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Right Technology for Information?

Several states need to spruce up their technology act for RTI applications to fall in line with some of the more advanced ones...

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aws are often meant to be breached but if the law befits the needs of the citizens of a nation, it might turn out to be a strong tool for change. Right to Information (RTI) Act is one such act which originated from Beawar, a small village in Rajasthan, but as years passed by, this Act has gained more acceptance from the Indian society and is becoming a more powerful tool for change each year. In several ways social activists across the country consider the RTI Act as one of the revolutionary acts in the public administration in India. Reason being, this Act does not have the legacy of our colonial times rather, this is one of those few legislations which had cropped up in our society at the grassroot level. Right to Information Act was important for the citizens of India as it could offer the right to the common man to take an account of whether his or her hard earned money is actually being put to the development of the infrastructure around him or her and this gives the citizens to snub the feeling of being powerless in the society. But here is a challenge. In a country like India where there is a remarkable discrepancy between the

Right to Information

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‘information rich’ and the ‘information poor’, could this divide ensure that the citizens will access information and pester the government to respond to the community needs? According to a study by PWC on ‘Understanding the Key Issues and Constraints in Implementing the RTI Act’ conducted in June 2009, there has been a lack of initiative from the government’s side to create awareness about the Act among the masses. Common citizens were more aware of other governmental schemes focused on socio-economic development than February 15, 2011   |  39


Spotlight having appropriate awareness about the RTI Act. Various Indian states are no more following the traditional pattern for filing RTI applications. Different states in India have a different approach in terms of deploying technology for the purpose of responding to the growing number of RTI applications. Some states are far ahead in terms of usage of technology for clearing RTI applications whereas some are still confined to their websites created for their State Information Commissions.

Latest Technology in Different States

“There is a need to create more awareness about the act and it is required to be more transparent than what it is right now. If we want to improve our mechanism, IT should be included”

Commission seemed to represent a dismal picture in terms of IT usage. The commission is still using traditional medium like radio for dissemination of information. The commission which is yet to clear 524 cases out of the 800 applications received last year is depending on their website and telephone connection. “Communication is done mainly through radio and we are using more of this medium to build awareness among people about the Act. Presently, we are communicating about the Act to police officers, district level offices and other public authorities to make provisions for spreading information about the RTI Act,” says P Tantri, deputy secretary, West Bengal Information Commission. Due to the absence of IT infrastructure in disadvantaged communities in the West Bengal, the state government has established ‘Tothyo Mitro’ (meaning information friend) centers in every panchayat and they pass information to the citizens through these centers. The commission is trying to take maximum advantage of these centers to create mass awareness in remote areas. Bihar might be called as the trendsetter, with the most convenient facility of having a call center to file an appeal under RTI Act but their website lacks important information—the most important being a valid contact number. The state government had set up a call center called ‘Jankari’ in 2007, where people can file RTI applications over phone. The idea of having a call center could make a lot of sense for uneducated people as all the other details would be filled by the call center executive and socially unaware people need not be guided about each detail of filling up the forms or go through other processes. South Indian states are the frontrunners when it comes to adoption of necessary technology for speeding up the process of clearance of RTI applications. Karnataka Information Commission (KIC) has initi-

RTI Act which was first practised by villagers in Rajasthan was proactively legislated by its state government as the state wanted to be first one in the country to enact this Act. Since then different states have joined the bandwagon to empower themselves with this right. Different states are trying to facilitate required IT infrastructure to speed up their response to queries put forward using RTI Act. States are trying to deploy technical support among their respective State Information Commissions (SICs) and district collectorate offices. National Informatics Center (NIC) has more than 600 video conferencing facilities which is being used optimally. “By February (this year), we will be shifting to our new premises which will have appropriate IT facilities and this will ensure that all the applications are cleared on time. As of now, IT is being used to hear cases and upto a great extent, we work on a paperless format and our documents are digitized,” says Satyananda Mishra, chief information commissioner, Central Information Commission. On similar lines, even the State Information Commission in Tamil Nadu is all set to get into their new premises in Chennai where they would have necessary IT solutions deployed. “Every district, department, secre-

tariat department, public institution like the Public Sector undertakings (PSUs), universities, and colleges are covered by IT. They all have facilities for Internet access and Information Technology is fairly used to improve awareness among people regarding RTI,” says KS Sripathi, state information commissioner, Government of Tamil Nadu. West Bengal’s State Information

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—KS Sripathi, state information commissioner, Government of Tamil Nadu

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Spotlight ated a service where RTI applicants in Karnataka can track the status of their applications via SMS. Through the SMS facility, applicants can figure out the number of their case, the date of hearing and date of disposal. Andhra Pradesh has provisioned networking facilities in rural districts to enable people to access information. The rural regions were linked through computers by setting up information kiosks at the taluka or the sub district administrative level. This enables easy accessibility to information from the government.

Issues in Effective Implementation of RTI

Exercising RTI Act is quite cumbersome at times. First of all, because awareness about the methodology to be followed to apply the Act is limited to fewer sections of the society and second reason being, it has to go through major steps. Identifying the problems and the relevant information, accessing the related documents and scrutinizing them is a meager part of the whole process. Following that, the audit of information for grievance redressal has to be facilitated after which public hearings should be organized and finally the necessary action has to follow. It is the responsibility of the government to provide required IT facilities but this implementation seems to be at stake due to the lack of political will at the center. PIOs face difficulties in accessing required information from the concerned department. The Act mandates that information has to be delivered within the timeframe of 30 days but due to limited use of IT in many organizations this implementation is becoming difficult. With the right kind of technology in place, employees of an organization can put the information to a central database management system on a timely basis and this would keep the information updated and ready for dissemination on demand. 42   |  February 15, 2011

“IT is being used to hear cases, and upto a great extent we work on a paperless format, and our documents are digitized” —Satyananda Mishra, chief information commissioner, Central Information Commission

Possible Solutions

One of the major drawbacks for the implementation of this Act comes due to the unavailability of basic infrastructure. Some state information commissions have recently planned to move into new buildings which would back them up with required IT facilities and necessary connectivity. This results in poor record management system. “Technology can take RTI in different ways as it can enable trans-

The State Information Commission in Tamil Nadu is all set to get into their new premises in Chennai where they would have necessary IT solutions deployed

parency. It can be used to check the record management, that’s when request for information are made easier at the back-end on the government side, to be able to pull out these records for information and make them available publicly. The other important role which IT can play is in training Management Information System (MIS) which is very important because this creates a user interface,” explains Yamini Aiyar, director, accountability initiative, senior research fellow, Center for Policy Research. Some of the possible solutions that could be provided by enabling good IT infrastructure are listed below— Electronic Document Management System: As per section 4 (1a) of the Act, a public authority needs “to maintain all its record duly catalogued and indexed in a manner and form which facilitates the Right to Information under this Act and ensure that all records that are appropriate to be computerized are, within a reasonable time and subject to availability of resources, computerized and connected through a network all over the country on different systems so that access to such records is facilitated.” Ineffective record management system leads to delay in processing RTI applications. With a central database, the Information Commission can ensure that annual reports are published accurately and it is disseminated on demand. Centralized and web based data made available for the public authorities would enable them to send information to the State Information Commission for accurate and timely compilation and reporting. Training of PIOs: With proper IT infrastructure at all the district collectorates and the respective State Commissions, training of PIOs will become much easier. It can even happen more frequently and the PIOs could be educated about the various movements under the purview of RTI Act and the latest landmark cases

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could be shared among them which will not only build their awareness but motivate them to take the cases forward. Emphasizing more on the education of PIOs and APIOs, Sripathi said that there is a need to create more awareness about the act and it is required to be more transparent than what it is right now. If we want to improve our mechanism, IT should be included. Record of the Level of Pendency: The record of level of pendency could be easily maintained and this would help to check the efficiency in the way cases are cleared. High pendency of cases can’t be checked until there is an optimal process of disposing off appeals and complaints. This will promote institutional mechanism. Limited Dependence on Postal Department: Back in 2008, the Central Information Commision (CIC) had launched an online facility for the submission of appeals under RTI. There is a PIO in every department to whom RTI applications can be submitted. In case the applicant does not procure information he or she can file the first appeal with the appellate authority in the same department. If the applicants

are dissatisfied with the response, they can file a second appeal in their respective Information Commission. Through websites all these processes are just a click away.

Road Ahead

“Technology can be used to check the record management, that’s when request for information becomes easier at the back-end on the government’s side to be able to pull out these records for information, and make them available publicly” —Yamini Aiyar, senior research fellow and director, Accountability Initiative (AI)

This Act has got its credit for being an effective weapon for fighting corruption in our society. Ever since it was formally accepted, various states have got into the race of using this Act for the benefit of the people and for the very same reason they are deploying the appropriate technology to expedite the process. Every citizen holds a share in the development in the country as they pay either direct or indirect taxes or both of it. It is very obvious that people would like to keep an account of whether each and every penny which they are investing is going in the right direction or not. Adoption of technology is at a very nascent stage in every state. Every state is trying to facilitate this Act by deploying the right kind of technology. It has been witnessed that people often used RTI Act for personal reasons snubbing the need to ask about accountability towards public resources. “In any case, IT is just a facilitator. It is important to ensure that all the documents are stored in the database properly so that it is retrieved within a short span of time,” explains Mishra. Technology is perceived to be a facilitator and now many people can access the Internet or send SMSes to track the status of their appeal. Information Commissions are looking forward to have teleconferencing facilities to coordinate with the district collectorates but there has to be sustainable interest from the government’s side to float tenders for procuring IT services from various vendors to set up of good IT infrastructure. —Pragyan Acharya pragyana@cybermedia.co.in

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Right technoloy for information