New Delhi: Living overseas for education, employment or other reasons, Indians abroad find it difficult to use the Right to Information (RTI) Act due to the cumbersome fee-payment process.
"Even after five years of the RTI Act, Indian citizens living abroad are unable to use it effectively because of a cumbersome fee payment system. The Indian government has not framed any rules or procedures for the payment of RTI fee in foreign currency from abroad," Commodore Lokesh Batra, an RTI applicant, said.
Batra, a Noida resident, had already raised the issue with the Indian mission in Washington citing problems faced by Indians living abroad in filing RTI applications while he was staying in the US.
Many Indians living abroad say they have the right to know their roles, rights, duties, responsibilities and privileges.
When contacted a few Indian citizens living abroad, they said the amendment to the RTI rules promulgated by the Department of Personnel Training (DoPT) on December 10, 2010, are silent on the process of fee payment while filing RTI pleas from outside India`s borders.
According to Batra, all Indian citizens living abroad, including those who are residing abroad during short visits, citizens who stay abroad for education and job purposes and even officials posted in Indian missions or on deputation to international bodies, face the same problem while filing RTI applications there.
"It is shameful that the Indian government is continuously denying our right to information," Somu Kumar, a volunteer of the Anti-Corruption Team (ACT) of the non-profit group Association for India`s Development (AID), said on phone from Washington DC.
"We, Indians living overseas for education and employment, pay taxes in India. We feel as Indian taxpayers we have equal right to access information from the Indian government," he added.
Kumar said it is the responsibility of the chief information commissioner and the external affairs and overseas Indian affairs ministries (MEA and MOIA) to implement an effective mechanism to file RTI applications in India.
"If there is enough will among the powers that be, this can be implemented in no time," he said.
Said Vishal Kudchadkar, from Los Angeles, a volunteer of US-based AID: "I seek information via RTI as I`m associated with social and environmental development projects. I seek information related to dams on the Ganga and the Bhopal gas tragedy."
"As there is no mode of payment of fees in dollars, it is difficult for me to use the RTI Act," he added.
However, though difficult, Kudchadkar has found an alternative way to overcome this problem - "contacting friends in India and asking them to pay the fee on my behalf while submitting applications. I did the same when I wanted some information on Salwa Judum in Chhattisgarh".
But, he said, this method is not only cumbersome but also delays the filing of the application. Kudchadkar demanded that the government come up with specific procedures to help Indians abroad pay fees in foreign currencies.
As in the case of Beena Rag from Texas, who had filed an RTI query on the Nandigram Special Economic Zone (SEZ), many queries filed abroad - at Indian high commissions and embassies - via the RTI Act are rejected and the applicants are advised to address their applications directly to the public authorities in India.
AID has also appealed to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to intervene in the matter since the issue involves multiple agencies like the Central Information Commission, MEA, MOIA and DoPT.
In an online signature campaign by AID, as many as 316 signatures have been made by Indian citizens abroad till date.
In the campaign, KRS Vasan from Saudi Arabia posted, "Dear prime minister, we fervently hope that you will enable the right of Indians residing abroad to exercise their rights under the RTI Act, by directing the missions and designated agencies to accept fees in local currency and act as the nodal agency in respect of such applications."
Joseph Mathew Austin, Texas, posted, "I sincerely believe that the RTI services should be accessible for Indian citizens living abroad and Indian missions can effectively provide an administrative role."
CIC chief Satyananda Mishra expressed his willingness to improve the process and said the Commission was looking into the problems faced by Indians living abroad while seeking information via the RTI Act.
"I totally agree with Indians abroad. They have every right to seek information via RTI. It is an issue that needs to be addressed and there will be a solution soon."