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Tool of democracy'

Published : Sep 10, 2010 00:00 IST

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Wajahat Habibullah, Chief Information Commissioner.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Wajahat Habibullah, Chief Information Commissioner.-SHANKER CHAKRAVARTY

Interview with Wajahat Habibullah, CIC.

THE office of the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) is a busy place, receiving as it does thousands of complaints or requests for information. Wajahat Habibullah, who has been the CIC since October 2005, believes that the success of the Right to Information Act is contingent on many factors, including those that shape an evolving democracy. While he views the attacks on RTI activists as a serious development, he is optimistic that with time, the resistance to giving information will peter out. He spoke to Frontline about the steps required to strengthen the institution and to restore the belief that the RTI Act is a workable mechanism. Excerpts:

Of late, there have been several reports about RTI activists being threatened and even killed. Do you think that our political system and bureaucracy were not prepared for such an Act given that the conditions on the ground in this feudal and patriarchal country remain very much the same? I am adding patriarchal here as it turns out that the majority of RTI applicants have been men.

One doesn't prepare for this beforehand. We didn't prepare for Independence. There was a campaign. The British believed that India wouldn't be a successful democracy. We have shown that we are one of the most successful democracies in the world. We have succeeded despite our economic backwardness, not only in hanging together but in becoming stronger. A major tool of democracy is the right to information. It is a means of generating public participation in governance, which is at the heart of democracy. Elections are a means of doing it but democracy itself means public participation in governance. Once the elections are over and we get a government in power, then what do we do? Sit at home? No, we have to participate. How does one do that? We have the Right to Information Act. It is not that the country is not ready for it. The country must now prepare for the next step and, that is, to introduce greater transparency and accountability. But the point is, when that is being done, there is bound to be a reaction.

The beauty of a democratic process is that it is always evolving, it is never stagnant. What we considered a democracy yesterday may not be a democracy tomorrow. For example, England prides itself of being the oldest democracy in the world but where did it ground that on the Magna Carta powers given by the King to his nobility, not to the people!

There was no participation by the people. There is no such thing as a perfect democracy. When there is a movement from a lower democracy to a higher level, there will be greater transparency and accountability. When that happens, there will be resistance from those who have fed off the earlier systems of keeping things close. I will take recourse to the Marxist theory the thesis, the anti-thesis and synthesis. We have this thesis of increasing, flowering democracy; the anti-thesis, those who would like to prevent that in order to protect their own vested interests. What should be the synthesis? That all sections of the citizenry, with the support of the media, the government, must get together to ensure that the law is actually implemented in its proper sprit and it achieves what it has set out to achieve. It has not yet achieved it but has set out to achieve it has begun to do that; up till now, it has broken the barriers of petty corruption, for instance, in the case of the issuance of ration cards, admission of children to school, among other things. But now it is moving to larger and larger areas. The activist who was killed in Gujarat touched a very raw nerve where big business was involved. It is not that democracy and free enterprise do not go together. But free enterprise does not mean licentious enterprise exploitative enterprise. A democracy ensures a kind of enterprise that won't be exploitative. People will resist that exploitation.

To make a democratic system effective, one needs to have the right to information. We need other laws too. There are other pieces of legislation coming up, such as the Whistleblowers' Act and the Privacy Act. The two characteristics of democracy are one, a free citizen, and second, the right to question. We have to get together. By this I mean a social audit. The social audit is the precursor of RTI; from this was born RTI. Through social audit, one can ask questions. Earlier, people could be bribed in order to suppress information. But it cannot be done now. If a group of people take it up, it is difficult to do so. The non-governmental organisations [NGOs] are competing with one another to do better. The end result is satisfactory.

There seems to be a difference in perception as far as the success of the Act goes. The NGOs are sceptical in terms of the number of cases disposed of and objectives achieved. Studies show that fewer than 40 per cent of the applicants in rural areas seem to think that their objectives were achieved, and Public Information Officers themselves are unaware of the provisions of the Act. There are structural deficiencies as well.

Success will only be pronounced many years later; it is moving in that direction. My case is that it is moving in the right direction; it has not got derailed. The fact that vested interests are reacting the way they are, that itself is a measure of progress. The department is overburdened. The law itself says that separate posts cannot be created to provide information. Those who are designated as Public Information Officers tend to look at this as an extra burden. There is no incentive, no honorarium. There is only a disincentive; if they do not deliver, they are penalised. At the appellate level, the complaint can lie for months though the law says it has to be decided within 30 days. Many decisions of the commission then get caught in litigation and that takes time. In many cases, the High Courts, particularly the High Court of Delhi, has given decisions expanding the outer limits of the RTI. That is part of the reason why all this information about the Commonwealth Games is so freely accessible and flowing so freely. People have a right to know where their money is spent. That limit has been breached it has gone right up to the government and also gone into the portals of the Supreme Court. There is nothing to be despondent about 40 per cent; it means that 40 per cent of the users are using it those who are not educated and whom the Act is intended to benefit. It is very encouraging. The Act is meant for them. In Delhi, there are areas where women are very active in putting in RTI applications. I am told that contractors come and ask them about what material to use.

With increasing privatisation and the government increasingly opting for the private-public partnership model, do you think the private sector should also come under the ambit of the Act?

Privatisation will not stop it. We have given several decisions on this. The High Court has repeatedly upheld our decisions. One area that seems to be hanging fire is that of the distribution companies. We have held that they are public authorities. They went in for appeal. In other cases, for instance, the Indian Olympic Association, the Commonwealth Games Association, IFFCO, are examples of a number of public sector organisations that have been privatised they all come under the ambit of the RTI Act, and the courts have held as such. The Punjab and Haryana High Court went a step further it said that any organisation fulfilling a public function becomes a public authority. So while there may be decentralisation and privatisation of government, there is a movement to see that it [right to information] continues to extend wider and wider. Now, I don't see that as an apprehension. But we have to find ways and means on how to access information from public-private partnerships. We made that the subject of our annual conference this year.

The proposed amendments have not gone down well with activists. Rather than new amendments that restrict the ambit of the Act, they believe that the Act needs to be implemented more rigorously in its existing form and that the structural infirmities have to be simultaneously addressed.

The government came up with certain suggestions at our last national convention. After that, all the Information Commissioners held a separate meeting with the government. The general consensus was that there was no need for amendments; that if there was a need to bring about an improvement in the Act, it could be done through different means. The government has now come up with other ideas suggesting areas requiring amendments. Activists feel that the amendments are being proposed to water down the Act. The government feels it is not trying to water down the Act but only attempting to strengthen it. Activists feel that strengthening is a euphemism for watering it down.

There is no debate about file notings now. The area that is interesting is the issue of frivolous and vexatious applications. Who decides this? Do we give the authority to the PIO or the CPIO? There are some applications that fit this category but not all of them are frivolous. How does one define that? One other defect the present law has is that if the CIC leaves, there is no provision for the next in command to take over. All the other Information Commissioners are there to assist the CIC. The government has to appoint someone as I am retiring by the end of next month.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Sep 10, 2010.)

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