Sunday, 16 October 2011


The 6th national convention on RTI was organised by the national RTI watchdog- The Central Information Commission- at Vigyan Bhavan on 14th and 15th Oct 2011. The theme of the convention was Right to Information- Expanding Horizons. But right from the moment the Prime Minister delivered the inaugural address the doubt arose whether the horizon was expanding or shrinking. Administratively well organised, the convention was, at the end of the day, devoid of any substance worth mentioning.

The security instructions received alongwith the invitation was in itself an irritant- forbidding the invitees from even taking their mobile phones and cameras to the venue! Though as a matter of personal choice I do not use a mobile phone myself I can vouch for the horror of those  who get out of their homes and realise that they have not taken their mobilephones! But the PM being the VVIP (whatever that means in a social, democratic republic!) and his security being ensured by those over whom he himself apparantly doesnot have any control, it was a fait accomplie situation for those who had come from far and wide to hear their PM in person. But the first shock was administered by the 1st man on security duty that one confronted- he refused even the day's news paper to be taken inside! His argument: it could be rolled and used to attack the VVIP! The second shock came later when one saw almost everybody in there having their mobiles and walking in and out of the hall whenever they had to receive or make a call!

The inaugural address of Man Mohan Singh, as was mentioned earlier, set the tone for the shrinking of horizons for right to information. His comment that the RTI Act will have to be revisited to ensure that there is a balance between public interest and burden on the public authority was shocking. But it definitely was not unexpected given the efforts by the 'government' to amend the Act to deny file notings and make the applicant provide reasons for seeking the information- a sure shot method to dump the law into the nearest garbage bin!

The Right to Information Act is definitely one law that is unique because of its simplicity, unambiguity and citizen friendly nature. But it does require amendments to remove some difficulties- for example delegation of authority to 'competant authorities' to frame rules specifying the fees, cost etc without insisting on a cap for these which under normal course would be the fees, cost etc prescribed by the central government. In fact this delegation of authority has resulted in many high courts introducing exorbitant fees, cost and even fees for 1st appeal. It needs to be reiterated that the 1st appeal is only an opportunity given to the public authority to correct any mistakes committed by its own public information officers and limit the damages that s/he may have to suffer if available and disclosable information has been denied or not provided in time. To illustrate this further, the Act mandates that the information commissioners shall impose penalty at the rate of Rs 250/- per day for every day of delay subject to a maximum of Rs 25,000/-. Simple mathematics tells one that the penalty will keep increasing for every day of delay upto 100 days. So if the 1st appellate authority acts diligently, information can be provided within, say, 60 days. That is with a delay of just 30 days. But if the 1st appellate authority misses the bus and the matter goes to the information commissioners by the time the 2nd appeeal is considered and orders issued the delay will invariably exceed 100 days and the penalty will definitely hit the roof! When this issue came up for discussion and a question was raised what is the relevance of asking if a competant authority can prescribe a fee more than what is prescribed by the govt when the high courts have done it the response of the moderator- a vice chancellor of a law university- was: you are asking this because you presume that the high courts are right!

But the lack of credibilty of the government was bluntly driven home by Prof Jagdeep Chhokar who said that if the govt was allowed to amend the Act, in the name of the three or four amendments that are required what will be made will be a dozen amendments that are not required and which dilute the Act!

One note that was struck throughout was the burden on the public information officers but the response was also struck with equal steadfastness on the need to comply with the provisions for proactive disclosures. Needless to say a lot of time was wasted by the representatives of various public authorities harping on this issue inspite of the simple solution inherant in the law itself. While it is true that every public information officer is designated as such and has to perform these duties in addition to his regular duties it is equally true that this additional task is not such an overwhelming burden as they had tried to make it out to be. Particularly the claim that it is the PIO who is punished even if the custodian of the information fails to part with the available information in time was either due to the deploraable level of awareness of the law even after 6 years of its existence or an outright effort to mislead the less knowledgeable amoung the audience. The activists participating in the discussions were never carried away by these gimmicks.

The concern expressed by the activists was on the wilful flouting of the law by the information commissioners when it came to imposing the penalties mandated for delay in providing information. This was a factor that not only took the tooth off the law but also caused immense loss to the exchequer. While in private discussions at least one information commissioner admitted that he had imposed penalty for non-compliance with the law on proactive dsclosure, most maintained that it could not be done! Again it was left to Prof Chhokar to drive home the point that all was not well with the selection process of the information commissioners themselves and this was affecting the implementation of the law and in letter and spirit and adversely affecting its effectiveness.

At least one chief information commissioner got exposed when he made tall claims of conducting hearings in various district headquarters to facilitate participation by the public authorities and the complainants/appellants. An activist from his state confronted him and demanded to know which where the districts where the last three hearings were conducted and which are the districts where the next three are scheduled. When there was no reply the activist bluntly told him not to mislead the audience!

The issue of the Dept of Personnel and Training, the nodal department for implementing the RTI Act through out the country, trying to subvert the law also figured in the discussions. Apart from the idiotic order issued that every complaint or appeal to the central information commission should be heard by all the information commissioners together, the latest was an office memorandum directing the public authorities to provide only that information that was available with them and not to forward applications to those public authorities who would be holding them. When an information commissioner from one of the states sought clarification on the legal validity of this office memorandum, the central information commissioner on the panel rightly expressed surprise that such a clarification was being sought at all. He rightly added that while considering complaints and appeals the only things that mattered were the Act and the relevant rules promulgated by the competant authorities! One of the participants added fuel to the fire by stating that the OM also stated that it was being issued after consultation with the central information commission and application to the CIC for documents related to the consultation got the reply that there were no such documents available! It is presumed that the Chief Information Commissioner of the CIC, who was present, would have taken note of this deplorable effort of the DoPT to encouragae public authorites to flout the law and misusing the CIC's name for that purpose. He is expected to bring the perpetuators of the crime before the law.

But it needs to be placed on record that the credibility of the Chief Information Commissioner of the Central Information Commission is itself questionable begining with his own appointment. Documents accessed by activists about the spadework done by the DoPT for selection of the central information commissioners by the committee headed by the PM, indictes more of manipulation than a fair and transparent process that is warranted. It would not be out of context to suggest that the observations made by the apex court in the matter of appointment of CVC should apply equally to not only the appointment of the information commissioners but to all appointments to every quasi judicial organisation in the whole country. It is pertinant to mention here that the present CIC of the CIC was the Secretary of DoPT before his present assignment. It was probably during his tenure that the DoPT put up on its website that there was no need to disclose file notings and it continued to mislead public authorites for a long time even after the then CIC had repeatedly directed DoPT to remove it forthwith! But it was during a private conversation on the sides of the deliberations that another facet of his attitude to transparency was revealed. This was in the context of the information sought by citizens from the BPL category. His query what will these people do with the information obtained and whether it will substitute for food proves him to be an immense misfit  for his present assignment! During the very welcome speech he had cribbed about the 'problems' of the Commission not having a permanent office building for itself and working from two locations. I do not know if the burden of information provided by the information commissioner from Maharashta about it working from 5 locations really got regisetered with the Central CIC. It also needs to be asked why the Central Information Commission should not establish 10 benches in different parts of the country to facilitate participation in hearings by the PIOs/FAAs and complainants/appellants. Even when public authorities are not ordered to compensate the citizens there is immense loss to the exchequer when the PIOs/FAAs are made to travel all the way from nooks and corners of the country to the national capital for hearings at the only location of the CIC!

This report would be incomplete if I fail to mention about the only new bit of information gained during the convention- that a personal member's bill has been introduced in the Parliament to amend Sec 6 and 7 of the RTI Act. If the amendments come through every applicant will have to give reasons why s/he is seeking the information and if the reason(s) is/are not given s/he can be denied information on that ground alone! It is not known if the public information officer is being given any discretion also to decide if the reason provided is valid or not. But whatever the outcome, there is no doubt that this is a retrograde step that needs to be opposed tooth and nail!

The chief guest for the valedictory function was the very honourable Nitish Kumar, Chief Minister of Bihar. He did wax, with justifiable eloquence, on the Jaankaari scheme- a model appreciated by everyone, including the Chairperson of UPA- and the newly introduced Right to Service Bill. The call centre model of obtaining information about and under the RTI Act was to be adopted even by the UPA government but seems to have made no headway in the last two years! BUt to prove that he was also not beyond human frailities Nitish also faltered by claiming that 65 years is no age to retire and information commissioners should be allowed to serve longer. This author was reminded of a quip: a person who is not an idealist at 20 has no heart, s/he who is not  a pragmatist at 40 has no head. We all agree that the Right to Information Act is a path breaking law. In fact it is the only law that we have till date that puts the citizen where he should be in a democracy- at the centre of things like the ring master in a circus! It would certainly have been better if we had younger blood, unpollutted with misplaced senses of loyalty and comradiere, to enforce this new generation law, which many speakers had openly claimed during the convention itself as the most important document after the Constitution itself! To my mind a person around 30 years with enough of both heart and pragmatism in him/her would have been a better bet to enforce this law in its letter and spirit!

P M Ravindran
Tel: 0491-2576042 (presently in Delhi without any mobilephone)

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