As reported in on 03 Sep 2011:

CIC: Government employees have an equal stake in good governance

Chief information commissioner says citizens should get proactive about government functioning through the use of RTI. But this should not become a tool to harass officials. Rather, there should be minimum friction between the information seeker and the provider

"Even a government servant spends only 32% of his time at his job and he is an ordinary citizen for the rest of the time. His stake in the ruling government is much lesser than in his citizenship. So it is in his benefit to uphold the Right to Information and improve governance," Shailesh Gandhi, central information commissioner, said today.

Mr Gandhi was addressing a seminar on "How to use the Right to Information effectively," hosted by Moneylife Foundation at Ravindra Natya Mandir, in central Mumbai.

The central information commissioner described the history and scope of the Act and outlined the provisions, and even elaborated on the proper format and procedure for citizens to seek information. He explained the functioning and powers of public information officers (PIOs) and deemed PIOs. "The procedure and system should be so smooth that there is minimum friction between the information seeker and the provider," Mr Gandhi said.

Referring to an observation made by VS Das, executive director of the Reserve Bank of India, on the needless and voluminous queries that tax an organisation's resources and time, Mr Gandhi said the RTI should not become a tool to harass officials.

He also drew attention to the definition of 'public authority' in the Act to point out that cooperative housing societies, unless specified by a government body or funded substantially by the government, cannot be termed as public authorities.

However, he argued that public-private partnerships should come under the RTI Act. "A lot of public assets will be shifted to these PPPs soon, so these should be covered by the RTI. Otherwise, it will be like a fraud, when public resources are privatised without anybody's consent," Mr Gandhi said.

The central information commissioner also talked about section 4 of the RTI Act, which relates to suo moto dissemination of information by public authorities, which he said is at the heart of the Act.

On the matter of exemptions mentioned in the Act, Mr Gandhi gave examples from his personal in this area saying that government deals with any private businesses or parliamentary papers (six months after they are tabled) must not be exempted from the purview of the Act. "A PIO cannot deny information just by saying that the matter is sub judice or that it is personal," he said.

Asked about the proper way to sensitise people about the Right to Information and how to become pro-active in demanding good governance, Mr Gandhi said it requires a combination of lobbying and campaigning to develop a culture of transparency.

On disciplinary penalty for erring PIOs, the central information commissioner said, "Asking for more penalty is not a solution. Lots of corrective measures can be taken by the authorities within the framework of the law available." But he agreed that a time frame must be specified for the second appeal as well.

On the inspection of files under the Act raised by a participant, Mr Das, who is the appellate authority at the RBI, said that in case information was left out of the manuals and other documents, or they are not updated, the people should draw the bank's attention to this. On this matter, SS Mundra, executive director, Union Bank, said, "In physical form, most information is available at the offices."

Mr Das said RTI activism has a long way to grow. "Very few applications are received from less developed areas of the country. It we get only two applications from Tripura and four from Assam this year, I think there is a need to educate people on the scope of the Act," he said.

Mr Das outlined the RBI's engagement with the Act, how the highly centralised operation had spread out to all its regional offices, and said that the RBI has proactively disclosed a lot of information on its website. "Being the central bank of the country, it is our duty to disseminate information and also protect sensitive data," he said. In six years since the RTI Act was adopted, the RBI has received over 18,000 applications, but only 16% of these have gone for first appeal.

In this respect Mr Mundra added, "There are doubts in the mind of both the provider and the seeker of information. The central information commissioner can dispel these doubts and give us guidelines on how to access and disseminate information." He said Union Bank was committed to organise six seminars on different topics with Moneylife Foundation this year and felt privileged to be a part of this initiative.

This seminar is the latest in a series of discussions on RTI organised by Moneylife Foundation, which have been very popular with alert citizens, activists and civil society workers.