‘Most people in power dislike transparency’ – Shailesh Gandhi

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In an exclusive interview, Shailesh Gandhi speaks to Amit Bhardwaj on the phenomenal success the RTI Act has achieved in the past decade and the challenges it faces when it comes to proper implementation.


 

Shailesh Gandhi | RTI activist and former Information Commissioner
Shailesh Gandhi | RTI activist and former Information Commissioner

Edited Excerpts from an interview

The RTI Act came out of the peasants’ movement in Rajasthan. Do you feel that it has empowered the citizen?

The RTI Act has been widely used due to the citizen’s efforts and has proven its potential to benefit even the last man standing in the row.

The common man stills remains aloof from the idea of RTI and related activism. Who do you think is responsible for such a situation?

I disagree with your assumption. There are over five million RTI applications which have been filed nation-wide in the last 4-5 years. My guess is that over the last ten years, the total number may well be over 15 million.

Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had raised concern over frivolous RTIs being filed time and again. Matters relating to the misuse of RTIs have also come to the fore. Don’t you feel that the RTI is being exploited as a weapon to threaten rather than a tool of justice?

Manmohan Singh was referring to a specific RTI application when he made that statement. It emerged later that the application was genuine. I don’t deny that there are a few applications which would fall in the undesirable category. However, having dealt with over 20,000 appeals and complaints as an information commissioner, I would put such applications at around 5-7 percent only. The issue is exaggerated by those who are averse to the idea of sharing power with the citizen.

Is the argument that RTI applications are burdening the public sector staff justified?

In a democracy, I am unable to understand this oft-repeated allegation. The RTI Act does not hinder anything; rather, it facilitates true participatory democracy.

Which government appears more averse to the idea of the RTI, the previous UPA government or the present Modi regime?

Unfortunately, most people in power dislike transparency, whether it is the Congress, the BJP, the DMK or the AAP.

There have been instances where state information commissions have held back information. What do you feel is the solution to this?

There is no proper process for the selection of commissioners for state information commissions. Like Lokayuktas, these posts are given as a part of political patronage. Thus, most commissioners do not deliver. The solution lies in establishing a transparent process of selection. Mere advertisements serve no purpose.

Your writ petition seeking information on former deputy chief minister of Maharashtra Ajit Pawar’s income tax return was rejected by the Bombay High Court. Why did you seek this information when the court believes that such information is personal and hence beyond the RTI’s ambit?

According to provisions of the RTI, “personal information… which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person.”

Recently you attacked Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal about his commitment to transparency. Is Delhi any different in terms of divulging information to public since he took charge?

I didn’t think I was attacking him. I felt he was straying from the fundamentals which people had reposed faith in. Hence, I thought of pointing it out. Unfortunately, he has not replied to the Aam Aadmi yet. Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis at least replies.

Has the time come to extend the ambit of the RTI to include political parties, the Judiciary and other grey areas?

They are all clearly included in it. However, they refuse to submit to it by flouting the law.

Since RTI activism involves a lot of risk, isn’t it high time that people push for the use of the Whistle Blowers Protection Act?

I have grave doubts that the Whistleblowers Act will achieve anything.

Has the Central Information Commission (CIC) justified its role in the past ten years?

Most commissions have not justified their roles and the CIC is no exception.

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