Information is the key to any battle, and no one knows this better than government officials. So what do they do when the Right To Information (RTI) Act ensures that they can’t refuse information legally? Create other sorts of roadblocks to discourage the public from asking uncomfortable questions.
In the latest instance, three Delhi Deputy Commissioners of Police (DCPs) have asked for ‘fees’ from an RTI applicant who sought details of impounded vehicles that lie dumped at police stations in the city. The law is clear on the ‘fee’ for RTI applications: Rs 10 at the time of filing an application. If an applicant needs data from official files, it will be supplied free of cost. But if he needs photocopies of files etc, then the cost is calculated at Rs 2 per page.
In case, the information is available in electronic form, it will be Rs 50 per CD. The information has to be made available within 30 days of the application. Instead of asking for the legal fee, the three DCPs asked the applicant to deposit Rs 50,000 as ‘fees’, which includes photocopying charges and per day salaries of the officers given the job. Interestingly, this demand was made after three other DCPs had already supplied the same information to the applicant without asking for any extra fee, paying only for photocopying charges.
This kind of corruption is not new. Similar cases have been reported from other states too. An RTI activist was threatened at gunpoint by a police officer in Bihar, while in Uttar Pradesh, a similar ‘fee’ was demanded from activists looking for information on National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) workers. But people have managed to use the Act to get their work done in other government departments without paying bribes. That is probably where it hurts the babus the most.
It is understandable that government officials are stretched and information gathering is an additional burden. But that should not be used as an excuse to demand payment to a government servant, whose salary is being paid by the tax-paying public.
This also undermines the progressive piece of legislation that hopes to redefine the patron-client relationship that exists between babus and the public. The attitude only shows that changing a feudal mindset is not an easy job. The battle has only begun.