It has been nearly nine months since the Right to Information Act, 2005 was implemented and Wajahat Habibullah sworn in as India’s first information commissioner. In a stock taking, Habibullah speaks to Business Standard on being the man in the middle, between a government still steeped in the old secretive mould and a rapidly aware public. Excerpts:
It’s been almost nine months since you were appointed information commissioner. How has the experience been so far?
There were no systems in place when I took over on October 27 last year. We are still struggling for office space and have found some in August Kranti Bhavan. We had some initial hiccups with the hearings, wherein earlier we used to have all three commissioners hearing a single appeal — now each commissioner hears cases separately. Only in cases like the one where a petitioner has asked for the communication between former President K R Narayanan and former Prime Minister A B Vajpayee, will there be a full commission hearing.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said that file notings by bureaucrats would be exempt from the purview of the Act. Is it true?
That is the prime minister’s opinion on the issue. There is nothing in the Act that precludes it. According to Section 22 of the RTI Act, it supersedes all Acts including the Official Secrets Act, 1923. Technically, we have been denying file notings only in cases where there is an ongoing investigation regarding the file, even then we apply the principle of severability in disclosing details. Apart from the exemptions mentioned in the Act itself, nothing is outside the purview of the RTI. When I heard the prime minister’s statement, I inquired from the department of personnel and training about the issue. They admitted they have sought the advice of the law ministry.
What has been the impact of the Act until now?
In the first three months we received 700 applications. Now the pace of receipts is upto 2,000 for this month alone. In fact, even organisations working in the field felt that we would get around 500 applications a month. I felt we would get only 300 but the actual average is 800 a month. It is flattering yet daunting.
What kind of information is the public seeking?
Well, the bulk of our applications come from within the government. Officers and even the military personnel asking for information on transfers, postings and so on. It shows that the government needs to work on transparency. The public services in Delhi receive many enquiries — MCD’s record is particularly bad, both in entertaining applications or complying with orders of the commission. In fact, the first government officer to be fined Rs 25,000 under the Act is a deputy commissioner in MCD.
I find that many nationalised banks get requests for information, which should be part of the services that they provide to their customers. It proves that customer service departments are failing badly. Private discoms also get many applications, but claim that they are not under the purview of the Act. They have appealed against being covered by the Act. However, since the government is a shareholder and they receive government subsidy, I feel that they come under the Act. What is even more shocking is that NGOs receiving aid from the government, which should be transparent, have not set up any public information offices. They are worse off than government departments.
What is the biggest challenge that you face with the Act?
To put it in a nutshell, here we have a government labouring under anachronistic Acts such as the Official Secrets Act, 1923, designed “to protect the government from the people” and citizens in a democratic country empowered by the RTI. The two are out of sync. When the government is by the people, where is the question of protecting it from the people? Yet, several government departments begrudge information.People seem ready to storm the metaphorical Bastille with the Act in hand. At a basic level, a lot of people mistake the Information Commission as a kind of grievance redressal cell, which it is not. It is not a weapn to fight all that is wrong with the system. The biggest challenge is to get the people and the government to see that this is just an empowering tool, and not the panacea to cure all systemic ills.