How RTI helped spur the authorities into action & a road to resolution
A reader has lamented in a letter to the editor that ‘a vast number of permanent residents’ in Chennai city were turned away by poll officials as their names were found missing in the voters’ list.
It is not known whether the number of persons who suffered this mortification was vast as alleged. However, this brought to my mind an appeal under RTI that came up before the Tamil Nadu Information Commission in 2016.
The petitioner had retired from government service as a Joint Secretary and his wife was still working as a government servant at the time of the elections in May 2016. He was shocked when some officials visited his house in March 2016 informing him that his name and that of his wife were under consideration for deletion from the voters list ‘as per list furnished by political parties’.
He gave a written statement to these officials confirming that he was living in the address for the past 10 years. He produced his ration card in support of this claim and also furnished a copy of the house tax receipt in his name. The officials went back, seemingly satisfied with his reply.
Yet, it came to his knowledge, less than a fortnight before the election that his name and that of his wife were missing from the electoral roll. He filed a petition under the Right to Information Act asking for the reason for the deletion of names. He also sought to know what action was taken against the officials responsible.
This petition was addressed to the Chief Election Commissioner, who promptly forwarded it to the Chief Electoral Officer of the State, who in turn sent it to the concerned Zonal Officer of the Corporation.
The petitioner’s wife had also sent a petition under RTI to the Zonal Officer requesting to know the course of action to be taken by her to reverse the deletion of the name from the voters’ list.
Pointing out that there were only ten days left for polling, she demanded a reply within 48 hours. As she did not get any reply, she filed an appeal to the Appellate Authority of the Corporation empowered to dispose of appeals under RTI Act.
Neither the Public Information Officer nor the Appellate Authority sent any reply, forcing the couple to move the Information Commission on second appeal. Receipt of a notice of hearing from the Commission had an electrifying effect. The names of the couple were again included in the electoral roll and fresh photo ID cards prepared and handed over to them.
The Public Information Officer submitted a written response to the Commission stating that reply could not be given to the petition under RTI earlier as he was pre-occupied with polling and counting work. He deputed a subordinate to appear for the enquiry as a proxy because he was now pre-occupied with cyclone relief work.
A file produced during the enquiry was found to contain a report of a Booth Level Officer dated 08 March 2016 that when the house of the petitioner was checked during field inspection, the door was found locked. During a subsequent inspection also the house was reportedly found locked by this functionary. The report went on to say that enquiry with someone nearby revealed that the couple did not live in the house and recommended deletion of their names.
There was another report from a Supervisor confirming that he also found the house locked during his inspection.
Even the veracity of these two reports was suspect as some scrawls were found in the place of signatures. However, these two inspection reports purportedly from two low level functionaries were deemed sufficient to disenfranchise a retired Joint Secretary and his wife.
The reports of the Booth Level Officer and the Supervisor did not mention the date and time of inspection. A person nearby was ostensibly examined but this person’s identity is not mentioned. In fact, there was a clever attempt to obfuscate by using the term ‘a person nearby’ instead of saying neighbour. This term could refer to any passerby or anyone loitering around.
While disposing of the appeal, the Information Commission made a suggestion to the Chief Electoral Officer that a proforma could be prescribed to record details such as date and time of inspection and persons examined, so that there would be a measure of accountability. In the absence of such details, it would be difficult to pin down the officials.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. Voters seem to be getting selectively removed from the rolls depending on their perceived political loyalties. It requires thorough investigation by the Election Commission to find out the various malpractices going into this.
Sending an intimation by registered post about any proposed deletion could also help to alert the voters, giving them an opportunity to submit their protest in black and white. Publication of proposal to delete names could also be done in the website.
This would actually go towards fulfilling the requirements under the RTI Act that every authority should pro-actively disclose information.
The Chief Electoral Officer responded positively to these suggestions as well as a recommendation to probe into the circumstances surrounding the deletion of names of voters who had been living in the same address for over a decade.
It is not clear whether the measures devised were fool-proof.
In their defence, the Corporation officials pointed out that they had acted swiftly by restoring the names in the electoral rolls and by giving fresh Voter ID cards to the petitioners.
This was an infructuous exercise as the restoration was done months after polling. The Information Commission pointed out in its decision on the appeal that there was no guarantee that a similar fate would not befall the petitioners or others on the eve of the next election.
Apparently, there are some who did in fact suffer the same fate.
(The author is a former DGP and former Chief Information Commissioner of Tamil Nadu)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s alone and not necessarily those of The Lede)