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<nettime> GOA: Right to Information, one year later
Frederick Noronha on Thu, 15 Apr 1999 23:51:55 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> GOA: Right to Information, one year later


NOTE: Goa is India's smallest state, located on the west coast of this
country, and is a former Portuguese colony now better known worldwide as a
tourist destination. -FN/Goa.

         ********************************************************

         THE GOA RIGHT TO INFORMATION ACT, ONE YEAR ON

         By Robert Jenkins and Anne Marie Goetz

         --------------------------------------------------------
         From TRANSPARENCY..., New Delhi, March 1999
         ********************************************************

         While some people struggle for a right to information, 
         others have it thrust upon them. In mid-1997 the 
         Congress chief minister of Goa, Pratapsing Rane, 
         announced that his government would soon introduce 
         right-to-information legislation.  Goa's activists and 
         press corps were caught off-guard. When the press 
         finally obtained a copy of the bill -- ironically, 
         through a leak from sources within the bureaucracy -- 
         they discovered a number of draconian provisions, which 
         had little to do with increasing accountability.

         One clause provided for fines for those who used 
         information obtained under the act for "malafide 
         purposes". Many felt that this clause revealed the 
         government's true intent: intimidation of the press.

         After the Bill was passed in mid-1997, the Goa Union of 
         Journalists orchestrated a successful mobilization of 
         civil society against the 'offending provisions' of the 
         Act. This resulted in amendments, and by early 1998 
         Goa's citizens had an Act explicitly guaranteeing a 
         right to information. "Competent authorities" were 
         identified for each government department all the way 
         down to the gram panchayat. Also included were a 
         stipulated period within which requests for information 
         must be processed, and a procedure adjudicating appeals 
         against requests.

         The question facing Goa is whether it can generate a 
         demand-side response to this newly available facility. 

         One of the most striking aspects of the Goan case is the 
         lack of a concerted campaign or mobilization for the 
         introduction of an RTI act prior to the government's 
         initiative. Access to information has been a 
         long-standing preoccupation of many activist 
         organisations: environmental groups like the Goa 
         Foundation and Nirmal Vishwa; civil rights groups such 
         as the All-Goa Citizens' Committee for Social Justice 
         and Action (AGCCSJA); or women's organizations like 
         Bailancho Saad. 

         However, they have sought information itself -- relating 
         to specific cases and issues -- as opposed to 
         campaigning for a "right" to information, in the form of 
         legislation or regulatory change. All of these groups 
         supported the right-to-information agitation in late 
         1997, but with the exception of AGCCSJA, have made 
         limited or no use of the Act itself. Even the press, 
         once it had defended its rights of free expression, has 
         not made use of its provisions.

         A few forays into the domain of investigative journalism 
         have seen reporters file requests for information, but 
         on the whole, it is generally agreed among Goa's 
         journalists that most reporters would not want to upset 
         their established channels of privileged disclosure with 
         government officials by seeming to be too 
         confrontational.

         Though organisations have been slow to respond, a wide 
         array of individuals have sought to assert their newly 
         conferred right. After a year on the books, the Goa 
         Right to Information Act (GRIA) has generated about 400 
         applications for government documents. 

         Many applications are related to inquiries about 
         potentially illegal constructions. Some applications 
         involve clearances given to polluting industries. And 
         many are inquiries into the application of licensing or 
         taxation rules to the properties and businesses of 
         certain individuals, presumably with a view to exposing 
         favouritism.

         Probably the most active user of the Act has been the 
         All-Goa Citizens' Committee for Social Justice and 
         Action (AGCCSJA), whose spokesman, Mr M.K.Jos, has filed 
         28 applications on the Associations' behalf. AGCCSJA has 
         pursued many causes of public misconduct, using both the 
         right to information legislation and a range of 
         statutory grievance mechanisms. 

         A particularly striking case in which access to 
         information assisted the AGCCSJA in pursuing malfeasance 
         concerned the alleged misdeeds of a district cooperative 
         bank. By obtaining a copy of an independent audit report 
         which supplied details of the bank's mismanagement, the 
         AGCCSJA was able to generate considerable negative 
         publicity for the politician who controlled the bank, a 
         former minister in the central government, who went on 
         to lose the subsequent election.

         So far, most of AGCCSJA's applications under the GRIA 
         appear to target poor government decision-making in 
         sectors. About one-third of its applications involve 
         cases of alleged patronage and nepotism in appointments, 
         promotions, and service conditions in higher and 
         secondary education. Other petitions relate to building 
         permits and subsidies for hotels, which violate planning 
         and environmental codes, to toxic waste emitted by a 
         zinc factory, and to the role of an IAS (Indian 
         Administrative Services) officer in a lottery scam. 
         Despite their middle-class orientation, these concerns, 
         particularly those relating to the education system, 
         involve strategic aspects of the state's claims to 
         legitimacy.

         One association in Goa which does focus on socially 
         excluded groups has made concerted and successful use of 
         the GRIA. The Gomantak Bahujan Samaj Parishad, a 
         federation of OBC (other backward castes) associations, 
         has used the new right to information provisions to 
         expose the politically motivated (and allegedly illegal) 
         process by which OBC status was granted to a large and, 
         according to the GBSP, 'forward' caste.

         An advocate representing the GBSP, filed a petition 
         under the GRIA to see the notes and minutes of the 
         Cabinet meeting in which the decision was made. What he 
         found was enough to win the writ petition he then filed 
         before the High Court.  One of the Cabinet notes 
         prepared by the Social Welfare Ministry showed that the 
         Congress Legislature Party, and not the legally 
         sanctioned Goa State Commission for Backward Classes, 
         had decided to award OBC-status to this group. The 
         decision, not incidentally, was made just before a 
         national election, and the caste group in question was 
         known to support the ruling Congress. Such decisions are 
         not meant to be made by political parties, and the High 
         Court issued a stay on the notification in question, 
         following the presentation of the GBSP's evidence.

         The GBSP subsequently used the GRIA to research 
         compliance with current rules on reservations by 
         requesting information from all government departments 
         and agencies about their staff composition.

         Willingness to divulge this information has varied 
         widely across the government. Some departments have not 
         responding at all, violating the 30-day time limit. 
         Others have responded with a full list of names of 
         employees and their designations. 

         There is enormous variation in charges levied for this 
         information. Some departments have not made any charge, 
         while others have made seemingly arbitrary and sometimes 
         significant charges -- charges for 'processing fees', 
         for instance, or for 'the cost of arranging the 
         inspection of documents'. The Registrar of Cooperative 
         Societies charged Rs 2000, and the Director of Education 
         Rs 1630. 

         One agency, the Economic Development Corporation, has 
         issued a string of objections to the request, on the 
         grounds that the petitioner did not qualify as a 
         'citizen' under the act, that the information requested 
         was not clearly in the public interest, that the GRIA 
         did not permit 'fishing or roving inquiries of a general 
         nature relating to the affairs of bodies within its 
         purview', and that the information sought relates to 
         commercial secrets protected by law.

         These variations are, at one level, just the teething 
         pains of an administration adjusting to a new procedure. 
         But they may also represent efforts by some departments 
         to 'claw back' some of their perquisites by making it 
         more difficult for people to use the GRIA. 

         In January 1999 the Directorate of Information 
         intervened to impose some uniformity at least in the 
         charges levied for information, circulating an order 
         imposing a Rs 100 charge for processing fees for each 
         request, and a photocopying charge of Rs 2 per page.

         Many aspects of this order -- it was not announced to 
         the public or discussed with the State Information 
         Council -- has alarmed people who had hoped the GRIA 
         might become more widely used by underpriviledged 
         groups, who are likely to be deterred by the cost 
         implications.

         One of the emerging issues in the use of the GRIA is how 
         to define 'personal information', the revelation of 
         which would be an unwarranted invasion of privacy.

         One user of the GRIA in a village near Panaji -- Socorro 
         -- has encountered this charge repeatedly. A small group 
         (which includes one dissident panchayat member) 
         convinced that the local sarpanch is corrupt, attempted 
         to obtain a range of panchayat-level documents. The 
         particular matter over which the issue of 'personal 
         information' has been raised concerned taxation. The 
         suspicion motivating these requests is that the sarpanch 
         and his cronies are underpaying on house tax, the 
         insinuation being that there has been underassessment 
         involving abuse of authority for private gain. The 
         panchayat secretary, the designated authority for 
         information sharing under the GRIA, has refused to 
         release the tax records and land survey documents on the 
         grounds that this is personal information, the 
         revelation of which would serve no 'public interest'. 

         This is one of the clauses that make experts think that 
         Goa's act is flawed, for it provides an excuse which can 
         be ruthlessly abused. But even with such a provision, it 
         should be possible for an applicant to make the case 
         that matters of revenue, precisely because they bear so 
         heavily on the availability of funds for collective 
         endeavors, should always be treated as in the 'public 
         interest'.

         One potential way of reducing the impact of constraints 
         such as seemingly arbitrary imposition of fees, or the 
         invocation of the 'personal information' objection to 
         disclosure, is monitoring. Legally, this is supposed to 
         be done by a 'State Information Council' which includes 
         representatives from NGOs and the Press. So far, the SIC 
         has only had one meeting, with the subsequent meeting 
         repeatedly postponed.

         Grievances are mounting, however, and some women's and 
         other organizations are preparing a well-documented 
         submission regarding bureaucratic resistance for the 
         next meeting.

         One major issue to be discussed in the deterrent effect 
         of the new processing and photocopying charges. But of 
         more importance will be the on-going debate over the 
         range of information for which citizens can legitimately 
         apply. In the first SIC meeting, the government 
         repeatedly stressed anxieties over the way the GRIA 
         could be used to settle individual scores by delving 
         into personal material. When the NGO and Press 
         representatives countered that such requests often 
         exposed forms of corruption and favouritism about which 
         the public has a right to know, the Chief Minister 
         reportedly retorted that the GRIA "is not an anti-
         corruption act".

         But some individuals and groups in Goa think otherwise. 
         In addition, some see this as an opportunity to promote 
         a broader change in the culture of secrecy and 
         obstruction which ordinary citizens face when dealing 
         with bureaucrats. 

         Bailancho Saad, for instance, is continuing to promote a 
         broader interpretation of citizens' rights to government 
         information. They want to see a culture of automatic 
         information disclosure, not grudging information release 
         in response to individual petitions. For instance, they 
         suggest that all government studies, commissioned 
         reports, and departmental budgets be made available as a 
         matter of course to the public through information 
         centres.

         The chances that the GRIA will catalyse a perceptible 
         increase in government transparency will depend upon the 
         creation of a civil society constituency committed to 
         its application to anti-corruption cases. The petitions 
         under the GRIA do not yet add up to a concerted campaign 
         against corruption affecting less privileged 
         constituencies. In fact, there is also a viewpoint that 
         it is a right for liberals and literates, and can allow  
         individuals to seek privileged information without 
         involving the broader community.

         While this line of thinking is open to debate, it 
         clearly highlights that the connections between a 
         liberal civil right like the right to information, and 
         the broader social, economic, and political rights -- 
         particularly rights to livelihood and basic services -- 
         have not been established yet. For this to be visible to 
         broader social groups, use of the GRIA will have to 
         extend to government services and arenas affecting 
         poorer groups, such as anti-poverty schemes, 
         agriculture, water supply and sanitation, primary 
         education, health and of course, the village panchayats.

         *******************************************************
         The authors are conducting a three-year study of 
         grassroot movements and government initiatives for 
         transparency across India. Rob Jenkins and Anne Marie 
         Goetz can be contacted at 
         rjenkins {AT} beaconsfield.u-net.com or 
         drrobjenkins {AT} hotmail.com

         FOOTNOTE: For an free email copy of the Goa Right to
         Information Act, contact <fred {AT} goa1.dot.net.in>

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