Getting files that matter

Goa's experiment with the Right to Information has a lesson or two for the country

Published: Sunday 07 June 2015

Getting files that matter

-- some swear that the law has opened up vaults that were locked earlier -- inaccessible official 'secrets'. Others see it as a facade of 'openness' for officials who dodge the citizens. Undeniably, the Goa Right to Information Act ( gria ) of 1997 gives this small state an edge as the rest of the nation debates over a uniform national law. The legislators, who passed the landmark law back in July 1997, would have not dreamt of its far-reaching impact. But as citizens show growing skills in harnessing the power of information, attempts by politicians and bureaucrats are also underway to belatedly put the genie back into the bottle, as this could empower the common person and campaign groups.

Thousands of applications have poured in -- not just from a handful of well-organised campaign or watchdog groups, but also from the common people, especially women. The people feel the law tones up the administration precisely by exposing functioning behind red tape to the public glare. Officials, however, view the citizens' queries as a waste of time. "We simply don't have the resources," one argued.

Since early 1998, this law has been seen as god-sent by a range of environmentalists and fringe groups trying to expose corruption. These include villagers wanting to keep a tab on the illegal acts by their neighbours; police officers who have been denied a promotion and even a local mining lobby wanting information to fight a rearguard action against plans to expand local wildlife sanctuaries. But many are dissatisfied. Says Arvind P Bhatikar, a retired government official: "I've not yet got a reply to a query about the assets of four former ministers. They say it's confidential." Bhatikar believes this is a "very progressive act, but one suffering from poor implementation".
There are scores of others like Bhatikar who are trying to use this law to expose corruption or racketeering leading to environmental degradation. The problem of tree felling, selling villagers' water using tankers, 'regularisation' of illegal construction, industrial mega-projects, water bills of certain industries, mining-related pollution are some of the subjects for gria applications.

"One of the shortcomings in the law is that the private sector is not covered in its ambit. Privatisation is coming to Goa in a big way and infrastructure too is in private hands," argues journalist Sandesh Prabhudesai. He was among those who successfully led the campaign to drop two obnoxious clauses in the draft law that scribes felt could have been used to penalise them.
Problems in the law Ironically, it cannot be ascertained as to how many queries have been answered properly. Official records only detail when the application was received and when it was replied. "Replied", of course, could mean anything; even a refusal to grant information as faced by this writer, when he was refused a list of prisoners housed in Goa's main jail while attempting a test case.

There are other problems too. "Some officials have a very ambiguous understanding of the information you want," says Godfrey J I Gonsalves, who is with a citizens' group in Margao, the bustling and commercial capital of Goa. But this has not prevented the people from using the law to unearth evidence of corruption. Recently, information was sought on a controversial pipeline to Goa's main Salaulim dam and a bypass road for Ponda town. Information was also sought on capital subsidy paid to hotels.

Urban bank affairs, computer purchases, excise collections and a suspected lottery scam have also come under scrutiny. In the last two cases, the applicant was Manohar Parrikar, bjp 's former leader of the opposition and now chief minister of Goa. Parrikar has also tried to probe certain excise notifications. Now, information is being dug-up as to what led Goa to earn the dubious reputation of becoming the first Indian state to allow licensed casinos.

Mapusa-based lawyer Premanand J Kolwalkar cautions that sometimes the law used by individuals is not always in public spirit. "One brother cuts a tree and the other brother wants details from the forest department. People don't really care for the environment. As long as they get their share, they're happy."

"We've never had problems in getting information," says Claude Alvares, secretary of the Goa Foundation, which is actively involved in green litigation. But Alvares maintains that one should first try and get information without the use of Right to Information. "Through the statute, you disclose your intent to the enemy," he says.

Panaji-based businessperson and campaigner M K Jos is perhaps one of the veterans in utilising the law (see box: Stripped ). Jos, who has filed about 70 applications so far, says: "This act lent tremendous help in devastating Meta Strips -- a controversial Rs 200 crore plant set up to recycle waste metals. It exposed the dubious games of politicians."

But Jos had to also face half-a-dozen defamation suits across the country, mainly from the management of Meta Strips. He now also faces police cases over the suicide of a local lecturer whom Jos charged -- after a gria application -- had claimed undue retirement benefits.

Goa's Right to Information Act has not had a smooth ride. As it became popular, a minimum fee was slapped on each application -- Rs 100 per application plus Rs 2 per page of photocopied information (twice the market rate). "This act has been very helpful in many cases, but the charges can be a deterrent. We have paid Rs 100 for just a four-line answer," say Patricia Pinto, a civic issues campaigner who recently got elected to the Panaji municipality.

Uncooperative officials are another stumbling block. Says Rauf Beig, a journalist with The Navhind Times : "There are a number of cases where people were harassed -- they are often given misleading information. Only in cases where the officers don't have any vested interest, they are ready to divulge information." "Most people do not know that they can demand the right to inspect documents too under this law. This is very useful if you want to source information," says Alvares.

Some officials simply fail to reply or give evasive answers, knowing the citizen often lacks the endurance. "The very moment the 'competent authority' refuses to give the information, the citizen collapses. He fears the costs involved with the task of going to court," argues gria veteran M K Jos. The president of the Panaji Movement for Civic Action, Averthanus D'Souza, says he was told to make a Right to Information application to get a copy of the state government's groundwater policy, which officials claimed had already been published in the press. "It was not the intention of the act to put obstacles in the way of the citizen," says an angry D'Souza.

Jose C Almeida, former managing director of the Economic Development Corporation ( edc ), came up a cropper when he approached that very body for information. "When the edc denied me information, I successfully appealed to the Administrative Tribunal. The edc then employed a lawyer to go to the high court. He comes with his big books... what am I (a retired septuagenarian) going to do?" Lack of effective controls and monitoring over the implementation of the law has also added to the problem.

Nonetheless, some applications clearly show the law's potential. The Goa forest department had to part with official information on trees being felled in some pockets of the state. One school from the beach-village of Calangute demanded information over noise pollution caused by tourists. John Vaz of Maina-Soccoro wanted details on plans to set up an industrial estate in the area, in a state where rampant industrialisation has cut into local resources and dented the once-pristine environment.

"The Panaji Municipal Council just didn't respond," recounts senior journalist Cyril D'Cunha. He was reporting on how hotel terraces in the state capital Panaji were being converted into restaurants or halls for hire. "This is a very, very serious thing for Panaji. Some hotels have bribed the politicians. There are attempts to extort money over this," he says. Rulings from the courts have, however, impacted the manner in which the law works. Says advocate Albertina Almeida: "In one judgement, the courts held that just because official documents are missing, it's no grounds to deny an applicant. After all, it's the duty of the authorities to see that all documents are protected."

But, in a setback, another ruling said information taken for "private" purposes didn't come under the purview of this law. But citizens who realise the potential of this law say this goes against its spirit: the gria is meant to ensure transparency, and this shouldn't be confused with the purpose information is sought. "It's a very good law. Earlier, everything could be done under the cover of secrecy. Most states now look at Goa as a guiding example," argues Menino Peres, Goa's joint director of information.

Others view the law differently. Very few journalists have used the act to ferret out official information. Scribes prefer to use other ways of getting information, including building bridges with officials they might not want to antagonise. One official from the department of information, who himself used the law, said on condition of anonymity: "It's a waste of time. Officials are capable of various types of jugglery. Initially, when the law was passed, officials were afraid of facing fines. But now they often are hiding behind the argument that information sought is 'confidential'."

Journalist Damodar Ghanekar argues: "Why be skeptical about the law? Only when you test fire a missile do you know whether it works. This (law) is a real missile. Of course, not enough people are aware as to how to utilise it effectively and explore it fully."

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