With 28 out of the 29 state information commissions (SCICs) across the country hardly working and with most public information officers (PIOs) and first appellate authorities (FAAs) too busy with COVID-19 duties, the use of Right to Information (RTI) act has almost come to a standstill.
The city of Pune, which pioneered the use of Section 4 of the RTI Act way back in 2005, which gives the right to a citizen to inspect files in any government office at a time when activists across states were reluctant to do so; has once again dropped conventional norms to pick up the challenge by campaigning through Zoom online meetings – the new normal.
On Sunday, the Sajag Nagarik Manch, which works for RTI, organised a Zoom meeting for the public on Pune’s current civic budget, which is yet to be passed by the general body of the Pune municipal corporation (PMC) due to the lock-down. With the COVID-19 pandemic changing the circumstances and priorities of the civic body, the PMC’s budget proposal stands as null and void on various counts.
To dissect and analyse this issue threadbare, Vivek Velankar and Jugal Rathi, founders of the Sajag Nagarik Manch that pursues issues through RTI, invited former municipal commissioner Mahesh Zagade, for the e-talk. His conclusion that, under the pandemic environment, it is pertinent that the civic budget be revised and only ``the most essential’’ works, not even ``essential’’ works, should be made the top priority.
The PMC has abided by the Section 4 disclosures under the RTI Act, by putting up the entire budget proposal on its website www.pmc.gov.in
and citizens should go through it and submit suggestions for the amendment of the budget. Over and above that, he states that the mayor and the standing committee should mull over the budget once again and make the desired changes, as legally, budget expenditure for a particular item (which may be redundant in today’s circumstances) should be channelized for a more important item like public health.
This spurred Sajag Nagarik Manch to steer a campaign to put pressure on the corporators to change the budget. For this, the Manch will form an umbrella of 20-25 social organisations across Pune and involve important opinion makers of the city, to study the budget and make suggestions.
For example, Mr Zagade mentioned that ever since the swine flu hit Pune way back in 2009, the PMC, in every annual budget thereafter has proposed expenditure for masks, ventilators for the intensive care units (ICU) and so on. In the current budget, which is of Rs7,300 crore, Mr Zagade stated that, “Rs9 lakh only have been allocated for emergency equipment for an epidemic while Rs1.5 crore have been allocated for loud speakers for public functions! It’s time that the PMC pulls up its socks and re-does a realistic budget in the current and post- COVID-19 situation. This should be done primarily by the mayor and the standing committee members, with inputs from corporators from every ward and citizens who could collectively come together. The latter must put pressure on the PMC and achieve this."
Mr Zagade further added that expenditure for insignificant causes like funding some arts committee; putting up more mobile towers, cleaning up tekdis, funding for Olympics and marathons (both are irrelevant now), several renovation works and so on, should be deleted from the budget and channelised for "most essential" use.
rm He reiterated that a civic budget is not 'locked' but can be re-opened and money diverted for the most important priority today which is public health. Moreover he said, the implementation of the Epidemic Act and Disaster Management Act enforced to combat COVID-19 which has come into force for all the states and Union territories provides the power to make changes in the civic budget. This is because the pandemic is a catastrophic event and directly relates to providing quality public health and prioritises it over and above any other public expenditure.
However, as per Mr Velankar, the PMC has already begun spending for frivolous stuff like re-furbishing traffic islands, which he says can wait as Pune is in the red zone of COVID-19 of the pandemic.
In another attempt to continue the RTI campaign, Vijay Kumbhar, founder of the Surajya Sangharsh Samiti, which has successfully organised the RTI Katta in one of Pune’s public gardens, namely Chittarajan Vatika, for over 100 weeks, went online last Thursday, on Zoom.
While that meeting comprised a small group of RTI activists, former CIC and noted RTI activist, Shailesh Gandhi, proposed writing to the CIC to conduct online meetings to clear thousands of pending second appeals. The coming Thursday, the e-RTI Katta is open to public. The ID and password for Zoom will be posted by Mr Kumbhar on social media.
Unarguably, Pune has always led reforms and this one in RTI is indeed commendable. Like Pune, citizens across cities and towns must campaign for change in the civic budget to address post-COVID-19 issues.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”