Saturday, 25 August 2007

Bihar State Information Commission – One year after

Perhaps the citizens of Bihar are, in some respect, more aware about Right To Information (RTI) Act than the Public Information Officers (PIOs) and the State Information Commissioners. Sounds astonishing nevertheless seems to be true, at least in the case of Bihar.

Dr Prabhakar Sinha, a professor in B R A Bihar University, Muzaffarpur asked for information that was20 years old. Upon this one of the commissioners expressed his helplessness. However, the Act does not mention that the RTI can not provide 20 years old information.

Bihar State Information Commission completed its one year on August 25, 2007. It was formed as an independent organ. However, the experiences of the applicants say something else. Experts complain that not a single act of the Commission shows that it is unprejudiced. From the very formation of the Commission to the hearing of the cases it often took stand in the favour of the government officials than the applicants.

Article 15 (5) states that the State Information Commissioner shall be persons of eminence in public life with wide knowledge and experience in law, science and technology, social service, management, journalism, mass media or administration and governance. However, Bihar Information Commission has three members, one Patna high court judge as chief Information Commissioner and the other two are IAS officers. It is said that the commissioners having administrative background often defend PIOs and do not impose penalty as punishment on them.

According to the official site of Bihar State Information Commission, the Commission has received1600 cases till August 20, 2007 out of which 315 cases are yet to be disposed of. The first appeal was made on November 26, 2006 that is exactly three months and one day after the formation of the Commission.

In the press conference called up by RTI Campaign Bihar Gorelal Manishi, RTI activist, said that functioning of the Commission was not upto the expectation of people. He further said that one of the commissioners had yelled at him once. According to him Commission is not public friendly. Activist like Sarfaraz often assist people in the Commission's court. He noticed that commissioners with administrative background are rude to common people.

According to the RTI Act Information Commissions alone have the power to recommend disciplinary action and impose monetary penalties of Rs 250 per day and the total amount shall not exceed Rs 25,000 if officials are found to provide incorrect, incomplete or misleading or distorted information which was subject of the request or if they obstructed in any manner in furnishing the information. However, in one year the number of those fined is almost negligible.

In one of the cases the Commission directed a BPL applicant to pay a sum of Rs 45,000 for the information that he asked for. This notwithstanding, Article 7(5) which clearly states that applicants who are below the poverty line do not have to pay any fee under RTI Act. This shows lack of awareness about the Act in the Commission, the activists say.

The Commission has overlooked these cases and are often accused of adopting a laid-back approach. They have imposed fine on PIOs but not more than Rs 2,000and Rs 5,000.When the case gets prolonged poor people have to undergo a lot of physical and mental harassment and financial crunch as well. The activists felt that Commission must order the guilty PIOs of related department to pay them compensation about which there is mention in the Act. Not a single such example can be cited in this regard in the last one year.
Thus the record of one year suggests that the Commission has a long way to go.

The journey of the RTI Campaign, Bihar

The concept of this campaign was made in November – December, 2006.Few people who had already worked on this subject met and decided that we should do something to bring down the RTI on earth in Bihar which was still not functioning efficiently and judiciously for the people of Bihar. They decided t pressurize government to create such a machinery which is hospitable for exercising RTI by general public.

In this context, it’ll be correct to mention that RTI had been implemented on 12th October, 2005 in all over India including Bihar. But even on 12th October, 2006 when we were discussing on the issue s of our campaign, government has done nothing except constituting an information commission and posting of information commissioners. This was a serious irresponsible attitude. The answer to this was possible only with organised people’s effort. Although, three PILs over the issue had already been filed in high court of Patna, but even in a year no solid step had been taken. High court asked questions with government and government shrugged its shoulder’s over the issue.

Hence we decided that unless, we do not take the issue to the public, it will be of no use. Therefore, we held a small but systemized meeting in the second week of December. We decided to call on people from all over the state and would ask them to spread the message of RTI to far flung areas. Therefore, on 19th December, a large meeting was held in Patna in which a no. of social activists, students, representatives of women’s organisation, media people participated. As a special guest, Ramon Magasaysay award-winner Mr Sandeep Pandey was present. He narrated the experience of UP and other parts of India.

We democratically decided to organise an awareness camp from 5th February – 15th February, 2007. This will be put simultaneously in all the districts of Bihar. And from there our campaign would be commenced. Thereafter, we held 50-60 small and large meetings to decide smallest and biggest steps to run and monitor our campaign smoothly.

We prepared our budget for this campaign. We started to work according to our budget. We chalked out a detailed plan in which main points were as follows –
link with Media
Continuous communication with districts volunteers.
To organise workshops in which districts volunteers were to be trained and programmes had to be made.
To make contacts with youths and students organisation.
To meet with Information Commission.
To collect materials (print/electronic) as much as possible.
To print all the materials collected on RTI
to raise funds for the campaign

Beside these some small decisions were made which were of our immediate need. We contacted media and requested them to give space to all the news relates to RTI. We also requested them to print handbills and application forms to be distributed among general public all over the state. Some prominent newspapers agreed to help us.

We regularly kept communication with friends of districts via post and telephones. When it was needed, we organized workshops and meetings in the districts. These meetings strengthened their efforts and raised their confidence. The ideas related to RTI also got improved. As far as matter of workshops is concerned, we could reach only to 30 districts instead of 37 districts because of lack of resources. What will be the shape and nature of the 10 days camps thus we decided and communicated to all the friends of these 30 districts.

After long discussions and debates we finalized the minute details of the camp like – where it will be situated, who will be present their, how they will treat the general public, what will be the procedure of documentation and what will be process of follow-up. All these concepts were communicated to the friends in the districts. We talked to district coordinators and those districts which needed our team visited there held meetings, like – madhubani, motihari, nalanda, nawadah, jamui, banka, begusarai, khagaria, munger, bhagalpur, samastipur, vaishali, chhapra, gopalgunj and siwan etc.

We, due to lack of time could not mobilize a large group of youths. Even then, youths handled all the major works like holding meetings in districts, conducting workshops, documentation, making websites etc.

On the other hand, we were in continuous contacted with information commission. We presented the publics view in front of them. We told them what difficulties people are getting in exercising their right to information. These meetings helped us in putting a pressure on government to put its machinery at proper place. Information commission released two or three letters in this regard. They also provide us much valuable information. Beside this, we collected many kinds of materials from various sources like websites, books, newspaper. We created a blog on internet and put all the materials related to our campaign. Several our material were published. In this work, various newspapers helped us. Some materials were provided for us by our friends in Delhi.

We had had a one day camp at masaurhi on 8th January. On the basis of this experiment we made an outline how the 10 day camp will work. Now we were fully prepared.
Awareness camp
It was decided that I each district, from morning to evening a camp will put in the premises of collectorate of that district. Each day our volunteers in 2-3 or large numbers will sit there in the camp and entertain all the visitors. They would tell the people about the details of RTI and encourage them to fight against corruption .the pamphlets, handbills, and booklets were given to the onlookers. During this 10-ay camp big chunk of masses visited our camp. They told us about there problems. Everyday on an average 15-20 applications were filled.

Mean while we maintained all the details on the paper and each day we issued press release to media. We made media aware of the problems and conditions related to RTI in the state. Media often supported our cause. During this camp, our volunteers helped people in preparing applications of RTI, filling the applications in the office of PIO. They followed whole procedure-if the PIO did not except the application our volunteers talk to the concerned officers, and helped tem in getting there applications filled.

In almost all the district people were facing problems because officers didn’t know much about RTI. Sometimes officers rejected the applications; sometimes they would scold the applicants and push them out of premises. On some occasions there were no non-judicial stamps or no money receipt available in the offices of collectorate. In nut shell, government is miserably unprepared in implementing RTI. Even after the lapse of one year 3 months of the deadline of 12october 2005, government have not appointed PIOs in all the places. Officers get ferocious seeing the applications. In banka a policeman took out his revolver against an applicant and tried to shoot him out the premises. In many places, especially in blocks, officer would plainly decline and throw them out of office.

We had given phone numbers to our volunteers. These numbers were readily busy during the 10 day camp. From whole of the state people called us and asked many kind of information related to RTI. We had made a number as a helpline for all the general people. This number received, on an average 20 calls everyday about RTI.

In some districts like, Patna, siwan, gopalgang, chhapra the response of officers was quite hospitable and here our campaign was executed smoothly. In some districts due to lack of committed volunteers. We could not carry the camp for whole 10 days.

Meanwhile government has stated a call centre to facilitate the application of RTI. We encouraged people to file there through phone line. But this call centre was not working properly. Still it’s not working exactly one can’t phone this call centre from distant places of bihar

During this 10 day camp some of our volunteers visited the entire district. Some experienced volunteers from Delhi, U.P visited camps in various district and encouraged people to fight against corruption. MR. Sandeep panday met D.Ms in a number of districts and hel a number of press conference to put pressure and give current account of RTI. In some districts, rallies and general meetings were held. People gathered and vowed to fight against corruption.

After the end of campaign we decided to sit on 28th feb to review our achievements and drawback all the friends from all the district came and submitted their reports with cutting of newspapers. We have put them on our blog. We are continuously enriching our blog on internet. We share our experiences and chalked out a plan for further step to be taken. We talked on the issue that what should be our follow-up. We have decided some programs in month of April. We have some programmes in pipeline for month of June, July, and august. We have to make a long ten program because we want to create a permanent change through RTI.