When the Pune bench of State Information Commissioner (SIC) received multiple second appeals from a resident of Solapur regarding the failure of the municipal corporation to provide him with inspection reports of some buildings, it was hardly surprised. Such appeals clogging up the disposal system are now common in SIC benches. In due course of time, the SIC held hearings and imposed a fine on the officer for not providing information on time.
However, the case took a strange turn when the officer approached the SIC bench and claimed that the applicant had contacted him and said he could get the fine annulled if the officer declared the buildings in question as unsafe.
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Further investigations revealed that the buildings were owned by the applicant himself, but were occupied by tenants. The applicant wanted to evict the tenants and redevelop the land. So, he took the RTI route to pressure civic officials into declaring the buildings as unsafe. As per rules, if a building is declared unsafe, its tenants would have to be evicted.
This is just one of many such cases haunting the various SIC benches. Officials say that over the past few months, there has been at least a 25% rise in number of cases where people use RTI to coerce government officials for personal work.
Applicants are now targeting licensing bodies like municipal corporations, the foodgrain distribution offices (FDO)s, pollution control boards, etc, for such work. SIC officials say the standard modus operandi involves asking for information regarding various issues.
“A close scrutiny of the applications show a remarkable knowledge about the legal framework. Often, due to the complexities of the legal process and the archaic laws, the licensing authorities fail to reply in time or collect information. This gets them before the SICs and when the hearing is announced, the applicants try to strike a deal with the authorities,” said a senior officer of the SIC bench in Pune.
In another case, a few MPCB officers came to the SIC bench in Nashik to complain about how an applicant was trying to coerce them into certifying a small flour mill as environmentally hazardous. Doing so would have led to the mill’s closure, which the applicant wanted as the unit was on his land.
“Often, due to administrative workload, officials of local bodies fail to adhere to certain norms and the applicants try to catch them on it. This is a disturbing trend,” said another official with the SIC.
Interestingly, RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar says a majority of the applicants are either former bureaucrats or people being used as front offices by them.
“The real RTI users would not know the intricacies of the administration to get into such work. In order to safeguard against such forces, public authorities should be more proactive in their disclosures,” he says.