Saturday, November 22, 2008

NRIs too have the right to information

In 2008 the Supreme Court granted all overseas Indians the right to seek information from any public authority, organisation or institution under the Right to Information (RTI) Act 2005, saying the right is available to all persons of Indian origin (PIOs) who have obtained the status of Pravasi Bharatiya.

The ruling was made by a bench comprising Justices S B Sinha and Cyriac Joseph on an appeal petition by a non-resident Indian (NRI) scientist based in the United States, Dr Kunal Saha, after he was denied information by the West Bengal Medical Council about details of the medical treatment given to his late wife, Dr Anuradha Saha, at a Kolkata hospital.

Dr Anuradha Saha died in 1998, allegedly due to an incorrect dose/treatment administered to her at the hospital. Dr Saha, a noted AIDS vaccine researcher at Ohio State University, has been fighting to prove a case of medical negligence since 1998.

Dr Saha approached the apex court against a Calcutta High Court order rejecting his plea seeking documents under the Right to Information (RTI) Act that the Medical Council was said to have obtained in the course of their investigation into his complaint against senior Kolkata doctors. The high court also held that Dr Saha was an NRI and thereby not entitled to information under the newly enacted law.

The Supreme Court however upheld Dr Saha’s appeal petition that he was entitled to information under the RTI Act. Early last year, the Supreme Court admitted a claim for Rs 1.43 billion compensation by the US-based AIDS researcher against the Kolkata doctors -- the highest in the country till date. The case is under consideration by the country’s top judiciary.

The apex court’s order vis-à-vis the RTI Act has brought cheer to India’s NRI community for a number of reasons.

In June 2007, the Indian embassy in Washington DC brought all its operations under the purview of the RTI Act as a result of the persistent efforts of volunteers from the Association for India’s Development (AID), a non-profit group based in the United States. This meant that the RTI Act extended to all Indian citizens living in the US. The Supreme Court of India has now ensured that the RTI Act covers all persons of Indian origin, anywhere in the world.

“Our repeated attempts since November 2006 to get Indian embassy officials in Washington DC to implement the RTI Act went unheard, and then we were left with no choice but to get in touch with the central information commissioner directly,” explains Arun Gopalan, a Maryland resident and an AID member.

The Central Information Commission in New Delhi issued an order around April 2007 bringing all missions abroad under the purview of the RTI Act. It took one-and-a-half months of further campaigning by AID volunteers to get the Indian embassy in Washington DC to accept its first RTI petition.

Now, any Indian citizen with a valid Indian passport can file an RTI application with the public information officer at the Indian embassy after paying a fee of 24 cents, equivalent to Rs 10. The embassy then transfers the application to the relevant department in India if the information requested does not pertain to the embassy itself. The applicant must receive a response within 35 days or he/she can file an appeal with the appellate authority and later with the chief information commissioner in India.

Close to 50 applications have so far been filed in what has been an encouraging start to the RTI campaign in the US. India’s RTI Act is similar to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in the US that is extensively used by the American public: 3-5 million FOIA applications are filed every year.

“Filing an RTI application is easier than the leave-of-absence applications you wrote in your primary school,” says Somu Kumar, a volunteer with the Anti-Corruption Team (ACT) of AID, living in Virginia. Somu was one of the first NRIs to file an RTI application from the US, requesting information that may help hold Dow Chemicals accountable for the Bhopal tragedy and compel it to come clean on the contamination of groundwater that continues at the plant site even today.


AID’s anti-corruption team focuses on spreading awareness about the RTI Act in the USA, and supports non-governmental organisations working in India to fight corruption. AID has set up an anti-corruption fund and hopes to raise $50,000 to help implementation of the RTI Act and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA).


However, Washington is experiencing some teething problems: the embassy announced on its website recently that NRIs could send their applications to it “only when the subject matter can reasonably be presumed to pertain to the embassy”. This, despite an express provision -- Section 6(3) of the RTI Act -- stating that if the subject matter of an application addressed to one public authority actually related to another, then the former has to transfer it to the latter within five days.

The mission in Washington admitted under the RTI Act about a month ago that in 31 of the 45 queries received till then, NRIs had been “advised to send their applications directly” to the public authorities based in India. The queries sought information on diverse public interest issues such as the Narmada project, Nandigram, Dow Chemicals and the Bhopal gas tragedy.

Disclaiming its statutory obligation to transfer such queries, the embassy said it would not entertain applications where “the information required obviously does not pertain to the embassy”. When asked to disclose the file notings, under the RTI Act, that had led to the statement on the website, the embassy said: “The information contained in the website was created by the public information officer with the approval of the Government of India.”

On an application filed by NRI Vishal Kudchadkar, the embassy also declined to provide a list of cases in which applicants had been told to send their applications directly to the public authorities in India. It said disclosure of the list would violate the applicants’ “privacy”.

NRIs believe the grounds cited by the embassy for withholding information on applicants flies in the face of the transparency maintained by the independent appellate body in New Delhi, the Central Information Commission (CIC), which lists all its decisions on its website along with the names and addresses of applicants.

Still, for many NRIs, the RTI Act has been a godsend. A survey conducted by AID among sections of US-based NRIs in 2007 revealed that 81% of them had paid bribes at various stages in India. The NRIs said they had bribed the authorities for international drivers’ permits and passports whilst leaving India. At the time of re-entering India, they had to pay bribes to Customs; during their stay in India they paid bribes to obtain land records.

A shocking feature of the survey was that 75% of NRIs had not heard of the RTI Act. “They (the NRI respondents) were pleasantly surprised when informed that the RTI Act has been successfully used by the common people in India to get pensions, ration cards, etc, without paying bribes,” AID said.

Tushar Dalvi, an NRI settled in Santa Cruz a few years ago, used the RTI Act to get an income tax refund that had been pending for five years. Dalvi had a non-resident ordinary account from which the bank had been deducting tax at source on the interest accumulated on his deposits. Although he had filed his returns and applied for a refund with the central international taxation department, from 2002 onwards, he had not received a reply from the income tax department.

Dalvi decided to file an RTI query with the income tax department’s central public information officer (CPIO) in December last year asking about the status of his refund. “The officer in charge forwarded my request to the CPIO for international taxation. I got both my refunds within a week. Later, I also got the interest and my assessment orders from them, which they had missed initially with the original refund cheques,” he said.

Meanwhile, AID and other organisations continue to run awareness camps and signature drives in support of the RTI Act in Washington DC, Durham, Boston, Philadelphia, the Bay Area, Columbus, San Diego and Chicago. They are also active in India.

The Indian government’s website, http://india.gov.in, says: ‘Like Indian nationals, NRIs and PIOs too have every right to know their roles, rights, duties, responsibilities and privileges. Section 4 of the RTI (Right to Information) Act, 2005 enables NRIs and PIOs to have access to information imperative for them. The Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs defines RTI rights for NRIs and PIOs. As one of their basic rights, NRIs and PIOs can contact the PGE (Protector General of Emigrants) in case of any grievance or query. The PGE can also be contacted online at indianemigration@nic.in

Source: http://infochangeindia.org/200811217502/Right-to-Information/Features/NRIs-too-have-the-right-to-information.html


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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