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Ringing the winds of change in the new Bihar

Bihar's programme of filing RTI applications through a call center is a novel one. The question is whether the model is effiicient enough to be replicated in other states like Karnataka.

By Suneha Dutta

If you are in Bihar, you can get electronic goods repaired, phone numbers, buy things through call centres — and also file an RTI application. Zafar Hassan has filed two applications in the past two years through call centres, without having to do the rounds of Public Information Offices (PIO).

A novel idea introduced by the state government in 2007, Jankari is a call centre in Bihar where RTI applications can be filed over the phone. The call centre’s team leader, Pramod Kumar, informs that since its inception, 16,500 applications have been filed through this call centre, and every year the number keeps increasing. Applications have increased from 500 to 1,000 per month on an average.

The number of calls received at the centre, seeking to file RTI applications as well as with generic questions about the RTI Act, have gone up steadily. In 2007, there were 6820 calls. In 2008, this went up to 15,780 and 24,682 in 2009. In 2010, till 15 August, the number of applications filed totalled 13,995. Bihar’s Human Resources Department receives the highest number of applications since it handles common concerns like job postings, promotions and plans like last year’s Shikshak Niyojan.

It is no wonder then that the e-governance department of Karnataka has announced their plans of a similar RTI call centre in Bangalore recently. They feel their 1 October 2010 deadline, which is fast approaching, can be met, owing to the existing IT infrastructure. Plans will be fine tuned through consultations with the Information Commission.

The process of filing queries over the telephone is quite simple. The call centre employees fill up a standard form, word them into an application and post one copy each to the applicant and the designated PIO. Each call of five minutes costs ten rupees, the cost of one RTI application form. The brainchild of Arvind Kejriwal, a Ramon Magsaysay Award winning social activist, the idea was immediately approved by the Bihar Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, when it was suggested three years ago.

Kejriwal credits the acceptance of the programme to its ability to make RTI accessible in remote areas. People don’t have to deal with the long journey to the district PIO or the bureaucracy. There is also a helpline number for any kind of assistance regarding the applications. This national award winning initiative is a public-private one, headed by the General Administration Department. The call centre has been outsourced to a private company, Call 2 Connect India Private Limited.

However, the Karnataka RTI act forum (KRIA Katte), a civil society platform, is opposing this program. Ravindra Nath Guru, the Convener of KRIA Katte, calls it a “populist move”. “As per our information it is not successful in Bihar. Trying to build more call centres is just a publicity stunt”. Guru rues that it is just another way to provide business to the corporate sector, since the government bears the expense of running the call centre.

It is estimated there are already 11,000 pending applications in Karnataka owing to the complacence of the PIOs, who don’t face stern action for failing to reply within the stipulated timeframe. Guru argues that given the lack of basic infrastructure for attending to the existing flow of queries, there is no benefit in having more applications? “If the common man does not get the information, what is the use of having a call centre?”

Then there might be delays when applications could take several days to reach respective district PIOs by post. Also, none of the officials in Karnataka have any email addresses, so using that as a medium for faster collection of applications from the call center is not feasible either.

Guru says another drawback of this process is that the call centre only acts as a data collection centre. So, only the initial stage is made easier. The call center doesn’t help in tracking the application’s progress and when first round of reply does not come, the applicant needs to spend another ten rupees to call up for filing the second appeal”, says Guru.

Parveen Amanullah, Convener of the Bihar RTI Manch, argues that, “there is no relation between pending applications and call centers. There’s not much complacency in the Information Commission. Replies are pending because Departments don’t want to divulge any information. The cases wouldn’t drag if the Information Commissioners would enforce a penalty for delays.” As for the problem about the absence of email ids and time taken for an application to reach, that could pose a problem with the Karnataka information commissions but not for Bihar. The delivery-by-post system works swiftly enough she says.

An RTI activist himself, Kejriwal says he is surprised at the opposition to this successful model, which at one point even Sonia Gandhi had recommended state governments. Amanullah emphasises that despite its problems the program can work in India because it demystifies the process of RTI. Zafar Hassan filed an application three months back asking about the “vishwas yatra” of the Chief Minister — the places visited, the cost and the source of funds. He got his information about the places visited, and despite the department saying it was unauthorized to provide information on the costs, Hassan says he feels encouraged by how easy it was to file the RTI in the first place. As Amanullah says, “this is partly setting an example and there is government sensitivity to the problem. If PIOs don’t do their job, it’s not the fault of the concept.”

Posted on September 14, 2010