Counterview: Ahmedabad: Sunday, March 01, 2015.
In an order major policy implication, Gujarat's chief information commissioner (CIC) has said that officials of the Gujarat government must respond to a right to information (RTI) query involving “question of life and liberty” within 48 hours, instead of keeping things pending. And, the CIC added, if the entire information is not there, “the available information should be provided within 48 hours” while rest of it could be “furnished expeditiously.”
Responding to a complaint by Pankti Jog of the Mahiti Adhikar Gujarat Pahel (MAGP) over failure of the state body Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL) to respond to a query of “untimely” release of Narmada canal waters into Banas river in North Gujarat, which led to the death of a woman, CIC Balwant Singh said in the order, “If the respondent is of the opinion that the matter on which information has been sought does not involve the question of life and liberty, he should, in his reply, clearly specify the reasons for the same.”
The order further said, if the official is of the opinion that the matter on which information has been sought “does not involve the question of life and liberty”, in that case also complainant should be told within 48 hours that “information shall be provided within the maximum period of 30 days”, as required by the RTI law.
Rapping the SSNNL for not acting in accordance with the RTI law, which insists under section 7(1) that reply to the complainant should be provided within 48 hours from the date of receipt of the application if it on questions concerning “life and liberty”, Singh has has now sought the reply of the SSNNL's public information officer (PIO) in writing “within seven days” as to “why penalty under Section 20(1) of the RTI Act be not imposed on him”.
Jog in her complaint dated January 6, 2015 to the Gujarat Information Commission had said that she had sought information under RTI on November 29, 2014 from the PIO, SSNNL, Gandhinagar and the local PIO of the SSNNL office in Radhanpur about the reason for the “untimely” release of Narmada canal waters into Banas river, which in turn flooded with saltpans of the Little Rann of Kutch.
The release of water, she said, “risked” the life of more than 1,000 families in the Santalpur area of the Little Rann. In fact, she claimed, the release of water into Banas river and the Little Rann of Kutch led to “a situation of disaster.”
According to Jog, the saltpan workers or agariyas “had to be evacuated from the Rann, and in the process, one mother died while delivering the baby while she was being taken out of the Rann in emergency.”
She said, “As no information was given by the SSNNL regarding the next release of water, and since there was no assurance that they will not release water without informing the people living in the Little Rann well in advance, the life of more than 1,000 families was at risk.”
Giving details to Counterview, Jog said, “In our RTI application we had also sought information on who exactly ordered the release of water from Narmda canal into Banas river, whether the saltpan workers and villagers were told in advance about it, whether there is any timetable for the release of water, and why couldn't easily readable boards not be put up for such release.”
She added, “No sooner the RTI query was put up in November-end 2014, the SSNNL became alert and stopped the release of water. Meanwhile, we were orally told by relevant officials that they were instructed to release water by someone in the top, and they were only obeying orders. Obviously, the SSNNL official found it difficult to name this person.”