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New form of public-public partnership needed

New form of public-public  partnership needed
Highlights

When things get beyond tolerable limits, as corruption and abuse of power in the country today, the rulers and the ruled become adversaries. There is...

When things get beyond tolerable limits, as corruption and abuse of power in the country today, the rulers and the ruled become adversaries. There is suspicion about everything that the government does and people refuse to engage with the system. This is not only a dangerous situation but also one that threatens the very definition of democracy. A Unless we change this perception of Them Vs Us and start engaging with the system while exposing wrongs, democracy cannot thrive. My recent experiences of working with a Government department (APIIC) in improving the implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act has reinforced my belief about this engagement.

The Andhra Pradesh Industrial Infrastructure Corporation (APIIC) is mandated to assist, promote and finance the setting up of industries for job creation and economic growth. The public perception about this organization is one that gives away huge chunks of land to private industries at throwaway rates and an organization that is mired in corruption. One reason is that they have little public interaction and there is very little transparency in terms of disclosures. This lack of transparency only fosters the perception of people. After Mr. Jayesh Ranjan took over as the MD & VC of APIIC, he wanted to change this image and culture and asked if we could help them in better implementation of the RTI Act and also improve their disclosure regime. That's when the seeds of this engagement were sown.

One of the primary things was to understand the goals, objectives and the functioning of the organization before we could suggest changes. Once we had this understanding, it was back to the drawing board to review what they already had in the public domain and what they did not. The review also looked at things from a citizen's point of view and the things he would want to be disclosed. A Demand for information is an important parameter in deciding what needs to be disclosed proactively and what need not. So the review of previous RTI applications was done to understand the types of information sought and if we could identify any visible pattern or demand for information.

Once this exercise was done, we held meetings with their IT team and the RTI implementation team and suggested the changes that needed to be made to their website and their disclosure regime. The following were the suggestions:

- To make their website more user-friendly for a common citizen so that he need not go around scouting for information. A special tab 'Information to Public' with all the information that citizens might need needs to be created. - To comply with the provisions of the Sec 4(1)(b) of the RTI Act (proactive disclosures) - To put the copies of all Memorandums of Understandings (MoUs) that APIIC entered into in the public domain. - To put into public domain details of Joint Venture Companies/PPPs that APIIC is a part of, with details of share-holding pattern. - To put in public domain details of all engineering works under progress, contract value, details of the contractor, etc.

We were surprised to know that the APIIC had all the details of land allocation, land bank, etc, up to the survey number level in a software application built for internal purposes. There was no reason for it to be kept out of bounds to public since it did not attract any of the exemption provisions of the RTI Act.

Moreover, majority of the RTI queries that come to the APIIC relate to land allocation and land acquisition. So there was enough reason for this part of the information to be made public. Now the land bank and land allocation details up to the survey number level are in public domain.

Making the old RTI applications and their replies public while protecting the identity of the person who filed it was another way of meeting the demand for information. This will not only help applicants search for relevant information before filing a new application but will reduce the load of applications on the organization in the long run.

We also found that lack of training on the RTI Act to the functionaries was also a major reason for the state of implementation. With the support of the organization, we organized five capacity-building workshops for functionaries of the APIIC involved in the RTI implementation. There was honest exchange of thoughts, apprehensions, etc, during these workshops. We were able to build their capacity in understanding the Act well while also setting their expectations right. It was to be drilled into their minds that all these changes would only help them discharge their duty properly and not the other way around.

Many appreciated the essence of the RTI Act and had a better understanding of the objectives post these workshops. Most of them were very supportive and had done what all was asked of them to complete this exercise. They now understand that beyond the four walls of their office, they also become common citizens and it will then be their turn to demand information.

According to an estimate, nearly 1/3rd of the RTI applications filed in the country are by retired/serving public servants. This I believe is enough evidence for the huge demand for information even for those within the system. Through this exercise, the belief that engaging with the system is a must for a better democracy got strengthened. Only citizens can explain to the rulers what their needs are and this lack of engagement often leads to top-down solutions that fail. While there will always be black sheep, there is no point worrying about the black sheep.

The engagement will slowly change the adversarial attitude that both sides have developed for each other. This does not mean we are co-opted. Our fight and efforts to expose wrongs will continue alongside engaging with the good ones in the system to change it for better.

There are more avenues than before for citizens to engage with the system. The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) also formed a Technical Advisory Committee (TAC) consisting of RTI activists to advise them on better implementation of the RTI Act and to advise them on the proactive disclosure regime. These engagements should increase and citizens' knowledge and their needs should become an important input for officials in improving transparency and accountability.

Social Audits are another way of engaging with the system to expose the wrongs in service delivery. It is heartening that public audits are gaining traction among people and these will only improve in times to come. A The need for these new form of PPPs (Public-Public Partnership) today is more than ever before. Like the former President of the United States Thomas Jefferson said, "Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves are its only safe depositories", there is no choice but to engage with the system if democracy is to be in safe hands.

So the review of previous RTI applications was done to understand the types of information sought and if we could identify any visible pattern or demand for information

The writer is co-convener, National Campaign for People's Right to Information (rakesh.dubbudu@gmail.com)

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