शनिवार, 20 फ़रवरी 2016

After a decade long battle of wits, BPL to get information free of cost in Odisha

After a decade long battle of wits
BPL applicants in Odisha could avail their right to information free of cost

The Right to Information Act  that came into force  on 12th October, 2005  has the  mandate  to enforce a transparent  and accountable system of governance in the  country by way of   giving  right  to the citizens to access the  information held  by the Public Authorities.  As is well known, the Section 7 (5) of the Act says, the BPL people are required not to pay any kind of fee i.e., fee for application {section 6 (1) }, fee towards cost of   information {section-7(1)} and fee towards cost of information in electronic format. But while framing the Rules under RTI Act  i.e.  Odisha RTI Rules, 2005, the   Government of Odisha made quite some deviations from the letter and spirit of the parent Act. A glaring instance of one such deviation was the Rule 4, which explicitly provided for exempting the BPL people from paying only application fee, while remaining mute in respect of other two kinds of fees. Owing to this devious gap, the public authorities under Government of Odisha insisted on collecting information fees from the BPL persons, who felt obviously strained and discouraged to apply for information at all. To register protest against such Orissa Rules a civil society forum called Orissa Soochana Adhikar Abhijan got soon formed comprising young RTI activists and as well progressive minded senior citizens of the state.    It is worth recollecting that the illustrious RTI protagonists at national level like Mrs. Aruna Roy, Ms. Maja Daruwalla and Mr. Shailesh Gandhi had made a common cause with Abhijan’s critique of Orissa RTI Rules 2005 and each of them did also separately write to the Chief Minister and Chief Secretary to amend the impugned Rules in tune with letter and spirit of the parent Act.  Ironically enough, the collection of fees from the BPL people, though patently illegal, was justified by the Odisha Information Commission, who was supposed to recommend to the State Govt for undoing this wrong.  Sri D.N. Padhi, the first Odisha Chief Information Commissioner, while deciding the  Complaint Cases Nos. 11 and 12 of 2006 made an arbitrary order that the BPL people were required  to pay the fees towards cost of  information, no matter what was mentioned in proviso to Section 7(5).. However this objectionable dictate of Sri Padhi   was vehemently protested by RTI Activists united under Orissa Soochana Adhikar Abhijan. Besides, the Commission had also acquired a controversial image due to its several other acts of omission and commission. The Abhijan submitted a Memorandum to Governor, Odisha under Section 17 of the RTI Act urging action against Sri D.N.Padhi on account of his untenable acts and decisions, taken in flagrant violation of the provisions of RTI Act. Though no action was taken against Sri Padhi, the Commission under the moral pressure of the strident campaign by Abhijan made a recommendation to the State Govt.  on 16.11.2007  to  allow free of cost supply of information to the BPL applicants upto 75 pages. .  But the State Govt. did not give any importance to this recommendation and  continued with their illegal practice of   collecting the fees towards cost of information from the BPL applicants. The above recommendation being only a face-saving ploy of the Commission, neither the Commisson itself nor the Government pursued it any further. However, undeterred by the negative attitude of both Government and Commission towards BPL people, the Abhijan stepped up its campaign for withdrawal of Orissa RTI Rules 2005 that illegally allowed the collection of information fees from the BPL persons and several other objectionable provisions like imposition of appeal fees, compulsory application form, complete disclosure of identity of the applicant, user-unfriendly modes of payment like treasury challan and judicial stamps, PIO’s reply in Form-B lacking in calculation of fees payable by the applicant and rejection of an RTI application by a PIO on any arbitrary ground. Meanwhile Sri Jagadanand Mohanty, a civil society veteran joined in the Commission as a State Information Commissioner, but ironically he too toed the anti-BPL line of the Government and as well that of the State Chief Information Commissioner.  Surprisingly Mr. Mohanty didn’t have any qualms in making his anti-BPL stance public. For instance, in May, 2013  while addressing an RTI Workshop in the Collectorate Conference Hall, Malkangiri Mr. Mohanty in the capacity of State Information Commissioner  went to the extent of justifying the Orissa Rules’ denial of free-of-cost information to the BPL persons, on the ground that the Commission had received a lot of complaints about the possible misuse of this provision by the BPL people themselves. Sri Tapan Padhi a well known social activist who happened to be present there, filed an RTI Application before  Odisha Information Commission seeking particulars of Complaint Cases, if any,  about the misuse of RTI as alleged by SIC Sri Jagadanand Mohanty. Interestingly, the PIO of Commission, in reply, said that there was no such information available  in their office. The campaign of the Abhijan took an intensified turn when Sri Tarun Kanti Mishra, the next Chief Information Commissioner of Odisha while adjudicating a Complaint case No. 2028/11 directed Sri Kunja Bikari Patra, a BPL Applicant and RTI Activist of Nayagarh district to pay the fees for information, as against Sri Patra’s passionate pleading to get the information free of cost as mandated under Section 7 (5) of RTI Act.  The direction of the Commission was challenged by Sri Patra himself in Odisha High Court. While  disposing the case ( W.P.C. No.- 4797/13) on 3.7.13, the High Court quashed  the decision of the Commission as illegal  and directed the concerned PIO to provide the information free of cost  in compliance to the mandate of the parent Act. Under the pressure of Odisha High Court Judgement the Orissa Information Commission made a direction to the State Govt. on 31.3.14 to issue necessary notification in pursuance to the above direction of Odisha High Court.

But astonishingly,  the State Government still sticked on to its old hackneyed practice of collecting the cost of information  from the BPL people in naked violation of the above direction of Odisha High Court. The Orissa Soochana Adhikar Abhijan however heightened its campaign through various fora including the Gopabandhu Academy of Administration Bhubaneswar to impress upon the State Government the utter untenability of making BPL persons pay the information fees.  At this juncture Sri Dhoba Sahu, a BPL Applicant himself , inspired by Sri Dillip Das of Antodaya Bhabanipatana, filed  a  Writ Petition (No. 12135/15) in Odisha High Court seeking  direction   to the State Govt. to provide the information free of cost to all BPL applicants. .  On 23.7.15, the High Court  gave the direction, second in order,    to the State Govt. to  comply  with Section  7 (5) of the RTI Act within 3 months.  On 21.9.15, the State Govt. has finally issued the much awaited notification  directing all the Public Authorities to provide the BPL applicants with information free of cost under the RTI Act.

 Thus, only a single nuisance of the notorious Orissa RTI Rules 2005 could be done away with- following a decade-long protracted and multipronged engagement of Orissa Soochana Adhikar Abhijan with several constructional and statutory authorities- Governor, Chief Minister, State Information Commission and Odisha High Court. The Abhijan’s campaign is on and its flag-bearers are ready to march unto the last for ensuring that the said Rules is replaced by one that is appropriately designed in tune with the ctizen-friendlly letter and spirit of the parent Act.

Pradip Pradhan
State Convener
Odisha Soochana Adhikar Abhijan

( N.B.- It was presented  in Regional Workshop on Right to Information  organised by Administrative  Training  Institute,  Govt. of West Bengal   at Kalkatta  on 18.2.16 )

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