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‘Information Commission is the biggest threat’
Shailesh Gandhi, Information Commissioner, Central Information Commission (CIC)
Issue Date - 10/11/2011
B&E: Right To Information has completed 6 years recently. What would you term as its biggest achievement so far?

Shailesh Gandhi (SG): I think the biggest achievement is that it has started empowering ordinary citizens. It’s just beginning, but people have begun to see the power of using Right to Information. In a small way, government servants have started getting used to the idea that they will have to be transparent. Though it’s not happening from the heart in most cases, the acceptance that they have to respect citizens is slowly creeping in. Earlier, the ordinary citizen just didn’t matter to anybody. I personally feel that what we saw in the Anna movement is part of a reflection of the aspirations that RTI has raised. My guess is that such a movement would not have been possible before the RTI came. Transforming a defective elective democracy to a truly participative one is the base achievement of RTI.

B&E: The RTI Act has seen some staunch criticism by the political class. Would you agree with statements that RTI has inbuilt weaknesses and that it adversely affects the deliberative process of the government?

SG: I personally don’t subscribe to it. The fundamental question is do we have a strong commitment to think that we want a good, vibrant democracy or not? If you have a conviction that democracy is good and it is not negotiable, then one says more transparency is good as citizens own the information. Then if it (work) slows down – so be it. If you have this belief that those in power know best and that citizens are an unnecessary hindrance, then transparency, RTI et al are just impediments. If you believe in democracy, all these discussions are irrelevant. We call ourselves a democracy because we have a constitution and elections. But these are necessary conditions for a democracy and not sufficient ones.

B&E: Do you think these reactions from the political class due to the impact that RTI has begun to show now?

SG: In July 2006 (after being passed in parliament in May 2005 and operationalised on October 12), the government had decided that the RTI Act was not something worth handling. The cabinet had already passed amendments that they wanted to introduce in parliament. Civil society began demonstrating and then the government backtracked. At that time, 10 exemption clauses that existed in the RTI act were to be made 13. In the definition of information, they (cabinet) had said that file notings is not information and the role of the commission was to be made recommendatory. In 2009, there was a similar call by the President in her first address to the parliament. DoPT took it forward but as pressure mounted unanimously, the government again backtracked.

B&E: Despite assurances by the government that there was no plan to relook the RTI Act, do you think the proposed debate poses a threat to RTI?

SG: Let’s take it in a broader context. There are three major threats to RTI. One is the government diluting the Act, which is serious but citizens have been resisting it fairly consistently. I think in real politik terms, the government will not be able to do much. Another major threat to RTI is the judicial system. Today, just the central commission has got around 800-1000 decisions in courts. Most of them get stayed and the way that our judicial system is, it may take two decades for the file judgements to come from the courts. Slowly, we may see a major threat from the delays in the judicial system. The largest and most vicious threat of all, which unfortunately most people are not aware of, is the Information Commission itself. The central commission today has a pendency of over 20,000 appeals and complaints which means an average backlog of over 10 months. If it continues like this, in the next 3 years we might see a backlog of two to three years. If things continue this way for the next five years, the Information Commission will become more like our judicial system. B&E: Why is this happening? How do you propose to deal with this?

SG: There is no accountability and this is a malaise or disease across all judicial and constitutional bodies in India. Nobody feels that we need to deliver to citizens. The concept that “I am accountable” just does not exist. Everyone thinks we will do things at our own pace. What’s more unfortunate is that even citizens are not demanding it. They have also got used to the fact that judicial and constitutional bodies will do what they want, when they wants and the citizens just wait. What we call the aam aadmi, in whose name we do most of the things in the country, will be completely left out. Dealing with it, on the other hand, is not very difficult. To my mind, first people (Information Commission) have to commit that we will deliver to citizens. Then we need to look at our needs and work things out. Problem is that this need is not being felt – neither by the bodies nor by the citizens. Our commissions are actually our checks and balances of democracy and they have become completely unaccountable.
Shailesh Gandhi, Information Commissioner, Central Information Commission (CIC)           

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