There have been some disconcerting developments on the right to information front. In February and March, leading RTI activists set up a kiosk outside the office of the Central Information Commission (CIC), inviting RTI applicants to file complaints if they were aggrieved with CIC verdicts.
With banners asking 'Have you got justice from CIC?', one could sense the latent hostility between CIC and RTI applicants. CIC should have welcomed complaints against it for a possible review of the cases. Activists later claimed that during the 40 days of their campaign they received as many as 200 complaints, of which they had taken 36 to high court and were exploring possibilities of challenging more.
Both sides have squandered opportunities to learn from each other. Neither side has been able to appreciate that CIC and activists are fellow travellers. Whereas the activists work at the ground level, CIC is the delivery system at the apex. Only by synergising the two can the full potential of RTI Act be realised.
Amidst this tension, some respondents and applicants have moved courts in an effort to frustrate the RTI Act.
According to one estimate, at the present rate of disposal of pending cases, it would take courts more than 300 years to clear the backlog. Why should they take on the additional burden of RTI cases when CIC is a quasi-judicial body?
As for those who argue that courts can provide a corrective to faulty CIC judgments, are we to assume that courts do not make mistakes? Members of the judiciary are also human. Today, high courts are only too ready to entertain writs against CIC decisions.
CIC, however, lacks the infrastructure to effectively fight its cases in courts. It does not have a strong legal team to contest its cases, many of them posted outside Delhi in high courts.
There is no case where CIC has registered its presence at the time of admission.
With long dates being given for hearings, the only ones to benefit are officials of public authorities running for cover against penalties imposed on them under the RTI Act. Public authorities continue with their pre-RTI mindset.
This situation only undermines the common man's faith in the new Act.
Instead of involving courts, CIC should review its own cases. While courts would seem to provide cover to public authorities, CIC members are under pressure not only from courts and public authorities, but also from unreasonable appellants. A CIC member was nearly assaulted by a lady appellant when his order did not seem to go in her favour.
Another applicant blamed a member for caste bias, even as the member insisted that he was not aware of the caste of the applicant. In yet another case, a lady PIO blamed a commissioner for communal and gender bias.
In these instances, the media played up the charges even without taking the commissioner's point of view. While the media has covered important CIC decisions, it has not woken up to the potential of the Act to introduce elements of transparency and accountability in administration and contain corruption. It has refrained from bringing widespread corruption to light. Properly utilised, the RTI Act can perhaps work as effectively as sting operations.
The media has failed to take up social issues which could result in bringing about systemic changes, one of the major objectives of the RTI Act. The law is arguably the single most powerful piece of legislation enacted in independent India.
RTI has raised the hopes and aspirations of people. Applications under RTI law have increased in almost geometrical proportions. If CIC continues to be under siege from activists, courts and the media, it will only serve the bureaucracy's purpose of crippling CIC by creating a jungle of hurdles.
In the absence of proper support from the government, CIC may well tread on a path that would render the RTI movement ineffectual.
The writer is member, Central Information Commission.
Mr O P Kejariwal made some good points that CIC and RTI activists need to work toghether, since both are working towards the same objective, i.e. to make government more transparent to public. However cooperation does not mean capitulation. There are areas where RTI activist must cooperate with CIC and other areas where RTI activists must confront CIC.
Mr O P Kejariwal does not like people filing writs in High Courts against CIC. He is right that cases can be tied up in courts for years and thereby delay the implementation of RTI. However most cases have been filed by government organizations (GOs) seeking to prevent release of information. RTI activists have filed only a few cases. The purpose of cases filed by RTI activists is to open the working of the government. The purpose of cases filed by GOs is to keep the working of the GOs secret. There is a big difference between the two. I hope CIC recognizes this difference.
Mr. O P Kejariwal's contention that CIC is a quasi-judicial body and therefore should not be subject to appeals in High Court, is not correct. A lower court ruling can always be appealed to the higher court. The only court whose rulings cannot be appealed is the Supreme Court of India. I am sure CIC does not claim to have the same role.
CIC does not have the legal staff to fight cases. If CIC is a quasi-judicial body, it does not need a legal staff to fight, if its rulings are appealed in High Court. If I loose a case in lower court, I can appeal to higher court. But in no case the lower court will contest my case in higher court. Only the loosing party fights the case, not the lower court.
By same analogy CIC has no reason, right, or legal precedent to fight cases filed in High Court against CIC's rulings.
I agree that CIC should have a procedure to rehear cases. In some situations one commissioner decides one issue one way, and another commissioner decides the same issue a different way. The appellant should be given opportunity to ask the full bench of CIC to review the case. CIC in turn can make the review discretionary. So the full bench of CIC does not have to hear all the cases appealed to it. CIC can decide which cases to rehear and which ones not to.
CIC has to publish a compilation of its important rulings. This booklet should arrange the rulings in a subject and/or section areas. The booklet should be distributed to PIOs and AAs. I am reading the CIC decisions and I see that PIOs are refusing to give out information citing various exemptions. However CIC had already decided that those exemptions do not apply. So CIC keeps repeating the same rulings. CIC should impose penalty, in every case where PIO refuses to release information in spite of a CIC ruling to the contrary in similar case. I can see something similar for petitioner. If CIC booklet shows that the information should not be disclosed, then CIC could dispose of cases without holding a full formal hearing.