At the seventh annual convention of Information Commissioners, civil society celebrates the RTI’s success, vows to strengthen it
Even as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh raised concerns about the problem of vexatious and frivolous Right to Information (RTI) applications at the seventh annual convention of Information Commissioners, the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) held an RTI Mela celebrating the success stories of RTI and debating on how to save it from weakening.
On Friday 12 October the RTI Act marked its 7th anniversary, which was also used as the primary theme for both events. The NCPRI, however, started a day early with a public hearing held on 11 October at the Gandhi Peace Foundation. Activists from 16 states, both former and serving Information Commissioners, men and women from Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghathan (MKSS) in Rajasthan gathered to discuss the threats the Act faced. The hearings were preceded by a skit depicting the iron grip that the politicians, the police and the bureaucracy together had over democracy, neglecting the common man and his concerns until the RTI Act came along. Attendees from various states including Kashmir, Manipur, Gujarat, Karnataka, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh came forward to share their individual struggles with the implementation of RTI in the hearing moderated by Venkatesh Nayak, Nikhil Dey and Anjali Bhardwaj.
The first part of the hearing focused on the problem of increase of cases pending in both State Information Commissions (SICs) and the Central Information Commission (CIC). Dr Sheikh from Jammu & Kashmir complained that the “CIC stays on a J&K tour for the most part because of which cases remain unheard.” Similarly, Riaz Khan from Rajsthan said that “there are over 9500 cases pending at the Rajasthan SIC and it takes 3-11 months to register an appeal against a certain answer and about two to three years to get a decision.”
The second session addressed the problem of penalties not being imposed on Public Information Officers (PIOs) and other authorities. Maharashtra-based Mohammad Afzal pointed out that “the 1st appellate authority is usually a senior of the PIO which is why he protects his junior officer.” Similarly Debajit Goswami from Assam complained that the 1st appellate authority is allowed to be absent from hearings and not be penalised for the same.
The third slot was set aside for a discussion on the recent Supreme Court ruling that calls for retired judges to lead Information Commissions. At present the National Information Commission is in charge of hearing RTI appeals and enforcing the act, with every state having its own Information Commission. This slot was followed by the formation of resolutions with the help of the activists present and a panel comprising Central Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah, former Central Information Commissioner (CIC) Shailesh Gandhi, NCPRI member Aruna Roy and serving CIC Deepak Sandhu among others.
Wajahat Habibullah raised the issue of proactive disclosure as per Section 4 of the RTI Act and how it is a must to tackle the rising number of applications as awareness increases. He added that the SC was, in a way, forced to make its latest ruling but the question remains on how to reconcile the need to take quick decisions with having an equal standard to write decisions which are currently inconsistent in each SIC and even the CIC. On the matter of rising pendencies, Deepak Sandhu explained that the Commission would “ require more supporting staff to meet the 30-day time limit” to which Aruna Roy responded saying “that is your job, not ours. We will ask for time-bound disposals and when you demand for staff, we are with you.” Shailesh Gandhi also added that “it is the responsibility of the Commission to ask for staff.” Activists Cmde (retd) Lokesh Batra and Subhash Chandra Aggarwal condemned the Supreme Court ruling saying that if required, a legal officer could sit in during hearing but it must not be a requisite for CICs to have a legal background.
The day was concluded with Venkatesh Nayak reading out the final resolutions post discussions, which included asking for implementation of Section 4 (proactive disclosure by public authorities), the setting of a time limit for all cases, the formation of platforms and a space for people to work with Information Commissions. On the SC ruling, it was announced that the government had filed a review petition and that they welcomed the step that Information Commissioners must be appointed within three months of retirement of one, but negated the need for CICs to be judges or have a legal background as it would increase pendencies. It also asked for the immediate clarification on existing commissions functioning as many had stopped work due to the ruling.
The RTI Mela on day two at the Sanskriti Kendra started with people from 16 states gathering in a circle and chanting the slogan used during the initial struggle for RTI: “Humara paisa, humara hisaab” (our money, our accounts) in a host of languages including Telugu, Bengali, Tamil, Odiya and Manipuri. Littered with songs, dance and acts, day two also had people share their RTI stories from the likes of AB George from Kerala who spoke of the significance of RTI in the Koodankulam struggle and how they had been asking for reports on the safety analysis, the environment impact assessment and site analysis, but had been denied the information. Senior journalist Kuldeep Nayar and Anil Dubey from DD news who, run the popular RTI programme “Janney Ka Haq”, also shared their experiences with RTI and its significance.
The Mela was organised with the help of other civil society groups including Satark Nagrik Sangathan, MKSS, Transparency International, CHRI, Accountability Initiative, JOSH, Pardarshita, NFIW, CFAR, Rajasthan RTI Manch, Sanskriti Foundation and Inclusive Media for Change.
The students of St Mary’s School presented a skit on how the RTI could be used to get your rights, be it children asking for playgrounds or the poor asking for ration cards. A play called Dastak directed by Tripurari from the National School of Drama, was also presented by a group of individual theatre artists and even an NCPRI member, showing the government’s inherent tendency to deny information and how people had found a way to overcome that through RTI.
In keeping with the celebratory spirit of the day, the curtain call to the Mela also came through song and dance to the beats of a drum celebrating the RTI and vowing to not only protect the common man’s weapon but also make it stronger.
Shonali Ghosal is a Correspondent with Tehelka.