The Right to Deny Information
Posted by rtiact2005 on June 17, 2006
|The Right to Deny Information
The Central Information Commission has been a big disappointment so far. Mihir Srivastava examines the chaos and mismanagement that characterise its functioning
Four months after the Right to Information Act (RTI) came into force, the Central Information Commission (CIC) set up to implement it has managed to clear just 10 cases.
NGOs and individuals who have sought the CIC’s help to access government information feel that, so far, the whole exercise has been a non-starter. “CIC is an administrative mess. It is in a state of non-functioning,” claims Arvind Kejriwal of the Delhi-based NGO, Parivartan, which campaigns for transparent and accountable governance.
Facts support Kejriwal’s contention. The CIC received 216 applications in the last four months, and so far, its four commissioners with their support staff of 18, have managed to clear only 10 cases. By contrast, the Public Grievance Commission, which performs the same role in Delhi, and draws its power from the Delhi Right to Information Act of 2001, has decided on 214 appeals between October 1, 2005 and February 15, 2006. It has just one member, with a support staff of six, who deals with RTI applications only on a part-time basis. “If CIC is going to function at this dismal pace, applications are going to pile up, there will be a long waiting period (and), the efficacy of CIC as a supervising body will be severely undermined,” says Kejriwal.
In fact, there have been major administrative lapses in the way the CIC has been going about its work. “I was not getting response to the complaint I filed with CIC, and there was no clear word from the staff on the status of my complaint. So I decided to use the RTI Act to seek the list of all the applications and complaints received by the CIC,” says Manish Sisodia, an RTI activist.
The list given to Sisodia came with a rider: “While every attempt has been made to include all applications, there is possibility of overlooking application and complaints made by e-mail.” The obvious question here is whether a complaint sent by e-mail will be considered by the CIC.
As a subsequent check revealed, a number of filed applications were not in Sisodia’s list — including three filed by Arvind Kejriwal, and one each by Shekhar Singh and Madhu Bhaduri. None of these applications was e-mailed — each one was submitted in person. “It is a serious situation if the CIC is not able to keep a record of complaints and application it has received,” says Kejriwal. “My application could not be traced, it has been lost by the CIC.”
“There is still no system and procedure in place. There is no clear word from the commission as to where the application will be registered, when the notice will be sent, and when the hearing will take place,” complains Shekhar Singh, convener of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), which helped draft the RTI Bill.
The selection of the information commissioners has also not been done according to the criteria specified by the Act, at least not in spirit. According to the RTI Act: “(the) Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners shall be persons of eminence in public life with wide knowledge and experience in law, science and technology, social service, management, journalism, mass media or administration and governance.” But, four of the five information commissioners, including the CIC, are retired bureaucrats. Former chief secretaries of the respective states head most sics. “There is conflict of interest involved in appointing retired bureaucrats as information commissioners,” says Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan.
“In the original Bill, we had sought a retired high court judge to head the CIC and sics. The Chief Justice of India was to be part of the appointment committee, along with the prime minister and leader of the opposition. This was shot down by the government in the final draft,” says Singh. “The RTI Act is (about fostering) a new mindset in the way people interact with the government. But if you appoint erstwhile bureaucrats, who essentially have the same dna, as information commissioners, the whole objective gets defeated,” argues Madhu Bhaduri, a right to information activist who is a retired bureaucrat herself. Bhaduri, served in the Indian Foreign Service for 30 years plus, and happens to be a batchmate of Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah.
“The only advantage of having bureaucrats as commissioners is that they can put to use their rich experience in government in putting in place procedures and practices,” says Singh. Kejriwal, however, is pessimistic. “But that too has not happened. I see it as a bureaucratic conspiracy to dislodge this Act,” he says.
It is evident that the bureaucratic apathy has seeped into the CIC’s functioning. The second decision delivered by the commission clearly shows shows that it is out of its depth.
The decision was on a complaint filed by Madhu Bhaduri on December 16, 2005, against the Delhi Development Authority (DDA).
The CIC did not inform Bhaduri on time when her application was going to be heard, and passed its order ex-parte. “I was not informed about the date of hearing. In fact, I was told by a friend that the order had already been passed and was posted on the CIC website. They (CIC) did not think it necessary to give me a hearing before deciding the matter, basing it entirely on the submission made by DDA. I received the copy of the order only 10 days later,” says Bhaduri.
But that is not all. One of Bhaduri’s complaints against DDA concerned the organisation’s refusal to accept any request for information under the RTI Act unless it was filled out in a form issued by DDA for the purpose. In a review of her petition, the CIC agreed that the RTI Act does not mandate that a request for seeking any information from a government organisation has to be made out in a prescribed form. It can just as well be written down on a plain sheet. But, at the same time, the CIC held that DDA or any other government body was free to issue forms for the purpose.
Bhaduri points out that this is clearly an instance of a muddled ruling. “What is the point then in introducing a form, allowing each organisation to have its own form, and create another bureaucratic hurdle?” she asks.
The applicants also complain that that the commissioners favour government agencies. CIC Wajahat Habibullah explains the problems in the CIC’s functioning, as teething troubles and promises that all will be in order soon. (see interview) Looking at the first four months, he has his work cut out for him.
Mar 11 , 2006