Maharashtra’s information commission has set a blistering pace to tackle pending backlog, with a top official clearing a staggering 6,000 cases last year
Geetanjali Minhas | September 23, 2016 | Mumbai
Anyone else would have thrown up their hands in despair on seeing over seven lakh right to information (RTI) applications at Maharashtra’s exceedingly busy information commission, but not the panel’s chief Ratnakar Gaikwad who took up the challenge and ensured that the cases were expedited.
Ratnakar Gaikwad, the 64-year-old former Maharashtra chief secretary and IAS officer of 1975 batch, inherited a backlog of 4,074 cases of three years when he was named state chief information commissioner (CIC) in 2012. Within a month of joining, the bureaucrat came up with an ingenious solution – templates that helped speed up work.
Gaikwad prepared 120 templates that fit a majority of the cases. It broadly covered certain legal provisions, and similar types of cases in which the facts are the same but the information may be different.
“For example if a PIO [public information officer] has not disclosed information within certain days as per the Act, why should action not be taken? If the first authority has not given information, I issue strictures as per templates,” he explains.
Gaikwad says that sometimes PIOs refuse information on the ground that the applicant has paid a fee of Rs 67 instead of Rs 70. “I tell them that for Rs 3 you are wasting your office time, stationary and machinery. In 2007, the government issued related orders which I have templated. I tell them not to deny information on the ground that the applicant has paid less, a small amount of Rs 3-5, and give him information. Even if the information required is four extra pages, give him. Because paying another Rs 2 or Rs 3 will consume an entire day as he has to go to office, collect challan, go to bank and pay the amount.”
In peculiar cases where templates don’t fit, Gaikwad dictates the entire order.
“I was inspired by the commitment of Shailesh Gandhi, a former information commissioner at the central information commission, for fast disposal of cases. He had disposed of 20,000 appeals in four years and heard 25 appeals per day. I felt that if as per Gandhi, an information commissioner disposes of 400 appeals per month, the annual disposal would be 4,000-5,000 keeping in view different holidays etc.,” he says.
“In four years, I have disposed of over 21,000 appeals/complaints after actual hearing. [Total disposal with or without personal hearing is over 35,000.] I would dispose of 25 appeals every day which has not been easy. Twice I did 62 appeals in a single day and did 859 monthly disposals which is the average. The central information commission’s average rate of disposal is 2,500 per bench and could dispose of only 10,000 appeals in five years,” says Gaikwad. When an applicant has been denied information, he is only interested in getting the same and wants action. “He is not interested in a long order.”
His stenographer and typist are now trained with templates, and some of Gaikwad’s colleagues too are using these templates to tackle cases. “Now many Maharashtra benches have fine-tuned my templates. I tell them to use this tool, otherwise people will commit mistakes. With the templates ready, they now only have to be copy-pasted in my case. My conclusions are generally on three grounds – if information has not been given on time, why action should not be taken; a show-cause notice is inbuilt into that; and third, the PIO should allow inspection of documents and give information free of cost as stipulated in the Act.”
The current average backlog at Mumbai benches is approximately two to three months, thanks to Gaikwad who cleared 6,000 appeals last year. All other state benches have backlogs of over one to two years.
Compared to other state information commissions, disposals in the Maharashtra information commission are far higher at around 30,000 per year despite a large number of vacancies of information commissioners. Andhra Pradesh is in second position.
As against other states where all information commissioners sit at one place, in Maharashtra, the commissioners sit at seven places – Mumbai, Greater Mumbai, Konkan, Pune, Nashik, Nagpur and Amravati.
As against the initial years, when disposal rate was 75-100 applications per month, at present each commissioner disposes of 250-450 cases.
The RTI activist community has been highly appreciative. When Gaikwad was named to the post after his retirement in May 2012, an activist had even filed a PIL in the high court, opposing a career bureaucrat’s appointment to the state information commission, but four years later many activists are all praise.
Bhaskar Prabhu, convenor of the Mahiti Adhikar Manch, says, “The Maharashtra information commission is the only commission in the entire country where citizens interact with the information commissioners. Relations have been very cordial and disposals are very fast. From the very beginning, we have followed up on the commission’s orders, the speed at which it is working and been having discussions on observations. With Gaikwad, an order is passed within four to six weeks of hearings.”
Prabhu says, “The state CIC has now [stated] that each commissioner must dispose of 400 hearings per month. For these reasons it is the best information commission in the country.”
He adds, “If the government thinks bureaucrats can do a better job as information commissioners, it also needs to acknowledge that if one bureaucrat can leave a benchmark with 6,000 hearings in one year, others can also do the same. Yet when other person is doing 2,000 hearings, the government is not questioning this.”
Retired banker and RTI activist SK Nangia says, “Gaikwad is very sharp, knowledgeable, efficient and committed. In June 2012 when he was posted as the state CIC, some of us would go and meet him regularly and give the example of Shailesh Gandhi, asking him to replicate his working style in Maharashtra. Gaikwad then went and spent two-three days in Delhi to study Gandhi’s style of functioning.”
As for Gandhi himself, his objective assessment is: “There are three important characteristics by which commissioners/commissions must be judged. First, inclination to transparency and empathy for citizens. Second, speed of disposal and third, quality of orders. Gaikwad, in my opinion, definitely ranks amongst the best information commissioners in the country in terms of points 1 and 2. In terms of point 3, it is unreasonable to talk anecdotally or to go and assess performance based on a few orders. It is necessary to analyse a large number of a commissioner’s orders. No such study has been done.”
Gaikwad believes the RTI Act is not backed by political and bureaucratic will. “Bureaucracy feels it is a burden on them. There is reluctance to furnish information and also a tendency to avoid or delay paying penalty. It is in fact the duty of head of the organisation to ensure compliance of orders, which doesn’t happen. For the same reason, I even issued a notice to the municipal commissioner under section 166 of IPC in his capacity as the civic chief, but he got a stay order from the high court. “Grey areas in the Act prevent the information commissioner to penalise public authorities, but on its part the government also has to cooperate with the commission. Thereafter, along with my colleagues I went to chief minister Devendra Fadnavis and apprised him about this and several issues. He promptly issued strict orders,” says Gaikwad.
Ajit Kumar Jain, information commissioner, Greater Mumbai bench, says, “Since the implementation of the RTI Act, the Maharashtra state information commission has received nearly 55 lakh applications regarding different public authorities. Around 4 percent of the entire appeals are second appeals, which means perhaps 96 percent cases are being disposed of.”
He adds that disposal of appeals and getting back as many cases again is not sustainable and calls for systemic improvement.
(The article appears in the September 16-30, 2016 issue of Governance Now)
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