Subhedari Guest House is a prestigious government guest house in Aurangabad. The ratings on Google are ‘excellent’. Recently, I requested my friend to book a VIP room for me as I was visiting the city for a personal or official trip.
Firstly, it took a while to locate the person in charge when I reached there. Seeing the fancy cottage, equipped with metal detectors at the entrance, I took for granted that it was the VIP cottage. Sorry, no. I was led to a room in another building. Fair enough.
However, in one hour, I had to flee. The room was ill-maintained with even bed bugs around, dirty bedsheets and a poorly kept bathroom. And hey presto! when I came out to look for the manager, suddenly I found my room locked! I was told stray dogs enter; hence, the precaution and a warning that we should not keep the door open!
When I asked about the VIP cottage, he responded that it was only for ministers. When even senior bureaucrats and judges stayed in the room allotted to me, he pointed out, why was I complaining? I have had similar experiences in guest or circuit houses in Kolhapur. There, the peon had told me that VIPs now prefer fancy hotels and the guest house rooms were allotted to their accompanying drivers and other lesser human beings!
The fact is, there must be hundreds of guest or circuit houses all over Maharashtra and, of course, their maintenance is paid for with taxpayers’ money.
So, I decided to file an RTI online to the public works department (PWD), seeking information on the following: names of government guest houses and circuit houses in Pune, Kolhapur, Solapur and Aurangabad districts; annual budget of all the above guest houses and circuit houses from January 2017 to December 2020; annual expenditure of above from January 2017 to December 2020; names of government officers with ranks and political leaders who stayed in these from January 2017 to December 2020 and specifically expenditure on maintenance for these from January 2017 to December 2020.
The reason for penning this article is the barrage of correspondence from 11 February 2022 to 3 March 2022, by various public information officers (PIOs) from the PWD of Pune, Kolhapur, Aurangabad, Solapur, Hatkalange and Indapur, as replies to my RTI application dated 3 February 2022.
Twenty letters have been sent to me, all of which could have been avoided if these public authorities had heeded the proactive disclosure under various clauses of Section 4 of the RTI Act. The public authority is bound by it to put such information in the public domain. Not only would my time and stress of going through those letters have been saved but the government expenditure on postage and correspondence would have been nil!
Besides, senior government babus and even judges, who keep harping about the additional burden on the PIOs because of RTI applications, should now know why they increase their own burden. Instead of blaming enthusiastic RTI applicants, they should blame themselves. All they need to do is regularly put up data on the website, as has been directed by the RTI Act. Is this difficult when anyway they have the information when you ask for it under Section 6 of the RTI Act?
Here is how my journey will be as I seek information, after which, of course, I shall write an article on the details that I receive. I have been asked by the Pune and Kolhapur offices to come over personally to inspect files under Section 4 of the RTI Act. I stay in Pune so do they expect me to incur personal expenditure to visit Kolhapur?
The Hatkalange PIO has come up with a bright idea to evade much information: he has replied that I have asked for information on different subjects when the Maharashtra government has restricted RTI applicants to just one subject (that is, indeed, laughable).
The special projects department of the PWD Kolhapur (four PIOs of four different PWD departments of Kolhapur have replied), wrote that the information I need is ready with them. It comprises 55 pages and as and when they receive Rs110 (Rs2 per page) either by money order or directly to them, they would send me the information.
A couple of PIOs have provided half information by mentioning how many guest houses exist in their jurisdiction.
I broached this topic at the RTI online kata last Sunday. I have been advised to write a complaint to the state chief information commissioner against the PIO for asking me to travel to Kolhapur to inspect files and instead direct the public authority to upload the information on the website. I have also been asked to check the audit reports which may have been uploaded in the public domain. I shall be pursuing both these suggestions.
To conclude, the RTI Act is in a mess due to the government side and not due to the citizenry, which is rightfully using it. One can imagine the frustration of information-seekers as such hurling of letters by the PIOs must be a standard mode of their modus operandi! The only way out is for public authorities to abide entirely by Section 4 of the RTI Act.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the 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”.