How to file RTI plea (without getting killed)

Along with the spread of awareness about the Right to Information (RTI) Act, the threat on those using the law to expose corruption has also increased.

Every time an RTI applicant seeks information which has the potential to unearth the wrongdoings of influential people, he or she is at risk. In some cases, the threat remains limited to phone calls and in others, it cost the applicant his or her life.

Here are some of the points which, if considered, can reduce this threat level and make the RTI law more meaningful:

1. Disseminate the information: As soon as you receive sensitive information through the RTI Act, spread it among others. More people having the information reduces the threat risk to an individual.

2. Multiple applications on one issue: It is always better if many people file RTI queries asking for the same set of information. If the applicants are geographically spread across the country, it is even better.

3. Target the system, not individuals: If you are able to expose irregularities in the system, the officials involved will be held responsible by default. Before filing the application, try to search for a group of activists/applicants working on the cause which you want to take up. If possible, file the application on behalf of that group.

4 When your receive information from a public authority, intimate the head of that public authority about it.

5. Do not use the act as a blackmailing tool. The objective is of the act is to bring transparency in the government functioning and not to blackmail someone.

6. Be polite while interacting with the public information officers. They are just part of the big system.

7. In case your query is directed to an official or an individual, avoid direct contact with that person.

8. Approach police when you get the first threat call/threat in person.

(These suggestions are based on the views of leading RTI activists across the country)

This appeared on governancenow.com, January 25, 2011


RTI: The challenge from within

The other day I was in the office of Delhi’s lieutenant governor (LG).  I was talking to an officer – one of the most honest and efficient in the current lot serving the Delhi government – about the loopholes in the administrative mechanism and the initiatives LG has taken to fix the same.  The focus of the talk shifted to the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

The officer narrated to me an incident, and proudly so, of denying information to an RTI applicant. The applicant, he informed, had asked very technical and specific questions regarding the Yamuna action plan. After going through the questions, this officer phoned the applicant. He turned out to be a research student from the JNU who wanted the information for his thesis.  The officer conveyed to him that it was “unfair” on his part to file an RTI application to obtain this information and he could personally come to the LG office and collect the same.

Legally, the officer was holding the information and could have passed on the same to the applicant. But this, he told me, was one of the many instances in the past, where he had withheld the information.

The officer had just finished telling me about the episode and was expecting applause from me, when another gentleman, an employee in a government office, took the opportunity to recount his experience as a public information officer (PIO).

He told us how he asked an applicant to submit Rs 10,000 towards the cost of gathering the data he had sought in the RTI query. The applicant, the gentleman said, never got back to the office. “You should know ways to deal with such people. They just waste our time and the resources of the system,” he concluded.

One can find such examples of PIOs coming up with flimsy reasons for denying information, in almost all the government offices.

Much has been said about the success of the RTI Act. Praising the law as one of the most revolutionary pieces of legislation, Wajahat Habibullah, the former information commissioner at the CIC, said, “it has caught the imagination of the entire country.”

According to Gopalkrishna Gandhi, former administrator, ‘RTI’ has become the most popular abbreviation in India, second only to ‘CrPC’.

To an extent, they are right.

The transparency act has surpassed many laws in the country in terms of awareness – thanks to civil society.  However, the very objective of the act, that is, to make the system more transparent and accessible to the general public has not been achieved.

And one of the many reasons why the idea of having a transparent democracy has not translated into a reality is the attitude of public servants, who are supposed to provide information to the applicant within a given deadline without asking him/her the reason for demanding information.

Public information officers (PIOs) are the first link between the applicant and the information.

Five years since the law came into existence, the attitude of the PIOs is to keep the records close to their chest rather than passing them on to the applicant who has the legal right to ask for the same.

This is because PIOs are the people who, for years, worked in an environment where they were in the practice of withholding information.

More than anything else, it is about mindset.  And asking for the mindset to change overnight will be asking for too much.

This appeared on governancenow.com on January 17, 2011

 


Pray heed this call from Shahjahani masjid

The dark blanket over Agra is withering away in the face of the oncoming dawn. As if on cue, and seemingly oblivious of the December chill, a bearded, well-built 35-year-old man dressed in a navy blue Pathani suit and skull cap settles barefoot on a mat and begins to recite the holy Quran. He is seated in the Shahjahani masjid, in the Taj Mahal complex towards the left of the monument to love, a setting that lends an almost surreal aura to the scene.

Within a couple of minutes, he glances at his wrist watch and places the Quran on a surmounted bracket. Soon he is joined by two men and the three together start offering the Fajr namaz, or the first prayer of the day. The two men take leave after the prayer but he goes on with his recitation for another hour and then starts praying with the rosary. He will be back to repeat this ritual twice in the afternoon before the sun sets. The faithful, visitors as well as workers at the country’s leading tourist attraction, are sure to join him in larger numbers for the next two prayers. After the third prayer, he will collect the skull caps left on the mats by the devotees and call it a day.

Imam Syed Sadiq Ali has followed this routine religiously since 2002, when he took over from his father, Syed Sabiq Ali who performed the duty for 26 long years before him.

Syed Sadiq Ali at Taj Mahal outside Shahjahani mosque

For his services, which take up most of his day every day, Syed Sadiq Ali gets just Rs 15 per month as salary from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) which is in charge of the upkeep of the monument.

Rs 15 per month? Isn’t the amount a small fraction of even the minimum daily wage mandated for unskilled workers?

Incredible as it may seem, the ASI has not only neglected to revise the salary but has also refused to pay heed to persistent pleas in this regard.

Syed Sadiq Ali lives in Katra Phulail with his wife, three sons and two brothers in a joint family just a half kilometre from Taj Mahal’s eastern gate. His elder brother, Sajid, is a class IV employee at the monument complex and the younger, Tariq, runs a leather business. Ali himself ran a grocery shop for some time in a bid to make ends meet. However, he had to shut it down because he realised he had no aptitude to recover the dues from his customers who mostly bought things on credit. Being an imam, he could teach the Quran though and so he started offering tuitions at home.

Does he manage to make enough? “Bas kaam chalane jitna ho jaata hai (It is just enough for sustenance)?” says Ali, without offering a figure, but adds that this is supplemented by some help from his brothers.

But why is the ASI paying him just Rs 15 per month? The story goes that when the mosque was built, it was declared that salary of the imam would be equal to the worth of 10 gram of gold. This worked out to Rs 15 when Ali’s father joined the mosque in 1966. “My father told me that the salary used to be Rs 10 earlier, but it was revised to Rs 15 when he took charge,” he says.

But the salary has not been revised since. As per the original formula, Ali should be getting more than Rs 20,000 per month, given the appreciation in the price of gold.

Forget Rs 20,000. Ali is not getting even the equivalent of his 55,000 peers across the country who are paid between Rs 700 (in Orissa, for example) and Rs 5,000 (in Delhi and Haryana) per month by the Waqf Board. Ali’s is a unique case where the imam’s salary is being paid by the ASI, which gets its grants from the central ministry of culture, instead of the Waqf Board.

“This is unbelievable,” says Umer Ahmed Ilyasi, president, All India Imams’ Organisation, “It is a matter of shame. An imam’s duty begins before dawn and ends after dusk, spanning almost 15 hours. How can he sustain himself and his family?”

Gautam Sengupta, director general of the ASI simply shrugs off his responsibility, saying, “This is a very volatile and sensitive issue. I would not like to comment on this.”

Syed Sadique Ali inside Shajahani mosque

Ali says his father had approached the authorities several times asking for a raise. But he was always told that the file was on the move and that he would soon get an increment. Now the powers that be are fobbing the son off on similar pretexts. Ali says almost all ministers and dignitaries who visit the Taj come to know about this issue. Ali himself visited the ASI office in the city several times after taking over as imam. “It was like begging for my due. Lagta hai jaise baksheesh de rahe hain (it appears as if they are giving me a tip),” he says, explaining why he gave up.

Ali says the Waqf Board did not help him either. He says the board members approached him a few years ago and assured him that he would soon be on the board’s payrolls, but that hasn’t happened till date.

A R Siddiqui, former superintending archaeologist of the ASI’s Agra circle, says the issue has been discussed several times over the past three decades. He says he also raised it with the then director general K N Srivastava during his tenure between June 2009 and July 2010. “I wrote to the DG at least thrice. I said that if not more, the imam should be given at least the equivalent of a casual labourer’s salary,” says Siddiqui.

Last August, Syed Munawwar Ali, a resident of Agra filed an application with the ASI headquarters in Delhi under the Right to Information Act. The ASI, however, replied that raising the salary was not in its ambit and that it would write to the ministry concerned for the same.

Siddiqui’s successor, I D Dwivedi, too takes a nonchalant view, “This is not salary. This is just an honorarium that we give out of respect. This is just about continuing a tradition. One should not make an issue out of it.”

While Dwivedi refuses to discuss the attempts made in the past to fix the lapse, Ali admits that he would not have become the imam if he had taken his studies seriously. He says he dropped out of school after class 5 and joined Madrasa Afzal-ul-Uloom close to his house. His father chose him from among the three sons to carry forward the family tradition. “Woh kehta they ye Allah ka kaam hai aur unke baad mujhe ye karna hai (My father said this was God’s work and that I had to do it after him,” says Ali, who belongs to the fourth generation of this family of imams.

Only faith, and a desire to carry on the family tradition, can explain the fact that Ali now wants his son Burhaan, 10, who is studying in class 6 and taking Quran lessons in the evenings, to become the imam after him.

This appeared in Governance Now January 1- 15, 2011 issue


Masterji hasn’t given up on the Congress…

My barber, whom we call Masterji, is a psephologist caught in the wrong profession. Ever since I have known him, all his electoral predictions have turned out right. But as a voter, he has his own likes and dislikes. Being a Muslim living in Delhi for the past 43 years, he is not fond of the BJP – a feeling shared by his community in the walled city.

I remember a visit to his salon soon after the Kargil coffin scam broke and turned the heat on the then defence minister George Fernandes. Masterji was at his usual best criticising the BJP-led government at the centre. His audience nodded in agreement.

In September 2002, when blasts took place in Akshardham temple complex in Ahmedabad, deputy prime minister LK Advani blamed cross-border terrorism for the blast. “Kuchh bhi ho, Pakistan ko blame kar do. Ye party mein hi problem hai,” declared Masterji.

When armsgate occurred in March 2001, involving BJP president Bangaru Laxman, Masterji was quick to announce that the nation’s future was in wrong hands and that the best alternative was nothing but the Congress party.

Now, six years after it again came to power, the Congress party is facing one of its worst times in its 125-year-old history. It is raining scams. The party’s clean image has got a dent. It has a lot to answer to the citizens who brought it to power.

Going by the way Masterji criticised the BJP for its wrongdoings, it was natural for me to expect him to do the same to the Congress. After all, the party cannot absolve itself from any blame just because it managed to sell itself as a party of ‘aam aadmi’.

But now, I see the common man in Masterji is far from blaming the party for the fracas.

For every scam which happened in the current regime, he targeted the individuals involved.

Suresh Kalmadi made money in the Commonwealth Games 2010, a good part of which  went to Delhi chief minister Shiela Dikshit, he said. Politicians in Maharashtra, present and former, used their positions to grab flats in Adarsh society. Shashi Tharoor got a stake in IPL Kochi team because his present wife Sunanda Pushkar had sweat equity in the team.

This is how Masterji sees it.

“Ye sharif badmash hain, aur woh khule badmash hain,” is how he puts it.

He is disappointed to find that the party known for its concern for his community people is earning a bad name. But the idea of casting his vote to another one has not yet occurred to him.


Maine PR kiya (Chomsky, Radia and a hope called new media)

For many, many of us, the nightmarish picture Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman present in their book “Manufacturing  Consent” is a bit outlandish. They argue that many respected and liberal news media organisations actually work in cahoots with corporates to control public opinion. But, we think of our favourite newspaper (or news anchor) and their scoops and stings and it is difficult to imagine anything other than pure public interest behind them. Chomsky is certainly overstating his case, as usual, you would think. Corporates, politicians and PR guys joining hands and manipulating the single thing left in our hands, our opinions (that is to say, our votes): that is something we can very well imagine in a dystopian novel of the 1984 variety, it might be happening to a small degree (paid publicity on page 3, for example), but democracy on the whole is going strong.

This perspective from Chomsky will help in navigating a few grey zones when we debate the Niira Radia tapes.

For example, they say that Vir Sanghvi, Barkha Dutt and others were after all merely discussing developments with a source. In the business of news gathering, you have to deal with all sorts of people and also keep the conversation going too.

If you want to make sense of a court judgment on a very complex issue you can consult an industry expert, or lawyer, or if you are Vir Sanghvi, the Ambanis themselves. A PR executive is not a source under any definition of that flexible term. Similarly, if you want the latest info on cabinet formation, you can speak to party spokespersons, possible candidates, or if you are Barkha Dutt, Sonia Gandhi herself. What does a PR executive got to do with it? Keep the above-mentioned perspective in mind and the answers to these questions will show up by themselves.

Take another example. Why have all of the print and electronic media players (except for the Outlook, Open, Mail Today and of course Governance Now) refused to take note of it? In the last few days, the newspapers have given us all details of a ‘royal’ wedding (with photographs), TV channels have debated the proper timing of a certain kind of reality shows (with video clippings), but not a word on the Radia Tapes. Why?

Prima facie, it would seem, to any industry insider as well as outsider, that the Indian media players prefer not to speak about each other, no bitching, no praising the rivals/non-rivals. No giving credit, no blaming either. Remember the Paid News controversy? A majority of publications treated it they would treat a news item on a UFO sighting. Curiously, some of those few publications which took note of the Paid News scandal have maintained a silence this time. Why?

You don’t need to read Chomsky to work out that if the lady represents three of the biggest corporate tycoons, who are among the biggest ad spenders, you don’t mess with her. What else would explain the fact that while the old media is quiet, it is the new media that is still debating the Radia aftermath. Blogs and social media sites, which don’t depend on corporate ad spends, have been able to say what the mainstream papers have shied away from. Sitting here, that very much looks like a silver lining in the proverbial clouds.

(This is a reproduction of a column which appeared on governancenow.com on November 24, 2010, by Ashish Mehta, deputy editor at Governance Now)

 


When law turns enemy

Dr Anees-ul-Haq, a dentist in Kucha Rehman of Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, was in for a shock when he received a notice from the deputy commissioner informing him that the properties he had rented out were “enemy properties”. The dentist was zapped. He had title deeds that clearly showed that his aunt, Jahangira Begum, had gifted these properties to him, his brother and mother. What’s more, the gift was duly registered with the sub-registrar’s office.
That was in 1985. The documents could not, however, save him from the lengthy trial that followed. It took him 19 years and a persistent judicial follow-up right up to the supreme court to prove that the properties did not belong to somebody who had crossed over to Pakistan between the wars of 1965 and 1971. After all, his aunt had died in Delhi on December 7, 1955 and had never been to Pakistan.

Dr Haq has, however, been just one of the victims of the Enemy Property Act (EPA), 1968, which dragged him through the courts.

Over the years, he became an expert and stocked two almirahs full of documents related to the legislation, according to which the custody and management of any property belonging to the enemy (as defined in the Defence of India Act, 1962) is vested with the Custodian of Enemy Properties (CEP).

The deputy commissioner told Haq that he was just executing the orders of the CEP and that he should go to the custodian’s Mumbai office if he wanted any relief in the case. “At that time, the CEP was under the ministry of commerce, but now it is under the ministry of home affairs (MHA). But the custodian’s office has always been in Mumbai. For any appeal, one has to go there only,” says Haq.

For years, Haq spent a majority of his income on lawyers, to say nothing of his time and energy. It was only in 2004 that the supreme court ruled in Haq’s favour and asked him to get the properties divested from the custodian.

Barely ten minutes from Haq’s clinic is Muslim Musafirkhana in Ballimaran. Also known as Kibriya Manzil, the popular guest house is a landmark here, as it is believed that Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Acharya Kriplani and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad used to meet in this complex to devise strategies during the freedom struggle. It is named after Hakim Ghulam Kibriya, a freedom fighter who owned this property and was a regular in these meetings.

In 1970, Kibriya’s son sold the property spread over 900 yards to Shah Sufi Abdul Qadir for Rs 1.20 lakh. Qadir, in turn, gave the property to the Waqf Board and converted it into a guest house. As per the deal, some part of the property would remain commercial and would be rented out. The rent given to the Waqf would be used for the upkeep of the guest house.

In 1993, Qadir’s son, Maulana Farooq Wasifi, the current trustee of the guest house, got a notice that the guest house was an enemy property. “It is a Waqf property since 1970. That is a fact and nobody on earth can question it,” says the 75-year-old, pointing to a dining table where, according to Wasifi, Nehru used to dine, “This is a national treasure.”

Besides the fact that both Dr Haq and Wasifi are residents of the walled city and that they had notices slapped on them under the EPA, the two share another similarity. Both had filed cases in the court against their tenants for non-payment of rent.
The tenants, according to both, complained to the CEP that the properties were enemy properties. Acting on these complaints, the

CEP issued notices which worked in the favour of the tenants.

“It has become a common practice for tenants these days. Just lodge a complaint with the CEP. Then the landlord spends rest of his life in court,” says M Salim, a supreme court lawyer who has handled several enemy property cases.

Salim believes that the biggest reason for the harassment faced by the landlords in enemy property cases is the absence of any checks and balances on the part of the custodian. “They just slap a notice on the landlord without any enquiry about the complainant and the mentioned property. Once the notice is issued, the onus is on the landlord to prove that his is not an enemy property,” says Salim.

Dr Haq says representatives of the custodian did not even bother to appear before the court in his case.

The second reason why the two words ‘enemy property’ are enough to terrorise the landlords is that the CEP has not set any deadline for the survey of these properties.

The guidelines regarding preservation and management of enemy properties in India, vested with the CEP, issued in the year 2000, talk about detection of all undetected enemy properties in the country. However, the guidelines do not prescribe any deadline for the same.

As per the data obtained from the CEP, there are 3,329 enemy properties in the country worth thousand of crores.

In August, the home ministry directed the Faridabad-based National Institute of Financial Management to evaluate the prices of  these properties, of which Uttar Pradesh has the highest number (1,526), followed by West Bengal (386), Goa (122), Delhi (67) and Gujarat (53).

At the time of writing, there are 1,238 cases in which the CEP is investigating if the property is enemy property.

That means, even 39 years after the war with Pakistan, the CEP is adding to its list of enemy properties acting on complaints, as those received in the cases of Haq and Wasifi. In the process, it is making tenants the de facto owners of the properties.
In many cases, by the time the CEP issues notice or summons the current owner, the property has changed many hands and it is difficult to trace the owner whose name is mentioned in the notice. “If you have bought the property in 2010, how are you supposed to produce the details of that person, who, as per the notice, migrated to Pakistan during partition?” asks Zafarul Haq Islam, editor, Milli Gazette and former president, All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat.

Islam blames lack of uniform procedures for the management of enemy properties across India for the mess – something acknowledged by the CEP in its 2000 guidelines.

The CEP has no set format for the notices which are issued in cases of suspected enemy properties. In many cases, the notices issued do not mention the EPA clause under which the action is initiated. The result is that the district officials at various levels, managing the properties on behalf of the CEP, follow different practices. There have been cases where policemen hand over the notice.

“I cannot forget the night of 14th July 1998 when a constable came to my house to give the notice. For next few months, I was convincing people that all was fine at my place and we were not involved in any criminal activity,” recalls Mohammad Shakir,

“Nobody likes a policeman to visit his home.”

The notice said that the property belonged to one Asifa Khatoon who was a Pakistani national. Shakir obtained documents which proved that Asifa’s name was there in the 1980 voters’ list and that she held an Indian ration card in 1983. There was a Delhi high court order which had declared Asifa the sole owner of that property.

Zameer Jumlala, president of the Indian National League, Delhi, says that everything about the functioning of the CEP is secretive.

Even after five years of the enactment of the right to information (RTI) act, the CEP does not have a website. One has to phone or personally go to the revenue offices of various states to find out details of the enemy properties.

There is no mention of CEP on the website of the MHA website.

Under section 4 of the RTI act, every basic detail about the public authority including its functions, details of employees and annualreports should be available on a public forum.

Maulana Farooq Wasifi at the guest house in Ballimaran, Chandni Chowk

Jumlana had filed an RTI application in January to seek the updated list of enemy properties. Responding to his application, the CEP asked him why did he want that list. “No officer can ask the applicant to intimate the cause for seeking information. Even the supreme court judges did not ask the cause from the RTI applicant seeking details of their assets,” he says.

Jumlana has been writing to the authorities about the lacunae in the enemy property act. Acting on his application, the national minorities commission (NMC) has demanded, twice, the repeal of the act. “The commission, therefore, recommended in its annual report 1998-99 that the EPA,1968, is wholly outdated and deserved to be repealed.”

In its action taken report (ATR) submited to the NMC, the government said that the repeal of the EPA, 1968 was not possible till the government of India and the governments of Pakistan and Bangladesh came to an agreement to return the properties of the migrants of each country bilaterally.

About a deadline to detect such properties, it said, “Detection of these properties is a continuous process and it would be contrary to the object of the act if identification and takeover process is stopped from a fixed date.

According to the ATR, the government

Dr Anees-ul- Haq at his clinic

cannot ask the complainant to submit any affidavit as the complainant may not like to be exposed for the fear of his life from the occupants of the valuable property.

On November 23, 1999, Jumlana sent a fax message to Manmohan Singh, who was then leader of opposition in the Rajya Sabha, regarding the illegal notices to the walled city residents. The same day, Singh forwarded the letter to chief minister Sheila Dikshit.
Nothing happened.

On October 20, the cabinet  approved amendment to EPA.

According to the Enemy Property (Amendment and Validation) Second Bill, 2010, enemy properties divested from the Custodian prior to 2nd July, 2010 or where the property had been returned to the owner or his lawful heir by an order of the court; and if the lawful heir is a citizen of India by birth, will continue to remain with such person.
Also, no court will have the power to order divestment from the custodian or direct the central government to divest enemy property.

“Just imagine, all this at a time when we play cricket with the so-called enemy, we have their actors and singers in our movies and both the countries have exchange programmes under which the students are given a chance to understand the culture of the other country,” sighs Dr Haq.

This appeared in Governance Now, November 1- 15 issue

 


Hello India!

I am India’s bad luck.
I am proud to be an Indian, but India is not proud of my Indianness

I am the judge, I am the leader, I am the bureaucrat and I am the public

I wish that my country should be corruption free, but I am least bothered about the malaise of corruption within me.

I am OK with encroaching government land, but I critisise the authorities for water logging.

I accept that corruption is the biggest curse of my country.

Though I am not a criminal in the real sense, I do steal electricity.

I am sad over the loot in my country but whenever I get an opportunity, I become a thief.

I steal in the dress of a leader, an official, and a bureaucrat…I steal in whatever form I can.

Actually I am proud to be an Indian because this is the India I inherited from my ancestors.

But I am creating an India which the coming generations will not be proud of.

I am the bad luck of India which has slowed down the pace of India’s progress…and India, today, is not where it should have been.

Actually I am a punishable culprit, but then I am the judge, I am the leader, I am the bureaucrat and I am the public.

That is why am sure of the fact that I am the culprit but I won’t be penalized.