Aasha Khosa | November 2, 2015 | New Delhi
From being seen as an irritant, the government should see the RTI law as a tool for good governance and public participation in decision making, tells former CIC Wajahat Habibullah to Aasha Khosa.
Ten years ago, you guided the nascent central information commission through its initial years as its head. Today, how do you see it?
Looking back, I would say there have been no failures but the rate at which we had hoped that the RTI Act would expand hasn’t happened. I did set up the institution of the CIC; from the beginning I felt that its structure was inappropriate for a quasi-judicial authority. The commission has no guidelines and no permanent staff. Though during my tenure I had made a lot of changes to make it effective, but these changes were never institutionalised. Right now, employees of the CIC are outsourced. In all, the institution of the CIC itself is not firmly established. Ten years later, I feel it is still in the process of forming.
RTI ten years later: how it changed Subhash Agrawal's life
What is one single major failure of the law?
I think the government is yet to understand the full potential of this law for governance. The government has so far been seeing the RTI only as a threat and a hindrance to governance. The fact is that the RTI law is meant to improve governance and bring in transparency in the functioning of the government. But today an RTI application is seen as an intrusion by officials. “Take care, RTI kar denge” is the refrain in the officialdom while taking precautions in dealing with public issues. It’s time for us to follow what (US) president Obama had said on the (USA’s) Freedom of Information Act that accountability (brought out by the Act) is in the interest of the government and the citizenry alike.
What, according to you, is the new government’s attitude to the RTI?
This government has come to power on the plank of ‘maximum governance, minimum government’. Therefore, strengthening the RTI regime should have come naturally to it. But I am sorry to say they are also showing a tentative attitude towards it. The CIC was allowed to remain headless for not one, two or three but eight months by the new government.
Does it worry you that the BJP-led government might move away from the rights-driven agenda of the previous government?
I see no reason for the government to unsettle the work done by the previous government. To be fair, the jan-dhan yojana, which has become a roaring success, was the brainchild of the Congress party’s rural development minister Jairam Ramesh. The UPA could not implement it so well but the Modi regime has done it. It takes time for schemes and the law to take roots. Let the new government implement all the laws related to the rights of people in a better way and take credit; but undoing the good work for political reasons is undesirable. Also, the BJP is bound by its manifesto to give a corruption-free and transparent government to the citizens.
What precisely needs to be done to strengthen the RTI Act?
The government needs to take steps to institutionalise the implementation of section 4 of the RTI Act, which asks it to make suo moto disclosures (on information). The law asks the government to make as much information public as it is possible and minimise the need of the citizens to ask for it. Also provisions that make it mandatory for the government to computerise information should be strengthened. The government should voluntarily disclose information and not become defensive whenever a citizen seeks information under RTI. At present, the attitude of the government on RTI applications is, “Yeh kyon maang rahe hai… kyon pareshaan kar rahe hai (why are they seeking information, why are they troubling us?).”
The biggest strength of this law is..
This law has gained universal acceptability. It has made citizens conscious of their rights and changed the discourse between people and the government. RTI is an English word and yet even an unlettered person knows about it. It has noticeably transformed the functioning of the governments. The way officials try to resist its pressure shows its effectiveness.
The law has also been used extensively by officials to know about their service matters and for redressing of grievances. What is your experience?
Yes, even today the RTI is being seen only as a grievance redressal mechanism and anti-corruption law, and its full meaning and potential of changing the way we are governed is yet to come to the fore. Having said that, I also remember how common people had used this law to get pension for widows, get ration cards issued to the deserving people. Particularly in Delhi, the people from economically lower sections have used the law effectively to expose corruption in issuance of ration cards, admission scams in schools and also the nexus between doctors in government hospitals and pharmaceutical companies.
How would you rate the performance of states in implementing RTI?
In my tenure, Karnataka was leading in implementing the RTI law, and Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh were very bad. Andhra Pradesh was coming up very strongly while Tamil Nadu and Kerala were doing very well. Punjab and Haryana had not even set up the commissions. However, Delhi was the best state mainly because of the Bhagidari programme launched by the Sheila Dikshit government. Don’t go by the numbers but I know from my personal experience that women were in the forefront of filing RTI applications in Delhi. Most of them kept the names of their husbands or sons on the applications but I know for sure that these were done on the initiative of women of the family.
Given the attitude of the present government and the lethargy in the system, do you fear the RTI is under threat?
The law on RTI has taken deep roots and there is no threat to its existence. To give an instance, prime minister Narendra Modi had almost cancelled his participation in the national function to commemorate the 10 years of RTI. This created a huge public outcry and the PM had to change his decision. This law is now being driven by people and there is no way that any person or a regime can scuttle it.
Many activists and commentators have been saying that the RTI law is due for a second revolution. What does it mean?
I would put it this way that the implementation of the law should enter its second phase. In this phase, the law should be entirely driven by the people. Public has to see it as a means of making the government work better and in a transparent manner. Democracy is ultimately public participation in governance and this law should be seen as a major tool in this. The second phase of the implementation should see a greater partnership between public and government in the business of governance. That will be the real flowering of the Indian democracy. And the democracy is an evolving process; evolution of RTI law will help the process.
Of late only bureaucrats are being appointed as information commissioners. Is this the right way?
No, certainly not. Maybe initially it was required because a lot of mechanisms were to be established. In the second phase of RTI wherein we are hoping that the public participation would increase only eminent members of public should head the information commissions.
Uttar Pradesh is one state which has shown scant regard for the RTI. Since you belong to the state and also live in Lucknow how do you feel?
True, Uttar Pradesh had not implemented the RTI law properly. But things have started changing and I am very hopeful of the new chief minister (Akhilesh Yadav). He has recently revamped the commission and appointed [former chief secretary] Jawed Usmani as chief information commissioner. The government has also consulted me. Of course, it will take time for the commission to take off and show the impact.
So far, 45 RTI activists have been done to death. What could be the main motive behind these killings and what needs to be done to end this phenomenon?
The targeted killing of RTI activists only shows that the new law has struck a blow to vested interests whose interests run into thousands of crores. We should have expected this reaction and prevented these deaths. The key element of democracy is right to privacy and this has not been defined in our statute so far. Due to this the whistle blowers who expose corruption get exposed easily. Therefore, I think, there is an urgent need to bring in the whistleblower Act. At present the whistleblower rules (executive order) protect the privacy of the people about whom the information is being sought but not that of the person who asks for information. This exposes the whistle blowers and other activists.
(The interview appears in the November 1-15, 2015 issue)
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