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Ahimsa in RTI: Wajahat Habibullah on 1st year of RTI
Wajahat Habibullah took over as India’s Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) on October 26 last year. He had a long and distinguished career in the Indian Administrative Service which he joined in 1968. He served in Jammu & Kashmir for many years and was in the news for a controversial paper he wrote on the Kashmir issue while in the United States. Wajahat was secretary, Panchayati Raj just before being appointed the CIC. Faced with complaints that he has not come down hard enough on errant officers who have refused to part with information under the RTI Act, Wajahat admits he has “a reputation for being gentle, but that is something I can live with”.
He dropped in at The Indian Express office on Wednesday to discussed the philosophy behind this soft approach to making the Act a success and to tackle some pointed queries on death sentence to Mohammed Afzal. Read on...
ON THE FIRST Year OF THE RIGHT TO INFORMATION ACT
Over the past year, many people have felt that the Act is a damp squib. But I would like to believe there is great confidence in the Commission. And the confidence has also increased. Before the Act came into force, you needed a month before an appeal could be made. We started getting 10 appeals, and by May, we received 700. In June alone, we had around 500. Now we have 4,000 appeals and complaints taken together.
COOMI KAPOOR: Do you get such a small number of appeals from all over India?
No, this is the number of final complaints and appeals that reach the final authority, that is, the Central Information Commission. The appeals are heard at the first stage by the Appellate Authority in the state itself. If the applicant is not satisfied by that, he then appeals to us in the Centre. You see, the applications would go to the Public Information offices first and then the appeal, if there is any within the organisation. Then any second appeal comes to the Commission.
Most complaints come from government officials or from Delhi. It is understandable because government officials have direct access to the Act and they understand what the Act is doing. Number of people from Delhi including large number of slumdwellers use the Act because the awareness in Delhi and Mumbai is quite high as they had an Act for several years. In our country, there is hardly any time given for the passage of an Act and the establishment of services to service the Act. In the United Kingdom, for example, the Act was passed in 2000. I mentioned UK because I have been there to study their Act as their administrative structure in many ways is similar to ours. There, the Act came in to force in January last year. We passed out RIT Act in June last year and it came into force in October.
On one hand you could say that was a good thing, government was confident to be able to do that. But on the other hand what the Commission meant by being active was that it made sure that Commissions in the states would be set up and would start disposing cases from October 12. In fact, I was sworn in on October 26.
The government was ambitious in enforcing RTI Act. But the whole structure has come up now and I can’t think of a single state which doesn’t have an Information Commission.
SEEMA CHISHTI: Does Bihar have a Commission?
GAUTAM CHICKERMANE: You have IAS officers only as Commissioners. Don’t they obstruct the full working of the Act?
No, it hasn’t come to our notice because we didn’t have the information nor did they. There are three states which have judges as Commissioners — UP, Bihar and Jharkhand. Most others have activists, IAS officers and retired IAS officers. Andhra Pradesh has a person from the media as well as from the Information Commission. But yes, predominately IAS officers.
One apprehension among some people was that the post was given as a resting place. I don’t mean a grave but a comfortable place! But I don’t think it is.
SHILPA VENKATRAMAN: With the Act active for almost a year, why have there not been many punitive decisions taken against people who did not provide the necessary information?
There are many cases where penalties have been imposed. To make this Act effective, everyone has to see that this is for the benefit of all — the government, citizens, media and NGOs. If information is delayed or not supplied, this is done for a good reason. Information can be denied without reasonable cause and, in section 21, if actions are taken in good faith. There are some cases of good faith like a person who had asked for information later said this was not what he had asked for after receiving the information.
I am also a believer in the philosophy of ahimsa. I think it is the means of bringing over all sections of the society to one cause and the cause in front of me is the right to information. The bureaucracy is threatened by this Act. They think this a disciplinary Act. Even though they are the largest users of this Act! My objective is to ensure that this Act is not taken as a threat. Under section 4, the law mandates that all my records are accessible on the website.
SEEMA CHISHTI: What are your views on right of citizens to view file notings?
I see no problem with file notings being viewed. Section 8, which tells you what information cannot be provided. If the file, or the notings in it, you want disclosed is under this section then is can’t be disclosed.
SEEMA CHISHTI: Is the penalty on RTI officers too lenient when they delay giving information?
No, if people feel they can get away then they’ll get personal hearings. They will then have to answer to me and give me valid reasons. They will have to justify themselves. There are two cases in which I imposed penalty were time gaps between dates showed the officer had done nothing. I would rather be seen as “gentle” and achieve my goal then be harsh and lose it all together.
RAVISH TIWARI: Sometimes the officers respond only to a part of the query made. How do you defend that?
There are sometimes 134 cases in one application concerning 10 departments. An application defines itself as one relating to a particular issue. It is not fair to club together several different issues, all for Rs 10. But we solved this particular issue.
ANANTHAKRISHNAN G: Are you expecting officers to provide information that may be harmful to them?
At this stage, we are just determining the parameters of providing the information. This fine-tuning will come over a period of time when there is a vicious reason for denying information. We are only in our first year and our main objective is to win over all sections of society by providing RTI. Other things can come afterwards.
SONU JAIN: Can you name about three things you would want to change in the Act, that would be required to improve RTI?
Well, I cannot talk about it just yet. That will be part of my annual report we will put before Parliament. So I can’t discuss that issue.
SEEMA CHISHTI: Is it not true that many of the states don’t have enough number of Commissioners?
There are cases where the structure is there but has hardly any applications. Assam, for instance, has the structure but has received only 11 applications. While in West Bengal, no applications have been received because the public is not aware of the RTI Act. Not a single appeal has been filed from the city of Kolkata, such a politically aware city. That has to change. More awareness of the Act needs to be created. However, the Act is doing well in some cities other than Delhi and Mumbai, like Raipur and Bhubaneswar.
Last edited by trueblue; 15-10-06 at 12:15 PM.
I think the initial year had been pretty successful for RTI to start with. There need to be protest and friction so that the best comes out. Those totally against (the radicals) will play great role to balance the RTI implimentation.
But I think now is the time that RTI should get little stronger and tougher. May be it was there, but the way the campaigners had potrayed, it surely had started to be seen as little soft.