Colonial Mindset Visible in RTI Responses

31 July 2013

By Raja Muzaffar Bhat

The author is an RTI / Social activist and the founder of J&K RTI movement. Reach him at muzaffar.rti@gmail.com.  This article was originally published July 30 in Greater Kashmir.

Background

From the last nearly eight years I have been drafting applications under Right to Information Act (RTI) to seek information  from different Government departments  for myself and for other people as well.

We have filed nearly 2000  such applications  under both State and Central RTI law’s and thus I have been constantly in touch with the Government departments through RTI queries and keenly observing the way Government Officers communicate and address people through their official communications while replying the RTI queries. People associated with our group would generally show me the official documents they received under RTI Act. 

I have a habit to go through the covering letter first if it is attached with the documents provided by the Public Information Officer (PIO) who is the designated officer entrusted to reply RTI queries.

During this whole process I have noticed the colonial behavior of the Government officers towards the citizens.

These officers are called “Public Servants,” and the citizens are so called “Masters” in a democratic setup. This servant and master stuff is just limited to the books of constitution and law, the situation is different on the ground.

The Colonial Mindset

Before the enactment of Right to Information Act (RTI) both at Central as well as State level, there was very less official communication between a Government office and a common man.

It was only after the enactment of RTI Act the official communication between Government offices / Government Officers and the citizens witnessed a sudden rise. These common citizens, hundreds in numbers, file RTI applications across India on daily basis and as per our Information, at an average 30 to 50 RTI applications are filed on a one single day in Jammu & Kashmir state. This means thousands of applications are replied back by the Government departments. 

But one feels sad to see the attitude of our Public Servants, Government Officers or Babus towards the citizens.

In spite of the fact that it is 5th year of new RTI law in J&K we get complaints that Government offices don’t reply RTI applicants. If the RTI application is answered we see in most of the cases the Government Officers/PIO’s hardly keep a covering letter attached to the Information sent to an RTI applicant.

In my opinion such officers feel that it challenges their prestige to write or address an ordinary man. 

I have many instances where poor and ordinary information seekers from many rural areas of Budgam, Shopian, Doda, Baramulla, and Bandipora were provided one or two  paged information under RTI Act which actually should have been in dozens, and that, too, misleading. These cases we witness mostly in the offices of Block Development Officers (BDO’s).

Earlier the BDO’s hardly used to attach a covering letter with the RTI information and it was only after our intervention that such things have changed now.

But now we have observed another cheap mindset of some Government officers. While addressing the RTI applicant, they simply write applicant’s name and do not address him respectfully. Is this the way to draft an official communication? 

Norms for drafting an official letter

According to official norms prescribed by various State Governments as well as Government of India (Ministry of Personnel & Institute of Secretariat Training) an official Government letter is composed of the following parts, even if it is addressed to a common man:

a) Letter Head: This bears the name of the Government of the State  and that of the Department and Branch in case of the Secretariat.  In other cases the name of the office.

b) File number and date of communication

c) Name/organization of Sender

d) Name /designation of the addressee.

e) Subject and Reference: The subject will be written in clear terms and will be brief. It will indicate generally the contents of the letter.

f) Salutation: If addressing to official authorities, one must begin with the salutation Sir, and those addressed to nonofficial individual or groups of individuals with Dear Sir/Sirs.

Those addressed to firms will begin with the salutation Dear Sirs. Official Government letter must end with the subscription ” Yours faithfully” followed by the signature and designation of the person signing the letter. 

Conclusion

All the things mentioned above clearly indicate that the Government officer if addressing a letter to a common citizen, the officer must begin with salutations “Dear Sir” and end with “Yours faithfully.”

But do our officers know all this?

They feel it challenges their dignity if they address a common man with respect.

I have many official RTI covering letters with me and among them 99% letters do not mention Dear Sir or Sir. Even there are many which even do not mention yours sincerely/faithfully.

The Government officers especially those appointed in late 70’s and early 80’s due to their colonial mindset feel that Dear Sir or Yours faithfully is the prerogative of Government officers only and an ordinary citizen is just an ordinary man who is considered  a second class citizen by many Government officers, though there are exceptions.

My ordinary, poor associates (RTI Activists)  get RTI replies from various Central Government offices at New Delhi but they hardly forget to mention Dear Sir or Yours Faithfully.

Bashir Ahmad Malik who is a load carrier driver at Khag, Budgam, was so respectfully addressed in one such letter; can one believe by whom? 

The office of the Prime Minister of India (PMO) where he had filed an application under RTI to seek details of PM’s official visits and expenditure incurred on it. The PIO in PMO is a Secretary level officer of our State Government and his attitude was overwhelming.

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