Interview with Subhash Chandra Agrawal, RTI activist.
SUBHASH CHANDRA AGRAWAL has been a consistent RTI activist since the Act was implemented. He also holds the rare distinction of having filed 800 right to information applications in various government departments, thereby exposing many scams in the system. He and his wife Madhu Agrawal also hold the world record for sending the highest number of letters to newspaper editors in one calendar year, as per the Guinness Book of World Records. Judicial and bureaucratic circles keenly follow his method of using the RTI Act against loopholes and corruption in the system.
While the Supreme Court accepted Agrawal's plea for declaration of wealth by judges of higher courts, the Delhi High Court upheld his plea for bringing the Chief Justice of India under the purview of the RTI Act. Agrawal spoke to Frontline at his Chandni Chowk office in Delhi about his achievements and how the RTI has made the political system more accountable.
What prompted you to use the RTI Act to gather information from various government departments?
I have filed 800 RTI applications till date. More than 150 have reached the Central Information Commission [CIC]. Initially, my main focus was the judicial system. Perhaps, I was the first person to collaborate with the media to reveal the information I gathered through the RTI. The Act became a weapon to aggressively pursue my passion for a cause in the public interest. But what really prompted me was my personal grievance against the higher judiciary.
What are the other areas that you later focussed on?
Almost all issues of public interest. The most important ones are wealth and assets of judges and Ministers, appointment of judicial officers, Ministers influencing the judiciary's decision. These three applications concerning the judiciary have been challenged in the Supreme Court by the Supreme Court itself. Recently, I exposed the inflated construction cost of the Commonwealth Games projects. The cost had gone up several times from what was projected when the Games was first conceived. There were many other applications about corruption among higher officials of the government and Ministers. Another case was about corruption and favouritism in the choice for the Padma awards, which I exposed.
The Judges' Assets Bill is to be introduced in Parliament. That's my success.
After filing so many applications, do you see any lacunae in the RTI Act?
I would say that India's RTI Act is one of the best in the world. But Sections 27 and 28 of the Act should be repealed. These give powers to competent authorities in the State governments to frame their own rules. The provision is often misused by public authorities. For instance, the Delhi High Court had fixed a sum of Rs.500 for an application. This was contrary to the Act. When Justice A.P. Shah became the Chief Justice of Delhi, he reversed all the rules. The Bombay High Court does not accept poster applications. This is also a violation of the Act.
Similarly, written submissions by public authorities, at least 20 days before the scheduled hearing at the CIC, should be made compulsory, with a copy sent to the petitioner. The CIC should have the power to review its single-bench decisions by a larger bench at the Commission itself. No dilution of the Act should be made as demanded by the Department of Personnel and Training [DoPT] and the judiciary.
Your comments on the campaign against amendments to the Act.
The government wants to delete file notings applications' from the clauses of the Act. The DoPT, the nodal functionary, was never interested in including file notings in the Act. Even its website stated that file notings are not carried under the Act. The CIC, in its various verdicts, held that the RTI Act covered file notings. So, I filed an application in the DoPT. Its officials always seek more time to answer.
In one of the petitions, Rashtrapati Bhavan for the first time informed me that file notings are not under the purview of the Act. But I had got so many file notings before. Then I e-mailed Wajahat Habibullah, Chief Information Commissioner, that the DoPT had been using the time constraint clause to scuttle the RTI Act.
He took a strict decision on my petition, asking why penalty and disciplinary punishment should not be imposed on violators of the Act. The CIC took the DoPT to task and tried to argue a case of criminal negligence on its part. The DoPT did not bother even then. So, I filed another petition to the DoPT asking why it did not challenge the CIC orders in court. This is when the DoPT fell in a trap. It had to either make public its file notings or reveal information about the punishment given to the officers who deliberately delayed the information. It had to ultimately surrender and accept file notings as under the RTI Act's purview. The Act has made the political system more accountable with all its strengths and weaknesses.
Recently the Prime Minister's Office intervened to direct the DoPT to take file-notings as information' only on my petition pending disposal at the CIC.
Eight activists were murdered in the last seven months across India for having exposed various scams through the Act. You are an RTI activist. Do you think that the government can provide some kind of immunity or security to RTI activists?
These attacks will always be there because of a nexus between criminals and politicians. Nobody can prevent them because there is no strict definition of an RTI activist. Providing security to them is not practically possible. I have a very extreme view though. Only when the security covers of high officials and VVIPs are snatched the authorities will be sensitive to the lives of commoners. They will also be sensitive to the lives of RTI activists and petitioners. The security the VIPs get is funded from the public exchequer. Criminals are operating in the disguise of politicians. RTI activists are a real danger to them. Lawmakers also hate accountability; they are made accountable because of the RTI Act. So, I fear more such attacks and murders.
The Whistleblowers Protection Bill, pending with the government, proposes some kind of immunity to the whistle-blower. Since an RTI activist cannot be defined, is there any way in which some immunity can be guaranteed?
We cannot have a strict definition of an RTI activist. Anyone can file an RTI application for any information he requires. If a person files 100 applications, can he be termed an RTI activist? Not necessarily.
The only solution is to snatch the security provided to all those who do not deserve it. Only then they will understand the value of common people's lives.
In your experience, which department was the most uncooperative?
The worst department according to me is the Municipal Corporation of Delhi [MCD]. I get abusive calls from it asking me stop sending petitions under the RTI Act. I exposed the Nigambodh Ghat [Delhi's biggest crematorium] scam where the MCD was charging Rs.4,000 unofficially for burning the body in a raised platform surrounded by grills. They called it VIP charge. I asked for file notings about this VIP place. They tried to pass the buck to the Delhi Development Authority but the DDA claimed ignorance. Then the MCD said it had a public-private partnership with the Arya Samaj, Lodhi Road, so the Samaj could have ordered the charge. The Arya Samaj refuted this.
The MCD even sent some goons to threaten me. Its officials have been so rude and unfriendly.