Anarcho-environmentalism allegorised

The name Anaarkali in the present context has many meanings - Anaar symbolises the anarchism of the Bhils and kali which means flower bud in Hindi stands for their traditional environmentalism. Anaar in Hindi can also mean the fruit pomegranate which is said to be a panacea for many ills as in the Hindi idiom - "Ek anar sou bimar - One pomegranate for a hundred ill people"! - which describes a situation in which there is only one remedy available for giving to a hundred ill people and so the problem is who to give it to. Thus this name indicates that anarcho-environmentalism is the only cure for the many diseases of modern development! Similarly kali can also imply a budding anarcho-environmentalist movement. Finally according to a legend that is considered to be apocryphal by historians Anarkali was the lover of Prince Salim who was later to become the Mughal emperor Jehangir. Emperor Akbar did not approve of this romance of his son and ordered Anarkali to be bricked in alive into a wall in Lahore in Pakistan but she escaped. Allegorically this means that anarcho-environmentalists can succeed in bringing about the escape of humankind from the self-destructive love of modern development that it is enamoured of at the moment and they will do this by simultaneously supporting women's struggles for their rights.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

What Price RTI?

The Right to Information (RTI) Act 2005 was hailed as a game changer in Indian politics when it was enacted. It came as a result of a long campaign begun by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in Rajasthan. The MKSS initially began campaigning for transparency in the records of the works that were being carried out in the Panchayats or rural local bodies. The elected representatives and the Panchayat bureaucracy would connive to siphon off funds meant for development works by submitting false vouchers for wages and other materials. Eventually the MKSS was successful in getting the right to see these vouchers and verify their authenticity and thus exposed the scams that were taking place. Some legal measures were instituted and there were Right to Information Acts in some states. Finally in 2005 this campaign led to a central RTI Act that was quite spectacular in its provisions. Except for a few excluded areas which related to national security, citizens could ask for information about government documents and this would have to be provided within thirty days. If the information was not provided within this period then the official responsible for not providing the information would have to pay a penalty of Rs 250 per day for each day of delay upto a maximum of Rs 25000 and this would be deducted from his salary and paid to the applicant for information. There was a provision of a process of appeals in case information was not provided with the first appeal to be made to a designated higher authority in the institution or department concerned and the second appeal to be made to the Information Commission either at the State or at the Centre depending on whether the authority concerned was a state department or a central one. 
Thus, on paper, a powerful system of accountability was put in place. There have been many good outcomes of this Act the most notable being the transparency brought into the electoral process in our country. The organisation Association for Democratic Reforms used this Act and went all the way to the Supreme Court to force the candidates for elections in this country to reveal their assets and any criminal proceedings against them when filing their nominations. Many big scams too have been exposed in this way. Nevertheless, there are still a lot of problems in the implementation of this Act. The most important one is that despite clear delays or outright refusal to provide information the Information Commissioners do not hand down the penalties they should when the matter comes to them in second appeal. This has emboldened the officials to refuse giving information and as a result appeals keep piling up before the Information Commissions leading to delays and finally wishy washy orders. In some cases those demanding information have gone all the way to the courts and been able to get both information and the fine. However, going to the courts is a time consuming and expensive proposition and so it is not possible for everyone to do this.
The Khedut Mazdoor Chetna Sangath in Alirajpur uses the RTI Act extensively and gets considerable information and also succeeds in reining in corruption in many cases. However, sometimes when sensitive information is involved the officials refuse to give information and then it goes into the process of appeals which is often a lengthy and fruitless proposition. Here is a description of a case that illustrates the kind of problems that the RTI implementation faces.
Subhadra Khaperde, one of the activists, passed her Master of Social Work examination in 2008 from the Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya university in Indore in 2008 and paid the requisite fees for the issuance of the degree certificates in both Hindi and English. Despite one and a half years elapsing the degree certificates were not given to her. She went a number of times to the university and spoke to the department concerned but to no avail. Eventually she filed an RTI application in 2010 demanding that the degree certificates be delivered to her and the reason behind this inordinate delay and the disciplinary action that should be taken against the person responsible for this delay. Within seven days the Hindi degree certificate was delivered but the English degree certificate was delivered after 55 days resulting in a delay of 25 days beyond the 30 day period mandated in the RTI Act. There was no response at all to the question regarding the disciplinary action taken against the person responsible for the delay. 
Subhadra then went in first appeal to the Vice Chancellor demanding that action be taken against the erring official. To this the first response from the Vice Chancellor's office was that the RTI Act did not allow for asking questions about the functioning of the university!!! Subhadra then went in second appeal to the State Information Commission (SIC). In response to the notice sent by the SIC to the Vice Chancellor he asked Subhadra to present her case before him in person. When Subhadra did so, the Vice Chancellor said that she had already got her degrees and so why was she bent on action being taken against the person responsible for delay. After Subhadra insisted that action should be taken given the negligent behaviour of the staff of the examination department and that her problem was not her's alone but being faced by other students also who generally paid a bribe over and above the stipulated fees to get their degrees. She had not paid the bribe and that is why there was this inordinate delay. The Vice Chancellor in his order said that action would be taken under the rules against the person responsible and there the matter ended at his level and he sent a copy of this order to the SIC and to Subhadra. Later, Subhadra received another letter from the Vice Chancellor's office stating that the time period for giving the degree certificate according to the rules was one year and so there was no question of disciplining anyone as there had not been any delay. This despite the fact that the degree had been delivered to her after more than one and a half years. 
In the meantime the SIC became defunct. There were initially three Information Commissioners including the Chief Information Commissioner. One by one they all retired and so there was no one to hear appeals at the SIC. This was of course a ploy of the Government to make the Act ineffective as many scams of the Government of Madhya Pradesh had in the mean time been revealed through filing of RTIs by journalists and other citizens. One very active RTI activist, Ajay Dubey, who pursues his applications through the to High and Supreme Courts, then filed a petition in the High Court demanding the constitution of a full SIC consisting of eight information commissioners. After much dilly dallying the Government finally constituted the SIC again in 2013 in compliance with the orders of the High Court.
About a month ago a notice came from the SIC to Subhadra to present her case in person. On the appointed day Subhadra was present but the official from the university was not. Nevertheless the Information Commissioner asked Subhadra to present her case which she did. Then the Information Commissioner said that even if there was a delay she had got her degree so why was she pressing for action. Subhadra then explained to him the kind of corruption that is rampant in the examination department of the university and the great inconvenience that results for all students in general and it was not an isolated case. After that the Information Commissioner sent a strongly worded show cause notice to the registrar who is the information officer of the university asking why he should not be penalised for the delay in giving information.
This resulted in the Registrar calling Subhadra and pleading with her to take back her complaint as otherwise his career would be affected. Subhadra told him that he should have thought about this earlier and taken measures to improve the working of the examination department. To this he replied that since her action under the RTI Act the working of the examination department had been streamlined and now degrees, marksheets, migration certificates and the like are delivered within one week. Subhadra said that even though that is true, as she herself had later got her M.Phil degree and migration certificate in a jiffy, but since the case had now reached the SIC it would have to be resolved there.
In the next hearing at the SIC an official of the examination department was present and he pleaded with the SIC to show leniency as they had now improved their systems and they submitted a written apology for having cause inconvenience to Subhadra. The Information Commissioner asked Subhadra to be satisfied with this apology but she said that under the law the official should be penalised and she should be compensated for her inconvenience. Finally the Information Commissioner gave an order for a penalty of Rs 3000 instead of the Rs 25000 that should have been given according to the law. This of course was much better than on two earlier occasions when the KMCS members were not even given that as the information commissioners passed the order that the delay was not mala fide and so did not attract penalty!!!
This means that to get the full penalty we have to go to the High Court which will cost more than Rs 25000 and so it is not a feasible option. Thus, even though the RTI Act has brought about some accountability in the bureaucracy it has not been able to fulfil the potential that is there because the information commissioners rarely hand down the penalties that they should. That Subhadra could get Rs 3000 ( it still remains to be seen whether the official does give the money which anyway is much less than what has been expended in time and travelling expenses) is due to her obdurate persistence over a long period of four years and it is not possible for an ordinary person to so pressurise the information commissioners as she has done. Consequently the RTI Act remains hamstrung and corruption and non-performance rule the roost in government institutions. 

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