Subhash Chandra Agrawal for BeyondHeadlines
Right-To-Information Act 2005 has been successful in much more ways than was aimed to achieve. RTI Act of India is perhaps the best drafted Act of its kind in the global world. Credit goes to a personality which though not being directly in power, yet utilized her influence on political rulers to implement the Act in a time-bound period. Credit also goes to the noted RTI activist and Magsaysay awardee Smt. Aruna Roy who as member of high-powered National Advisory Council of India ensured that RTI Act be implemented without being dumped. Efforts of Magsaysay Awardee Arvind Kejriwal are worth-appreciating who quit a prime-job to dedicate himself completely toward RTI Act. Inclusion of RTI activist Shailesh Gandhi in Central Information Commission was also a positive sign for meeting aspirations of users of RTI Act.
Post-independence history of India can be bifurcated in two different eras, one pre-RTI Act and the other one post RTI-Act. ‘Right-To-Information’ Act has given India a second freedom where a citizen is now much-more empowered than even a Parliamentarian at least in getting information from the government. For a written Parliamentary question, a Parliamentarian gets just one chance to get reply from the government. While on the other hand, an RTI petitioner has two subsequent chances to grill government if he/she is not satisfied with initial response coming from a public-authority. This is why even several Parliamentarians including Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha Shri Arun Jaitley also adopted RTI route to get replies from the government. What more, even the then Central Information Commissioner Dr. OP Kejriwal also adopted RTI route to get a government-accommodation in his capacity as Central Information Commission.
First Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibulla who despite all teething problems in implementing the RTI Act and facing criticism at times, played his role smartly in a manner to fulfill purpose of India’s most wonderful post-independence Act giving commoners power of being a Parliamentarian to grill government and its functionaries. His well-thought decisions were written so artistically that even if an appeal was dismissed on technical grounds, he often directed to forward the appeal-record to key-functionaries for their perusal if the subject-matter was of great national or public interest. His role rather served to be even more effective than allowing the appeal! Present Chief Information Commissioner Shri Satyanand ji Mishra took a step further when he observed during hearing of my petition against Reserve Bank of India that a petitioner’s submissions referred in an RTI petition should otherwise be also looked carefully even though these are not covered by RTI Act, because officers handling RTI petitions are themselves senior officers who should be sensitive to submissions made by members of public. He is quite liberal otherwise also when he further observed that Public Information Officers should not reject RTI petitions because of their not being properly drafted. He stated that it’s a people’s Act and petitioners should not be expected to be experts in drafting RTI petitions. It is indeed a matter of satisfaction that presently all of Central Information Commissioners are acting to such people’s friendly spirit where they grill public-authorities themselves if petitioners are not able to present their case effectively.
Drafting of the Act for appointing Information Commissioners only with consensus of Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader leaves no space for appointees to be biased towards political rulers having appointed them. Rather all such appointments requiring impartiality like of Election Commissioners should be appointed likewise by consensus of Prime Minister and the Opposition Leader.
Rather than just providing ‘Information’ as defined technically, RTI Act has served to be an effective watchdog to make all those coming in purview of the Act to be extremely cautious to do their work only in accordance with rules and without any irregularities. If RTI petitions are drafted carefully, then it can achieve much greater objective in getting things done and objectives achieved. There have been many cases where ordinary citizens using RTI Act for getting information relating to their applications for ration-cards or passports, got such documents door-delivered after filing the RTI petitions but before getting the RTI response.
Having filed more than 6000 RTI petitions almost on important aspects of national and public importance, I have wonderful experience to share. Most of the Central Public Information Officers (CPIOs) are practically under pressure to reply to the petitions in normal bureaucratic style. But I even found that on filing the first appeal with a senior officer acting as Appellate Authority in the Department, the Appellate Authority phoned me requesting for not insisting on the matter any further, promising to rectify the things in future. (Since I wanted reforms rather than publicizing the irregularity, I agreed). However there is a rare case of a bold CPIO VR Eliza at Directorate of Customs who dared to file an unusual second appeal (to his success) at the Central Information Commission against appeal-order of his senior officer in the Directorate!
What more, though public-authorities at Supreme Court resisted on aspects like Chief Justice of India being under purview of the Act, or on queries related to implementation of resolution on wealth-declaration by judges of higher courts, public-awareness generated through several RTI petitions supplemented by our ever-vigilant media, shook concerned ones in governance-system to work towards judicial accountability and acting effectively on cases of corruption even in higher judiciary. Even Supreme Court judges had to ultimately declare their wealth ‘suo-motto’ even though my much talked-about RTI petition in this regard simply asked if Apex Court judges were following their own unanimously passed resolution whereby all judges of higher courts were submitting details of their assets and wealth to respective Chief Justices! It was mishandling of RTI petition by Supreme Court registry that ultimately proved to be a blessing in disguise for civil activists like me who in fact demanded transparency about those in public-life. The then Chief Information Commissioner rightly commented that if Supreme Court would have provided the simple information sought in this regard, perhaps it would not have even become a news-item!
RTI Act gave enormous courage to media-persons and others wanting judicial reforms to highlight irregularities in the system which otherwise was totally impossible under ever-hanging sword of contempt-powered judicial system allowing some wrong elements to misuse temples of justices as torture-cells for victims of misconduct in the system. Media’s role, in regularly highlighting important decisions of Central Information Commission and responses received under RTI Act, has also been of great help in achieving success of RTI Act as at present. Press-agencies and newspapers have deputed special correspondents to cover news related to RTI Act. Many reputed news-channels are supporting cause of propagating use of RTI Act by joining hands with civil-society by being co-sponsors in RTI awards for make effectiveness of RTI Act reaching to masses.
But the above highlighted achievements are a very small fraction of what can be really achieved. Publicity-budget for RTI should be spent through Central Information Commission. Chapters on RTI Act should be added in school-syllabus to make children know about it at root-level to make its effective use later in life. It is a matter of great regret that most college-going youngsters do not know even about existence of such a wonderful Act. Seminars and workshops should be conducted in colleges and universities to fill the big gap between RTI Act and its knowledge amongst youngsters.
Once I filed an RTI petition highlighting misbehavior and non-customer friendly attitude of General Manager of a prominent (Connaught Place) branch of a public-sector Bank. Evidently effect of the petition had to be spontaneous and alarming. Higher authorities of the Bank sent the erring General Manager to my office to apologize and request for withdrawing RTI petition. My aim is never to get publicity or put some individuals in difficulty by filing RTI petitions. When he assured that he would be careful in dealing with customers in future, I gave him letter withdrawing my RTI petition. But then while leaving my office, he posed me an innocent query “Sir, what is this RTI Act which shook whole of the Bank at the highest level”! So much is non-awareness about RTI Act in our country.
There is a big time-gap of even several months between an appeal/complaint reached at the Commission and its being registered. Even the Commission can and should modify its system to ensure a compulsory registration of all appeals/complaints found fit for registration within say one week of their reaching at mail-receipt section of the Commission. This can be done by deputing special and adequate evening-staff with duty-hours after normal office-hours to diary all mail received in the day, and by simultaneous registration of all feasible appeals/complaints at the mail-receipt section only. Such evening/night duty-hours will make fast work uninterrupted from public-hindrance in normal working-hours. Appeals found unfit to be registered should be returned to the sender say within a fortnight with a deficiency-note. Field of ‘Monthly Disposal of Cases’ at Commission’s website should separately highlight data for each of the Information Commissioner so as to enable Commission have its own self-study to streamline the system in a manner that period of pending appeals/complaints may be almost same for each of the Information Commissioner. A system can be worked out whereby all pending appeals against a public-authority registered till date may be fixed on same day so that saving may be possible on precious time and conveyance-expenses of public-authorities may be largely saved by not being required to attend to hearings on different dates. Same procedure can be adopted even for future, whenever hearing-schedule is to be fixed on weekly or monthly basis for Information Commissioners. It gives me great satisfaction that this idea has been put into practice by present Chief Information Commissioner Honourable Shri Satyanand ji Mishra. Unfortunately reports indicate that most State Information Commissioners lack such user-friendly approach in dealing with appeals before them.
Chief Information Commissioner should have frequent informal interaction with all the Information Commissioners so that approach of all Information Commissioners may be similar in dealing with appeals/complaints before them. For example one of the former (rather the only one) Central Information Commissioners was notorious for his being allergic to basic spirit of RTI Act itself. While all others Information Commissioners have usually been appellant-friendly. It is not that such appellant-friendly Information Commissioners always talk against public-authorities. Dr OP Kejriwal in his verdict ‘SK Lal against Indian Railways’ passed strict-most comments against the petitioner for his irrelevant petition aimed to make mockery of RTI Act. But at the same time, I recall humiliation faced at the Commission on my query about disciplinary-authority for Chief Justice of India. This query gained significance when serious charges were leveled against a former Chief Justice of India. Though that Central Information Commissioner regretted his decision later, and thereafter gave wonderful decisions. Better is to have a second-stage review of Commission’s orders by a bigger bench at the Commission itself. It will also give public-authorities a chance of appeal at the Commission itself rather than dragging the Commission and the petitioner to the Courts. Public-authorities must compulsory file written-rejoinders to appeals. It is against natural justice that Government may depute lawyers for the Commission to contest cases filed by government-functionaries against Commission’s orders. Recently Chief Information Commissioner Honourable Shri Satyanand ji Mishra ordered charging of lawyer’s fees from Public Information Officer of Central Bank of India because he observed that the lawyer did not have even studied the case before appearing before him, and was engaged solely for purpose of monetary gain from the Bank in respect of his fees as lawyers. If a Public Information Officer has not competence to face Information Commissions against unarmed petitioners, he does not deserve to hold the post.
Second problem that has emerged at a later stage is that now Courts do not allow Information Commissions to be a party to cases where public-authorities have filed writs in Courts against verdicts of Commissions. As far as I have understood, it is so because Information Commissions decide cases as a quasi-judicial authority. But Information Commissions are appellate authority and not courts, and they also have additional administrative duty for smooth implementation of RTI Act. Rather Central Information Commission itself desires to be a party in court-cases against its decisions so that Commissions may present logic behind their verdicts. In interest of all, it is more appropriate that Information Commissions may be made parties in court-cases against verdicts of Information Commissions.
Another problem is about public-authorities getting ex-party stay on CIC-verdicts and then prolonging matters indefinitely by seeking regular adjournments. A case against CIC-verdict against Department of Justice at Delhi High Court has now ‘celebrated’ its fourth anniversary without the case having moved an inch further after ex-party stay was granted by Delhi High Court. Even a division-bench of Honourable Supreme Court had once rightly observed that it is quite often that parties having sought ex-party stay on writs filed by them never allow cases to move further so easily even though at times they ultimately lose cases. Since most cases against CIC-verdicts are filed at Delhi High Court, there can be a provision whereby all cases involving CIC-verdicts may be fixed for first Monday of every month with adjournments usually avoided. Courts should take Central Information Commission as an ideal where adjournment-culture is absolutely not allowed. Interestingly it used to be Supreme Court which alone sought adjournments. However after sensing attitude of Central Information Commission against unhealthy culture of adjournments, now Supreme Court has stopped seeking adjournments at Central Information Commission.
I am listing some of concrete suggestions required to further modify RTI Act:
- Sections 27 and 28 of RTI Act giving often-misused power to state-governments and public-authorities for drafting their own rules, should be repealed. Some public-authorities like several High Courts drafted their own rules which are/were in contradiction of RTI Act itself. Even now, many High Courts have fixed RTI fees abnormally high at rupees 500 which is otherwise just rupees 10 only. ‘One Nation, One Rule’ should be motto for RTI Act and rules.
- Public-authorities have to spend man-hours and postal-charges to demand just rupees two for copy of single page. Best and practical option is to have an RTI fee of rupees twenty uniformly for all public-authorities without giving any liberty under section 27 or 28 to have a different RTI fees as notified by DoPT with a provision to provide copy of first say ten pages of documents free-of-cost. Every additional ten pages or part may require twenty rupees extra. RTI fees and copying charges may be payable only through specially introduced RTI stamps which should be available at all post-offices, banks and all public authorities also to avoid huge loss of public-money in handling postal-orders sent towards RTI fees. Recent RTI response has revealed that handling charge for a postal-order are rupees 22.71 as per data on basis of financial year 2006-07. All public-authorities should be directed to use fast, reliable and economical Speed Post service in cities connected through Speed Post service. According to a DoPT circular, name of payee on postal-orders towards RTI fees is to be “Accounts Officers” for all public-authorities. But lack of awareness amongst CPIOs makes task of petitioner tough with different public-authorities demanding remittance in different names payees. While Prime Minister’s Office requires pay-orders in name of ‘Section Officer PMO’, President’s Secretariat and Department of Justice in name of ‘Pay & Accounts Officer’, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha Secretariat in name of ‘Drawing & Disbursing Officer’ and Supreme Court in name of ‘Registrar (Administration)’.
- There should also be penal-provision for first Appellate Authorities not deciding appeals in stipulated period. It should be mandatory (not discretionary) not only for the Commission but even for first Appellate Authority to impose penalty on CPIOs not responding within 30 days. Copying-charges waived under section 7(6) of RTI Act due to late response from CPIO, should be deducted from salary of CPIO instead of being suffered by the public-authority. There should be penal-provision even for competent authorities of public-authorities not complying with provisions contained in section 4 (and its other sub-sections) of RTI Act. However it should be mandatory for Information Commissioners to impose penalties for late response in their main verdict on the appeal itself. Otherwise, reasons for waiver of penalty should be clearly mentioned in the order.
- Written submissions by public-authorities at least twenty days before scheduled hearing at the Commission should be made compulsory with a copy to the petitioner. Since public-authorities are much-more elaborative in their response at the Commission, ever-increasing work-load on the Commission may be considerably reduced by abandoning the hearing in case petitioner is satisfied by suggested compulsory written submissions of public-authorities.
- Another rule should be for PIOs to compulsorily mention date of RTI petition and of its receipt apart from name, telephone-number, e-mail ID and complete postal address of the PIO. Not providing any of these information may also be taken as non-compliance. PIOs usually do not comply with section 7(8) of RTI Act when they do not give particulars of Appellate Authority.
- Central Information Commission should have power to review its single-bench decisions by a larger bench at Central Information Commission itself. No dilution of RTI Act in any other form either as demanded by Judiciary or by DoPT should be done. Chief Information Commissioner should be appointed from amongst senior-most Information Commissioners turn-by-turn for one year each like is adopted for appointing Dean at Faculty of Management (Delhi University). System will avoid vacuum at post of Chief Information Commissioner in case of unexpected vacancy apart from existing Information Commissioners feeling humiliated of being bypassed through appointment of an outsider at post of Chief Information Commissioner. Newer ideas will emerge from various Information Commissioners getting opportunity to head the Commission turn-by-turn each for a year.
- Website of the Commission needs to be given a total new look with provision to update it regularly. Presently there are many fields like say ‘Legal Opinion’ which has just one entry made in very beginning of launch of the website. It is quite general that cases allotted hearing-dates do not always appear in the field ‘Status of Appeals & Complaints’. Since full-bench hearings are very rare and are on some peculiar cases, their hearing-dates should be put under the field of ‘Public Notices’. Data in month-wise disposal should be put separately for each of the Information Commissioner. Details of payee’s names are neither displaced in offices concerned nor on their respective websites. Public-awareness campaign if derived through Central Information Commission, can well take care of such petty but important aspects to guide all concerned properly to use RTI Act. Considering dominating-role of private-sector in public-life through banking, communications and others, India should follow South Africa in extending RTI Act to private sector for firms with some stipulated turn-over fixed separately in respect of goods and services.
RTI Act has become base for the demand of a stringent Lokpal Bill. But to make Lokpal Bill really effective, there should be urgent, time-bound and simultaneous working on three more bills namely a stringent Judicial Accountability Bill, Poll Reforms Bill and a bill towards time-bound redress of grievances on lines of RTI Act which can be named as ‘Right-To-Action Bill’.
(Writer is Guinness Record Holder for most letters in newspapers and an RTI activist)