Towards Co-operative Relationship between Government and Citizens : Wajahat Habibullah, Chief Information Commissioner, Government of India

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Wajahat Habibullah

Right to Information

Wajahat Habibullah

Wajahat Habibullah, Chief Information Commissioner, Government of India

‘Right to Information’ is being considered by many as the ‘second independence’ of    India after 60 years of the first one. Many see it as a key catalytic factor e-Governance in the country. How does the man at the helm of affairs on RTI in India sees it? Let’s find out from him.

How do you see the Right to Information Act 2005 as a potent weapon in ensuring transparency and accountability and thereby reducing corruption in the government departments?

I do not take the Right to Information (RTI) as a weapon at all. I do take it as a tool, as an instrument. We want to see a cooperative relationship between the government and the citizens, wherein all the information that is available with the government, with the public authority, is actually available with the public. In case of India, it is a major leap forward because in other countries which were already flourishing democracies for many years, the Act is not so much noticed because everything is in any case available to the people. The Act has made procedures a little smoother in these countries. However in our case, it was not available, so we actually leap frogged from a developing democracy to an advanced democracy. Therefore, there are bound to be tensions and glitches on the way. Thus, I believe that it should not be looked upon as a conflict.

The idea is that all the information should be made available and it has already begun to happen. What we want to see is that all the information that is available with the government, except where it is in confidential section 8 of the Act, be made available to the public. Recently the Ministry of Personnel has issued a circular under which even organisations exempt under the Second Schedule of the Act will have to part with information, under certain circumstances, like in allegation of corruption and human rights violation. So they must all set up a proper infrastructure under the RTI Act. These are all the movements whereby the whole thing becomes a part of the system of governance.

Sharing of information is very important, it should not be in conflict with the system of governance but instead be a part of the system of governance. That is where it would have the most lasting effect and that is also where it will begin to have an effect on what is one of its prime objectives– which is reducing and eliminating corruption.

What are the different kinds of cases that are coming up
to the Commission under RTI?

All kinds of cases come to the Commission. Initially the majority of cases came from within the government, which was quite understandable because the people within the government knew what the Act was, since the Act had been circulated to all the ministries. However, that is no longer the case now. As time has passed by, they obviously continue to make use of it, but others have started getting into the Act, so to speak. Similarly we also get cases from  businessmen, people living in slums and from peasants.

I deal with Delhi, and Delhi is a very good example of what this Act can become in the future in India. This Act has been in operation in Delhi for five years and here the government servants are also making use of it. But also a large number of people like the slum dwellers are taking advantage of it. They ask for information regarding 2-3 things most often. One is regarding the demolition work that is taking place and where they are going to rehabilitated etc. Another kind of information that they often seek is regarding admission to schools. A lot of questions have been coming regarding this, and we have told them that we would give priority to these applications in this regard.

One thing that is not adequately done is that the rural folk are not yet participating to the extent that they should be participating. The participation around the Delhi area is not so bad, but this is the area where Delhi has expanded into rural areas. A lot of cases come on information regarding land acquisition, land assignment and common land.

In Delhi, a lot of people are aware of the Act. In Maharashtra also, a lot of people have become aware of the Act. This is going to start happening all over the country and that is something we have to look forward to, and also prepare for, because it is only in a very small region that  it is happening right now. When the Act really catches on, it will go much further and become  at least 10 times more widespread than it is now.

Has the Commission done any analysis of the questions being asked?

Not yet. However we are planning it now, studies have to be done and the kind of people that are applying have to be assessed. We just have vague ideas as for now, like we know that government servants are applying but we do not know whether they are senior officials,  junior officials, clerks or peons-What sort of people are appealing from within the government. Then the question of rural folk and urban folk. As I said, the rural folk are not yet participating. But we still do not know to what extent. We do not know if it is true for all the ministries. In certain ministries they might be participating more. Similarly, we say  Delhi and Mumbai are participating more, but these are general ideas, that we are getting out of processing the cases but we do not have proper facts yet. That still needs to be done, and we are planning to do that. An assessment of that nature will become part of our annual report, which would be presented before the parliament every year.

Are there any questions that are coming repeatedly to the

A lot of cases come for exemptions on the interpretation of section 81(j), that is invasion of privacy, and we have given a number of decisions in regard to that. Within the government,  a large chunk of questions come regarding the DPCs (Departmental Promotion Committees) and ACRs (Annual Confidential Reports), where ACRs are confidential documents whereas  DPCs are not and they have to be disclosed. This was challenged even in the High Court by the  UPSC (Union Public Service Commission), because the UPSC was given orders to disclose it, they challenged and then withdrew.

Another area that is of interest but has however not made progress yet, is a number of private organizations which have been declared as pubic authorities on the grounds of their being substantially financed by the government or created by government notification. In many of these cases, like the Indian Olympic Association, once it was declared a public authority, the decision was not challenged. However, companies like the Delhi Stock exchange challenged the decision through Writ, so we have to await the order of the high court in regard to this.

Another area that received a lot of applications is in the question of disclosure of answer sheets and examination results. Although we have said that the answer sheets can be disclosed, but under the law, we cannot mandate it. On the other hand we have of course passed judgments on the kind of information that can be given and can not be given at different levels. The objective there is that it has to be justice with equity. We do not want to be so feckless in our decisions that the whole system begins to collapse and disintegrate. So those are the kinds of decisions that we have been taking largely.

Has the Central Information Commission issued any guidelines to the government departments to make the repeated questions online for the convenience of the citizens?

We have issued directions to the departments to bring those things online which are not online but are mandatory under section 4, and this section is quite comprehensive. Section 4  (1) (a) demands that all records should be digitalised and that is where the question of e-Governance comes in. This is the only law that lays this down and this is not simply guidelines or notifications. In that case there is also 4 (1) b, 4(1)I c and 4 (1) d, which specifies the kind of information that is supposed to be put on the website. On that, we have been  giving a number of judgments, as to what should be on the website and what is mandated. For example, the list of ration card holders in Delhi should be on the website, everybody  should know about it as they are beneficiaries of a government subsidy programme, which  section 4 (1) b demands has to be published.

In India, where a large chunk of population is e-Illiterate,
can the Bihar example of using mobile phone to use RTI, be replicated across the country?

Well we can not place all our eggs in one basket. The Bihar example may be one system that would work but it does not necessarily have to do with e-illiteracy as such because under the  Act, as you know, if a person can not write an application of his own, then the Public  Information Officer (PIO) is expected to do so for him and if he does not do it, then that complaint can go directly to the commission.

How have the government functionaries responded to the Act? Are they happy or unhappy about RTI use by citizens?

There are certain elements in the government that do not appreciate the Act but there are also elements in the government that greatly appreciate the Act. So, I do not think one can really lay down the law, with regard to that.

The government as an entity- a bureaucracy does not adapt easily to change because a  bureaucracy is appointed by any government to maintain the status quo. Therefore, it does not welcome revolutionary changes coming from within the bureaucracy and this Act is  really radical. So it is going to take the bureaucracy some time to sink in, which is already happening. A lot of people are already appreciating the great benefits of having this Act. A lot of Joint Secretary-level officers and senior officers have told me that they are now able to understand the working of their own departments better. Of course, the resistance that comes from the government is also because sometimes the Act has been misused, for example if somebody comes up with 500 questions in 1 application and all have to be answered in 30  days, then that is obviously something that is done to try and harass, so that is resented.

Within the government and even within the Commission, there was a recommendation that  there should be an amendment in the law that false, frivolous applications are not entertained. However, I do not support such a recommendation because it puts too much  discretion in the hands of the PIO.

What about the citizens? They do not want to waste time in fi ling an application, can the RTI application be made online?

The point is that people do not have to waste time, that is where e-Governance becomes effective. Then you could be sitting in New York and getting information from Barabanki in  Uttar Pradesh. But that would happen only if section 4 (1) is fully complied with and that is necessary. We have been working very closely with the Department of Administrative Reforms in the Ministry of Personnel. The Ministry recently issued a circular to all the departments saying that they should set aside at least 1% of their budget for computerisation. We of course have a much bigger scheme within the Commission which would be more than  1%, because we have opted to become one of the only three e-Administrative departments,  besides the Department of Information Technology and the Ministry of Rural Development. So within the next three to four months, we should be able to go completely digital.

What are the challenges faced by the common man in
using RTI? What do you think are the reason why people are still not using it.

The basic challenge is that people are yet not aware and that is where the media, the NGOs  and the activists come in. Awareness has to be spread among people outside Delhi. People in  Delhi are now well aware as it has caught on here. It is very necessary to start moving to the  rural areas. Maybe in the beginning to the areas around cities like Noida and Gurgaon, so far as Delhi is concerned. Mumbai is fairly well covered, so is Karnataka because of its strong computerisation. In Andhra Pradesh unfortunately, there is a huge gap between the city of Hyderabad and the rural areas, in terms of IT, and that is a part of the problem in AP. All these contradictions might be resolved if people in the rural areas and the poor in the cities other than Delhi begin to start using RTI. Also, they will start using it once they know how easy it is.

Apart from lack of awareness, what could be the other
reasons for not using the RTI?

There could be apprehensions. As you know that government is an awesome institution so  people are afraid to go to the government offices and give their applications. So, for that reason, the Act allows for Assistant PIOs (APIOs) to be set up outside the government office. In  any case, post offices have been declared APIOs but people still do not know that. So all these  things are interconnected; The fear of the government, the lack of knowledge of the Act and  the lack of knowledge of what you can get out of the Act.

With respect to the Information Commission, what are the challenges that the Information Commission is facing?

Recently we had the challenge that we were under-staffed and over worked. However, the government has been good enough to agree to our staffing. So now we are in the process of setting it up. The difficulty is, that the faster we dispose of our cases, the faster they start coming in and that is bound to be the case. That is why it is so important to go for section 4 of  the RTI, to go digital. If that does not happen, the system will not be able to work. We have to  have the infrastructure in place, which puts all the information into the public domain so that people can access it and they do not have to keep applying and complaining. Very often, I  find that appeals are made, not because the information is not being provided but because the person does not know where to get the information from.

How do you rate the success of RTI in India?

Mixed. If I had to rate it on 10, I would say 6 but not more than that. I am rating it high for  the reason that the awareness of the Act has grown leaps and bounds with very little effort made by the government. Very little has been done by the government to promote the awareness of the Act, yet, it has become quite widespread, so that is one major achievement. Another achievement of the Act is that people now own the Act. The Act is no longer the  government’s product as the public seems to have adopted it.

The third achievement is that a great deal of awareness has grown within the government, that information is not something that they can hide and it will have to be disclosed if somebody wants to know it.

On the negative side only a small section of the Indian population is actually taking  advantage of the Act so far. Secondly, the kind of speed and efficiency with which the cases  should be processed is not there as yet, as the systems have still not come fully in place. Also  the progress is not uniform throughout India. Thus the success of RTI is very mixed in India.

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