24 April 2012, Mumbai: We had a tiny window of hope that Maharashtra’s amended RTI Rules would not be tabled in the assembly. This hope was because many of us (led by Julio Ribeiro and Narayan Varma of PCGT) had formally approached the Chief Minister and opposition leaders in both houses, and made submissions in writing. We had hoped that even if the amendment was tabled, it would be stalled by the opposition parties due to continuous campaigning by our activist colleagues such as Anil Galgali and Bhaskar Prabhu.
But today is a sad day for RTI activists and information seekers in Maharashtra. Anil Galgali told us this evening that this window of hope has closed. Galgali, who today met Mr Avrari, Under Secretary of General Administration Department (GAD), was informed that the rule changes had been passed in the state assembly. The gazette copy will be made available on Monday 30th April, Mr Avrari said.
The original rules were modeled closely after the Central RTI Rules, and FACILITATED the use of RTI Act by the common man. The new rules CURTAIL the use of the Act, and give the public information officer (PIO) UNNECESSARY DISCRETIONARY POWERS to restrict and harass the RTI user. These new rules will therefore increase the scope for conflicts and lead to an increased number of appeals.
MAHARASHTRA’S NEW RULES SAY:
(i) Request for information must nor ordinarily exceed 150 words
(ii) Request for information must relate to one subject matter only. If necessary, separate applications must be made if it relates to more than one.
(iii) Public Information Officer (PIO) must allow the person inspecting the documents to take a pencil only. All other writing instruments must be deposited with the PIO.
OUR MAIN OBJECTIONS
a) THE GOVERNMENT ADDED THESE RULES SECRETIVELY without any discussion in the public domain. We did not come to know of this from any government source. We were informed by Advocate Vinod Sampat, who saw this notification in a publication he had picked up outside City Civil Court. There should have a public consultation of stakeholders, as mandated by Section 4(1)(c), which says, “Every public authority shall - publish all relevant facts while formulating important policies or announcing the decisions which affect public.”
b) THE 150-WORD RULE may handicap the majority of Maharashtra’s people – less educated people living in slums and villages – who lack the skills for drafting an RTI application within a word limit of 150 words. We also object to the arbitrary nature of this rule change. (By what process was the 150 word-limit arrived at? Why not 250 words? Or 10 words for that matter? Unless it is based on study and judicious reasoning, this rule is arbitrary.)
c) THE SINGLE-SUBJECT-MATTER RULE gives the PIO unnecessary discretionary powers. Different RTI applicants and PIOs may interpret “single subject matter” in different ways, and this will cause endless disputes and delays in getting information. For example: If an RTI applicant asks the Municipal Commissioner’s office for copies of complaints, and the papers showing action taken on them, relating to impure water supply in A, B and C wards. An uncooperative PIO can argue that this RTI application has three subject matters, as each ward is a separate “subject matter”. Another man in his position can argue that complaints are one subject matter, and the actions taken on complaints are a different subject matter. Sir, based on our common experiences, we anticipate that the PIOs and appellate authorities will be drawn into such hair-splitting, diverting their attention from the intent of the RTI Act.
MANY STATES, MANY RULES
Is Maharashtra the only state to have passed such restrictive rules? No. Similar rule changes have been passed in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, and attempts have been made in other states also, such as Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.
What is objectionable is that many state governments and other competent authorities have framed rules that are against the letter and spirit of the Act. Two extreme examples are the state governments of Arunachal Pradesh and Orissa, which have invented bizarre reasons to put information beyond the common man’s grasp. The citizens of these states suffer from numerous disabilities while seeking information under the RTI Act.
Rules must always facilitate the use of the laws. It is unlawful to make RTI Rules that restrict the use of the RTI Act. Competent Authorities such as State governments, State Legislatures and Judiciary are empowered by Section 27 to “make rules to carry out the provisions of this Act.” , The latest rules are against the spirit of rule-making. This is all the more surprising as Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan was Minister-of-State (MOS) for DOPT, the central monitoring body for RTI Act 2005.
As long as RTI activists in different states do not support each other in the battle for information, state governments and other competent authorities will continue to frame RTI rules to hobble information seekers.