New Delhi: Last year, Poonam Verma, a government employee, returned to work after a brief illness, only to have her worst fears confirmed. Five sacks from the postal department, each overflowing with envelopes, were lined up next to her desk. Each sack contained around 400 envelopes.
Not many people receive 400 letters a day, but Verma is no ordinary person. The 48-year-old is the engine driving India’s Right to Information (RTI) movement. Every day, Verma, whose designation simply says assistant, Central Information Commission (CIC), reads through an average of 400 letters, sorts them, and dispatches them to the information commisioners concerned. The commission has five of those, each dealing with a few areas, but it has only one Verma.
Due to a severe shortage of personnel at the commission, Verma is every application’s first port of call. The commission, a new-age government department that believes in lean staffing, outsources much of its routine office work, including typing. It has only two staffers designated for secretarial work. Verma is one.
“After wading through one application after the other continuously from 9:30am to 6pm, I get splitting headaches and my eyes hurt at the end of a day’s work. And on most days, I have to skip lunch in order to clear the pile off my table,” says the soft-spoken, bespectacled woman, known in the commission for her quiet efficiency. If she delays clearing the applications, they pile up on her table. But sorting and moving applications isn’t the only thing the lady does.
Even as she reads every application that lands on her table, Verma juggles the telephone, answering calls from applicants in Arunachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, or just about anywhere else within India who want to know the status of their query.
CIC is apparently considering a proposal to set up a call centre that can do this. Till that happens, Verma has to keep the show going.
Every day, hundereds of Indians who believe they have a right to information (they do, according to the law which seeks to make the workings of the government transparent and accountable), send applications to CIC. These are people whose applications have already been rejected by the information officer of the (government) department concerned as well as a higher officer in the same department. CIC is the applicant’s final destination under the RTI Act.
“If Verma were to take leave for a few days, we would run into a problem,” admits the commission’s secretary Rita Sinha. Verma’s daily travails are symptomatic of the conditions under which the commission is functioning.
The government body functions from a dark-even-during-daytime building with cupboards crowding the already narrow corridors. Then, there’s the staffing.
“Even today, we do not have Hindi translators and so we send replies in English as we do not want to end up in a courtroom after applying our limited knowledge of Hindi on government papers,” says an officer at the commision who did not wish to be identified.
Meanwhile, papers are piling up in almost every room in the building. And the number of applications received continues to rise. Senior officials at the commission say several requests had been made to the government for more staff and computers. A new office building is on the horizon, but it will take time. Meanwhile, the commission will have to make do with Verma’s valiant efforts.