Maharashtra recently launched an online portal for Right to Information (RTI) applications. The web portal (www.rtionline.maharashtra.gov.in) can be used by citizens of the State to file online applications as well as first appeals under the RTI. The portal, available in both English and Marathi, informs applicants about the status/progress of their pleas. The fee for the application can be paid via internet banking or debit/credit cards. On submission of an application, a unique registration number will be issued, via SMS and email, for the applicant’s future reference. At present, online filing of RTI application or first appeal is available only for the Mantralaya Departments and not field offices. Maharashtra Government has offered a New Year gift to its citizen; they can seek information under RTI Act through online. Aiming to simplify the process of filing Right to Information (RTI) queries and usher in transparency in the system, the Devendra Fadnavis government has decided to enable people to seek information online, a move welcomed by RTI activists. It has been decided to roll out RTI online in the state secretariat from January 1, 2015 and across the state in all government offices by April 01.
The move is really appreciable but there is hitch in it. Physical submission of RTI was limiting people with unwanted queries, those who were in urgent need used to file RTI queries. After going online, definitely RTI queries will increase. Government doesn’t have tech savvy infrastructure to deal such over flow of queries on time. Moreover, if everything became online, then how will the RTI authorities track their queries? If they were not heard then whom they will meet? We know how energetic our government employees are. After the induction of RTI, the only productive thing they have been doing is mulling their “productive time” to furnish RTI information.
Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi once said that 75 per cent government staff spending 75 per cent of their time on giving information would mean 56 per cent (0.75 X 0.75) of their total time spent only on replying to RTI queries. However, unintentionally, they have shown their efficiency level in respect to the RTI details.
Their total efficiency is equal to 3/4 times of the one required to furnish details sought through the RTI. They can devote that much time to “productive” job for the nation. This is the way, the government systems run. If there are honest officials in the government machinery, the number of RTI applications would definitely come down. However, eight officials out of ten are corrupt and running away with their duties and responsibilities. We find that the government machinery is responsible for chaos and confusion as far as their working is concerned. However, these corrupt officials blame the RTI Act. Once government make the entire process of filing RTI queries online and put in place a mechanism to track the status of these queries, we will know when an officer from a department is defaulting on queries and not providing the required information to the seekers. That will help us take necessary action against the erring official.
Making RTI online is like opening another channel for users to seek answers from the government. Many educated people find convenient if things go online. Otherwise, people do not bother to get the facts. Now in villages, people will not have to depend on babus to seek answers. Many times, RTI activists also misuse the information provided to them. They use it as a tool to blackmail and some have made it a full time business. On its being online and convenient, they will have more and more queries. Our Officials would be still lethargic, as entire process on getting queries answered needs more refined way of working. People may file RTI queries online but to get answers for related department or organisation, the government has to go manual, then replying queries by typing and scanning data online would be time consuming too. No more than 4.6 per cent officials are spending 4.6 per cent of their time on giving information. This is based on conservative assumptions. Surely, government officials work for more than eight hours a day. On the other hand, RTI Activist is someone who works to make information available to the general population. They are people who are driven by passion and are keen to share information more widely. They are the people who see the need for change and improvement on a large scale inside the Government.
Just making RTI more convenient will not solve the other side of evil related to it. RTI activists are vulnerable human rights defenders (HRDs) in India. Unlike other HRDs, a majority of the RTI activists are not part of an organisation; they often act alone, moved by anger at corruption and other illegal activities. RTI activists are vulnerable because they are residing in the same areas as public authorities and political leaders against whom he/she is seeking information. For the most part, human rights defenders receive media attention only when they are killed or seriously injured. When complaints are made by RTI activists, law enforcement personnel (who often work with corrupt officials) do not take appropriate action. The Right to Information Act, 2005, provides inadequate protection to whistleblowers. The Central Information Commission and the State Information Commissions are not mandated to deal with such threats or attacks or to provide protection when needed. Maharashtra ranks top in the number of attacks and murder of RTI activists. This indicates unholy nexus between corporates and politicians. Let us hope that the new government seriously make note of every minor issue related to RTI and strengthen it further.