lists the mobile telephone nos. of 32 individuals working there, starting with the SCIC down to the safai karamchari (janitor).
     
    Nobody responded to the calls made to the landline numbers of other SICs during both phases of the lock-down. 
     
    Five SICs, namely, those of Assam, Bihar, Goa, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh are headless. the state chief information commissioner's post remains vacant for the past several months in these bodies.  
     
    The SICs of Bihar and Madhya Pradesh do not have functional websites either. They could not be located through any internet browser. The website of the SIC of Nagaland was functional until recently. However, it has become inactive during the lock-down period. 
     
    (Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)

     

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    CIC Calls for Contact Updates of Appellants To Conduct Online Hearings under RTI
    On Wednesday, the central information commission (CIC) issued a circular requesting second appeal appellants and complainants to send to it, their updated email addresses and mobile numbers in order to be able to contact them for informing them of the date of hearing to be conducted online, either by audio or video communication. 
     
    This is more than welcome, as over 36,000 second appeals are pending with the CIC headquartered at Delhi and the national lock-down due to the COVID-19 pandemic would have added to this pendency. An earlier circular dated 24 March 2020 had almost implied that the CIC would not function.  It had stated that:  “the office of the Central Information Commission shall remain closed for a period of 21 days with effect from 25.03.2020. All cases scheduled for hearing are deferred for this period. In case of any matter of urgency, deputy registrar of the registry be contacted telephonically. Hearing of such a matter would be through audio conference.’’
     
    However, in a turnaround, the circular dated 22 April 2020, states: “Updation of e-mail id and mobile number in the second appeals/ complaints for conducting hearings through audio/video conference. Due to COVID-19, applicants are requested to provide the e-mail id and mobile number in the second appeals/complaints for conducting hearings through audio/video conference.’’
     
    The details of the updated contacts should be sent by the applicant with his or her file number and applicant name to: [email protected]. For any further assistance, the applicant can call Anil K Gehlot, joint secretary, CIC on 011- 26183053.
     
    The format should be as follows:
     
    File Number:
    Diary number:
    Public Authority:
    Applicant Name:
    Email-id:
    Mobile Number:
     
    Besides, you may contact any of the deputy registrars as they fix the dates of CIC hearings. The circular has listed their names and phone numbers which area follows: 
    Central Information Commission Contact numbers of Deputy Registrars. 
     
    1. KL Das, DR to Bimal Julka (Chief Information Commissioner) – 9968091423;  
     
    2. RP Grover, DR to Yashvardhan Kumar Sinha (Information Commissioner)– 9818463820;  
     
    3. HP Sen, DR to Divya Prakash Sinha (Information Commissioner)– 7065349476; 
     
    4. AK Assija, DR to Ms Vanaja N Sarna (Information Commissioner)– 9990725966; 
     
    5. SC Sharma, DR to Neeraj Kumar Gupta (Information Commissioner)- 9910172208; 
     
    6. RS Murthy, DR to Suresh Chandra (Information Commissioner)– 9560177655;  
     
    7. Baljit Singh, DR to Dr Amita Pandove (Information Commissioner)– 8974004151 and
     
    8. KA Talwar, DR to (CR-1) – 8130895332
     
    Last week, on 15th April, the CIC had conducted around 18 Zoom video-conference hearings wherein the appellant, the public authority representative and the CIC were present. However, just a day later, on 16th April, after the cyber coordination centre (CyCord), under the Union ministry of home affairs (MHA), issued a directive that,  “the platform is not for use by government officers/officials for official purposes’’, the CIC has begun looking for other options, the safest being audio conference hearings. Until then, the conventional video conferencing facility is being used though this means that the parties would have to physically go to the studio. Typically, the CIC letter for the hearing date mentions this. (this was for a hearing today on 23rd April 2020):
     
     Venue for the Appellant/Complainant NIC Studio: CIC, NIC Lucknow, E-Floor Yojna Bhawan, 9-Sarojni Naidu Marge, Yojana Bhawan, Lucknow - Pin - 226001, IP Phone - 47021 ,47022 (Contact officer: Diwan Singh, Technical Director. Contact No: 9839670752 / 0522-2298822/ 0522-2298823)
     
    Venue for CPIO 1 Venue: Room No. 302, Central Information Commission, Baba Gang Nath Marg, Munirka, New Delhi - 110067 3 / 4 Venue for CPIO 2 NIC Studio : N.I.C. Video Conferencing Studio, District Centre, Near D.M. Meeting Hall, Ground Floor, Collectorate, Agra-282010 (Uttar Pradesh) (Contact officer : Vishnu Prasad Gautam (Scientist-C)Contact No. : 0562-2261511) 
     
    Venue for CPIO 2 Venue for CPIO 3 NIC Studio: CIC, NIC Lucknow, E-Floor Yojna Bhawan, 9-Sarojni Naidu Marge, Yojana Bhawan, Lucknow - Pin - 226001, IP Phone - 47021 ,47022 (Contact officer : Diwan Singh, Technical Director Contact No. : 9839670752 / 0522-2298822/ 0522-2298823)
     
    However, all is not hunky dory and to the benefit of the RTI applicants. States Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd) who is communicating with the CIC to make the video/audio second hearings more transparent, rues that, “It appears that when any applicant comes for attending 'online hearings' - she/he is unaware of the submission made by respondent CPIOs. Hence, she /he is unable to put up arguments in response to what the CPIO has submitted. I propose that Commission implement my above proposal that will bring all parties on same page.”
     
    (Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)
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