In Mrashtra, silence is not golden; will cost babus dear

Mumbai | Updated: Oct 31 2005, 07:17am hrs
The Right to Information Act (RIA) has been a boon for the aam admi in Maharashtra. The recent scam in the much-debated employment guarantee scheme (EGS) unearthed by the drought-prone Sholapur collector, Manisha Varma, would not have attracted the state governments attention, had the Centres RIA not been in place. The government, however, reluctantly launched an inquiry into the incident.

With the Centres legislation in place, the Maharashtra Right to Information Act, 2002, has been repealed. Alert citizens and non-government organisations (NGOs) are pursuing their move to expose irregularities in the EGS in Sholapur district by taking shelter under various provisions of RIA.

In another incident, RIA has helped citizens to find out how government departments function. Thanks to RIA, citizens came to know that over 10 lakh files across various departments had been moving at a snails pace and that they were yet to be cleared by the ministers and babus concerned.

Social activist Anna Hazare, who has been spearheading the peaceful movement in favour of the right to information, has openly admitted that with the central legislation, citizens would no longer be starved of information involving state governments under the garb of secrecy.

Unlike the state Act, which made it obligatory on the applicant to state reasons for seeking information, the central Act exempts the applicant from detailing the reasons. Under the state Act, the state had information and appellate officers in each department to deal with queries. The number of information officers now has been increased for faster access to information.

Maharashtra is among the few states that have already appointed state information commissioners, and the government is appointing10 information commissioners and information officers for each department.

Dr Suresh Joshi, a senior IAS officer, who has begun working as an information commissioner, is quite surprised over the level of awareness he has noticed among citizens about RIA. There is great enthusiasm. People from urban cities as well as those from the tribal-populated Chandrapur district are quite curious about the RIA and its power. Maharashtra has an advantage, as the states Act was in place before the Centres legislation came into force. My biggest challenge is to ensure justice for the common man. Often, the common man feels he is helpless; his experience with the government machinery does not help this perception. Though there are some unreasonable queries among the many reasonable ones from citizens, that issue will have to be tackled, says Dr Joshi.

Dr Joshi explained to FE that bringing about transparency and empowering the common man are the hallmark of the Centres RIA, which he feels can be a weapon for the people. At the same time, he admits that greater awareness about the provisions and implementation of the Act would have to be created among citizens as well as government officials.

Dr Joshi notes, I will take stringent action against erring officials. Under the provisions of the Act, a fine of Rs 250 per day can be imposed on an information officer, who fails to give the requisite information after the deadline. (Normally, those seeking information should get it in a maximum of 30 days). This is the first Act that penalises government officials by imposing fines for inefficiency.