Bureaucrats who hid information head RTI commissions today
On October 12, 2005, the Right to Information (rti) Act came into force. rti activists seemed to have won their battle to provide citizens with rights to information about the government’s working. But little had they reckoned for what was in store. Barely two months after the rti act came in to force, the legislation has become a convenient tool for retired bureaucrats to garner cosy and secure sinecures as state information commissioners (sics).
Once appointed, these officials cannot be removed for five years, other than through an order of the Supreme Court.
The act actually states that “each state will have an information commission headed by a sic, who will be a person of eminence in public life with wide knowledge and experience in law… social service…and governance”.
"We Prefer Bureaucrats"
Will making bureaucrats state information commissioners affect the act’s implementation
I don’t think it will affect the act. We prefer bureaucrats because we need officials well-versed with the administration’s functioning.
Your views on the prime minister’s office’s order to exempt certain kinds of file notings from RTI?
I have not seen the order, so can’t comment on it.
How many information commissioners are being appointed for the Central Commission?
We can have 10, but we are appointing four, now. A N Tiwari, special secretary, department of personel and training will be the fourth commissioner. It’ll be good as he will continue with the ministry.
In case the life and liberty of a person is endangered, the decision on disclosing information has to be taken in 48 hours but an appeal against not disclosing information takes 30 days to be addressed.
If a preson doesn’t receive information in 48 hours, life or liberty could be lost. The information officer can be held responsible later.
And some of the officials who have benefited from the act fit this requirement, quite splendidly. Sample this: K K Misra, who was appointed as sic of Karnataka within 24 hours of retiring as the state’s chief secretary on July 31, 2005 actually derives eminence from a Karnataka High Court (hc) dated May 3, 2005.
On that date, the HC had ordered the state government to prosecute Misra for “perjury and withholding” documents from the court in connection with the Bangalore-Mysore Expressway project. The ex-Karnataka chief secretary has appealed against the prosecution in the Supreme Court. The case awaits the apex court’s decision.
Misra is in illustrious company. His counterpart in Orissa, Dhirendra Nath Padhi was suspended as the state’s Special Relief Commissioner on November 27, 1999, for alleged irregularities in procurement of polythene sheets for families hit by the super cyclone of 1999. A Central Bureau of Investigation probe absolved him.
Padhi was 18 months short of retirement as special secretary in the Union power ministry when he retired voluntarily and assumed charge as Orissa’s sic. O ther bureaucrats nearing retirement have also found easy pickings in an sic. A mong the other beneficiaries are B K Chakraborty in Tripura, Suresh Joshi in Mumbai and A K Vijayvargiya in Chhatisgarh (see table: Rest in peace).
Alarming “This is a very alarming trend. The government should at least ensure that the sic of one state should not have served in the bureaucracy of the same state,” says Shekhar Singh of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (ncpri) and one of those involved in drafting the act. “After all as the sic, the ex-bureaucrat is quite likely to be asked for information on happenings during his tenure,” Singh explains.
The rti also provides that a state can appoint up to 10 information commissioners (ics ) besides the sic — the latter holds a rank equivalent to an election commissioner, while the former has a position equivalent to that of a state chief secretary. A maximum of 385 plum posts are up for grabs.
Are they necessary?
“I don’t think we need so many officials. Ten ics for a state is one too many,” says Wajahat Habibullah, chief information commissioner of India (But also see interview: We prefer bureaucrats).
In fact, the draft rti act, submitted by members of ncpri to the Union government in December 21, 2004 had provisions for only one central information commissioner and a few regional commissioners. However, this was not palatable to the bureaucracy, which pressed for sics and ics, and finally in April 2004 succeeded in having their say.
This was not the first time they had matters their way. Back in 2002, the National Democratic Alliance had passed the Freedom of Information (foi) Act. This act did not set any time frame for the drafting of procedures necessary for the implementation of the act. There was also no time frame for issuing a notification, bringing the act into force.
This loophole was sufficient enough for the bureaucracy to ensure that foi was never implemented. The legislation was shuttled between the department of personnel and training, and the Union ministry of law and justice. Consequently, the rules for foi were never implemented.
The new rti act has plugged the loophole. Passed by the Parliament on June 15, it states that the act has to be implemented within 120 days. Drafting of rules to implement procedural matters, such as fees for application forms, has however, been left to the discretion of state governments.
This has given sufficient scope to state governments to exercise their artifice. Sample what clause six of Form d — one of the forms to be filled up by a person who requires some government related information — states: “The information whichever is given to you as a member of a below poverty line family shall not be used for any other purpose.” “This is completely against the spirit of the act,” says Sailesh Gandhi a Mumbai-based rti activist.
At a price
Information also comes at a cost. Mandarins in Orissa — among the poorest states in the country — charge an information seeker Rs 20 for an application form and Rs 5 per page of a photocopy — this when the act lays down that the form should be priced at Rs 10 and Rs 2 per page should be photocopy charge. There are other violations. The act does not stipulate any fee when a person appeals against an official who does not disclose information. But Orissa charges Rs 40 for the first appeal against such an errant official and Rs 50 for the second appeal. “If we have to file a case for each such illegality, it will take us years,” says Gandhi. Singh rues that in retrospect, a single set of central rules should have been framed.
A recent order from the prime minister’s office has antagonised activists such as Singh. The order allows access to only those remarks in government files that relate to development and social issues. “This definition of information is stipulated by the act. It cannot be amended by just changing one rule, for that the parliament’s sanction is required,” asserts Singh.
However, some activists remain optimistic. “These are initial problems but the act is a strong weapon if used judiciously,” says Arvind Kejriwal of Parivartan, a non-governmental organisation working against corruption. Hopefully, public departments will learn that information is to be shared and not kept under a lock and key.
Re: Employment exchange - Bureaucrats who hid information head RTI commissions today
The Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah is the best of the commissioners which I had come across. He had given so many land mark judgement that by the time his tenure will be completed he would be able to pass the order to allow sort of information.