Celebrations for 10 years of democratic transparency, in the form of the Right to Information Act, are going on. What we have achieved as yet and what is still someway to go needs to be found out. The many scams, which have successfully helped change governments, could only be unearthed due to the RTI.
On September 7, 2008, as a freelance journalist, I wrote an article, “Three Tears for RTI”. Since, January 7, 2014, when I was administrated the oath of office as Uttar Pradesh state information commissioner, I have never thought of myself as anything more than an RTI activist. When I took office, there were more than 6,800 files to be disposed of in my court alone. Today, the number is around 3,800.
There are certain issues, however, which need be addressed, to make sure that the information commission becomes fully autonomous, along the lines of the Election Commission, and thus becomes a constitutional body. The beauty of the RTI Act lies in its spirit, which draws its essence from the provision that a plaintiff need not divulge the reason for wanting to know. Thus, power mandarins find it a definite infringement on their merriment. Even the discretionary funds of chief ministers and other ministers are now under the scanner, which must be disclosed even if the request is from an ordinary citizen. The steel-frame conceptualised by Lord Macaulay has finally begun showing some chinks. Here, the echelons of power have, anyhow, clipped the wings of the information commissioner.
Even after 10 years of the RTI, I find a widespread lack of awareness. The plaintiff addresses her application directly to the authority, whereas the public information officer or first appellate authority of the concerned department has to be addressed in earnest. I feel saddened that many such applications become unmaintainable due to such an anomaly. Sometimes, high points too come. Once I found a woman, with a baby only a few days old wrapped in blanket on a very cold day, who had come from Aligarh seeking a reply to her application. I bowed to her in my heart and gave three cheers to the RTI. I also make sure that elderly people are served at least with water during the proceedings, as it is quite heart-rending to see them languishing for details of their own provident fund, etc.
Information commissioners will continue to wield an iron fist but inside velvet gloves, since, until the information
commission becomes a constitutional body, it will continue to face the Sword of Damocles — that of the governor, who is the appointing authority for information commissioners on the recommendation of the CM, cabinet minister and leader of the Opposition. But for the removal of the information commissioner, as per Section 17 of the RTI Act, a Supreme Court inquiry is necessary on the governor’s referral. During the period of inquiry, the governor can
suspend or even prohibit the information commissioner from holding office.
This issue needs to be addressed as it conclusively transpires that the actual punishing authority is not the governor but the SC, whereas the appointing authority is the governor. What also deserves mention is that the first UP information commissioner was unceremoniously ousted from office. The SC inquiry had found him innocent. It’s another matter that the inquiry report came out after he had passed.
There is no denying that in the removal of an information commissioner, there is a clash between people who want to rule in their own manner and those who want to be ruled within a democratic paradigm. As such, sufficient checks ought to be imposed on the ruling class and in case such checks are not imposed, the very purpose of enacting the RTI would be defeated.
Another issue is the form of oath administered to our ministers, requiring them to say they will not divulge any official act unless required in their discharge of official duty. Their oath, provided in the statute, is yet another relic of the British Raj and directly clashes with the RTI Act. The RTI Act and the Official Secrets Act 1923 stand are antithetical to each other. It is time India cleared the way for total democratic transparency. The RTI Act still has miles to go.
The writer is Uttar Pradesh state information commissioner