Perils of an ill-worded RTI: When the government decides to drown you in the sea of knowledge

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By Romita Majumdar

SO, I finally figured out how to file an RTI, which isn’t rocket science really. What you do after you responses however is an entirely different ball game.I requested information from the Ministry of Food and Civil supplies regarding allocations under the Public Distribution System and subsequent wastege numbers during storage.

Additionally, I requested the criteria for licensing or authorizing Fair Price Shops (FPS) to provide state benefits in a given area. What I received was around 1.5 kg slammer of posts. It consisted of little more than 150 mails, almost 130 of which were just to inform me that my request was being processed. It also included myriad translations and interpretations of my query from different states.

Did you know that in Delhi, to run a Fair Price Shop you cannot have more than one entrance and any window or opening in your shop? Probably the administration worried was worried about people sneaking supplies out of the windows. Pondicherry administration provides FPS authorization only up to 31st December of each year. The dealers have to renew their license every year thus. Punjab government does not distribute the entire quota of kerosene allotted to the state. Rather, they reserve part of the supplies for emergencies.

Perils of an ill-worded RTI: When the government decides to drown you in the sea of knowledge

Unless the concerned district does not have international boundaries. Then it doesn't get any reserve supplies.One of the major concerns of the department ensuring and monitoring kerosene is to ensure that the kerosene is not misused for adulterating petrol. This being obvious from the fact being repeated up to four times in a page. FPS licencees in Rajasthan have to undergo a mandatory three month training in order to retain their authorization.

Some states just have surprising food choices. The land of aloo parathas and chhole bhature, Delhi, does not provide salt and cooking oil under PDS scheme. The Southern state of rice and fish lovers, Kerala, provides both wheat and fortified atta to beneficiaries. It would be worth investigating how the surplus wheat is affecting the health or simply how is it being utilised? Andaman & Nicobar islands are another territory that provide wheat and fortified atta. Tamil Nadu has been highly flexible in this matter by providing up to 10 kgs of wheat in urban areas and capping it at 5kgs in rural areas where people are more likely to follow the traditional diet.

TN also has a higher allocation of rice for the poorer regions of the Nilgiris, from 12kgs to up to 16 kgs of rice. That's not all, beneficiaries may get extra sugar quota by giving up some of their rice allocation. This policy provides flexibility of choice to the poor. Certainly, Amma's policies were working in the right direction. One wonders what dietary and nutritional policy advocates the distribution of large quantities of wheat to traditionally rice-eating populations. On the other hand Lakshadweep on the other side of the mainland provides only rice and sugar to its people. The contenders for Roshogolla rights, Odisha state, does not provide sugar under PDS despite sugar being an important ingredient in their diet.

The most surprising detail has been the amount of losses during storage reported by various states. While most states have refused to provide this information, the few that have show widely conflicting data. Mandi and Nahan districts of Himachal Pradesh have not reported any loss in storage for rice, wheat and sugar since 2006. Similarly, Kerala has not reported any losses during storage in the past decade. However, the minuscule state of Tripura reported a loss of 21.9 MT rice, 3.7 MT sugar and 1.4 MT since 2006. Gujarat has reported 200 Qtl loss of sugar since 2006 with 192 Qtl of that occuring in the last 3 years alone. Odisha reported storage loss of 0.7% rice in the last two years.

Various state governments have conflicting responses on the same issue. While West Bengal asked me to pay for six pages of response to my query, Uttar Pradesh government sent me a 12-page dossier response for it. Jammu & Kashmir state does not respond to RTI queries under RTI Act, 2005 as the state follows RTI Act, 2009 according to which only persons residing in the state can question the state through RTI. Karnataka has been going the environment- friendly way by sending all their posts in recycled envelopes.

Karnataka also took the liberty to re-frame questions and sent me an entire list of food with its nutritional value that was allocated to each anganwadi in the state last year. Unfortunately, all of them were in Kannada which continues to be a disability for me. Many states send their responses in the official state language so unless you can translate them effectively, you are still stuck with a lot of water and nothing to drink.

This Article is written by Romita Majumdar as part of curriculum at IIJNM

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