The sustained campaign by Right to Information (RTI) activists across Maharashtra, under the umbrella of the virtual RTI Katta, to propel the state government to undertake virtual hearings for second appeals and every other quasi-judicial hearings has received a push with Abha Shukla, the principal secretary for information technology (IT), agreeing to implement the proposal as it has the infrastructural capability to do so.
The meeting which was conducted through virtual conference recently, brings hope to hundreds of RTI users and activists and citizens who have been waiting for information/justice for over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic further crippled the already lethargic second appeal hearings.
Activists had earlier approached the Bombay High Court to direct the government of Maharashtra to offer the opportunity of virtual hearings, against the backdrop of the COVID-19 crisis which had badly affected physical hearings. They had also mentioned that it would lead to considerably easing access to justice and reduce the time, travel and cost for citizens and public servants.
The High Court, on the basis of the reply by the state government had observed in its order that, the state government ``proposes to assess the necessary infrastructure for deciding as to whether quasi-judicial hearings with the public can be continued through video conferencing during the post pandemic period, bearing in mind the financial implications of the same; and for this purpose, a committee is being formed at the government of Maharashtra level with the presence of the general administration, finance, law and judiciary and the IT departments.
The committee would be required to hold consultation with the experts in the field and to solicit suggestions from the general public including the petitioners before an appropriate decision is taken in regard to continuation of quasi-judicial hearings through video conferencing.’’
The court had also asked the first petitioner to provide appropriate inputs to the committee, once it is formed.
Accordingly, former CIC and member of the RTI Katta, Shailesh Gandhi, had provided comprehensive inputs. He stated in his observation that all that is required is an internet connection of 2 Mbps; laptop/desktop with camera or a suitable smart phone and wired earphone/head phone with microphone. These can well be used for virtual hearings also as many appellate authorities/quasi-judicial authorities also have laptops and smart phones.
At the recent virtual RTI Katta meeting, Pralhad Kachare, former additional collector, who has extensively worked in Yashada Pune in RTI Act implementation and e-governance initiatives, stated that ``Maharashtra state is the pioneer in citizen centric e-governance initiatives like common service centre (Maha e-Seva, SETU), public distribution system (PDS), land record (Bhoomi Abhilekh) where village level talathis have laptops and are paid monthly data allowance of Rs750 each month.’’
According to Mr Kachare, “Every gram panchayat has computers, internet connection and a paid operator with knowledge of operating computers and internet for delivery of citizen centric services. Data available on websites of various departments shows that there are about 27920-gram panchayat offices which have computers with internet connections earlier known as Sangram Kendras. There are also Maha e-seva kendras all over Maharashtra. Thus there are more than 30000 locations spread across Maharashtra, with functional public interface for service delivery which could be used by citizens and government officers who face connectivity problem.’’
Thus, the public information officers and first appellate authorities have access to computers with internet connectivity in their offices. If some of them do not have webcams with microphones, these are available for about a thousand rupees and can be fitted easily. Citizens may use their computers, laptops or suitable smartphones. For those who do not have these, they could use the services of the gram panchayat facilities or avail the services of the Maha e-seva Kendras on payment of reasonable fees as may be fixed by the government.
States RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar, who steered this campaign, “There is considerable familiarity of citizens and officers with WhatsApp which allows up to eight participants on a video call. Primary school students and primary school dropout adults are also using these. It appears, all the required infrastructures exist and video conferencing would be a big saving of time and expense for everyone. I am sure our state will show the way to the entire country. I suggest that the choice be given to all parties to appear physically or virtually.’’
The need for this campaign was because, despite the government circular no. (Misc 2020/C.R. 62/18(O&M) of 13 October 2020) and the court’s clear orders to have virtual hearings, there was no urgency to implement the same.
(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”.)