Retiring Indian Commissioner Ghandi Says RTI Threatened

2 July 2012

Shailesh Ghandhi, who will retire June 6 as an Indian Information Commissioner, is warning of threats facing the right to information law.

In an interview with  CNN IBN, Gandhi said, “I believe that so far the RTI Act has achieved far more than expected but there are serious threats most of us are not conscious of. If all of us are completely asleep over it, in the next five years RTI may become irrelevant.”

“The lowest threat comes from the government with everyone in power realising that it’s changing the power equation as the citizens of India are asking questions. This is threatening the power structure,” said Gandhi who has indicated he plans to be active in the RTI area.

The judicial system could undermine the law, too, he said. “There is threat from the judicial system as well. A lot of progressive orders are challenged and landing up in courts. This can also be done by powerful people as it takes 4 to 5 years for a case,” he said.

“The biggest threat,” according to Ghandi, is that the state and central information commissions “are not able to deal with rush of RTI appeals and complains.’

For a review of his career, see an article in The Times of India that traces the unexpected appointment of Ghandi, an RTI activist, in 2008 and says he is “more feisty and energetic than ever.

Interview Excerpts 

 Live Mint.com published excerpts of an interview with Ghandi in which he says RTI had become a “problem child” for the government and about implementation.

Edited excerpts:

You were one of the initial campaigners for the RTI Act. How has the experience been on the other side—as an information commissioner?

There are no two sides. When people say on the other side, I have never been on the other side. I think I have been a citizen primarily, I am a citizen today as a commissioner… I really don’t think I have changed my perception anyways… I can’t see a second side to it.

What has the response of the government been on the Act, especially in terms of its implementation? Do you think the government is serious about the RTI Act?

I don’t think it (government) has been very serious about it. It is just one of the many Acts for the government and I don’t think any specific, special importance is being given to it except in terms of lip service.

If anything, in the last one or two years there are a lot of signs to show that at fairly high levels, the government is thinking that the RTI is something of a problem child which has got created.

(In the) initial years, maybe there was a greater euphoria about it but as people have begun to realize the power of the RTI Act, power of citizens to question…power is getting actually transferred to the citizens, which is making people (in the government) uncomfortable, …(these) people are facing the heat now.

What according to you is the single largest factor which ails the effective implementation of the transparency Act in the country?

If it is to be one, it is the lack of capability of the government to govern. Lack of capability of the government to deliver. I don’t think there is any design for this. I have seen the government, now from the other side a little closer, and what I am beginning to realize is that our governments are not designed to deliver…and that is a major cause for RTI not getting implemented.

The information commissions (too) are not delivering where there is adequate activity… the commissions are becoming a major bottleneck for RTI.

Including the Central Information Commission?

Yes, including the Central Information Commission.

Many in the administration say that they “waste too much time” in replying to RTI queries. Do you think there is a need now to create another line of bureaucracy to handle RTI?

This problem is because of two-three reasons. One, extremely pathetic record keeping and that leads to bad governance because you don’t know what you are doing, and the inability to deliver.

To some extent, coupled with that is the fact that at very high levels, a lot of senior officers are insisting that they will look at the RTI information being given.

It is actually meant to be done at the PIO’s (public information officer) level. Statements have been made that a lot of judges are spending time on RTI; it’s not required.

Stay orders have been sought on many of your decisions. While some have been upheld, like making the crucial Western Ghats ecology expert panel report public, most others have been stalled. How much of an impediment are stay orders on the CIC’s decisions? How does it delay the whole process of getting information?

Whenever we challenge powerful forces, people go and get stay orders… I believe the courts should give a little more thought before giving stays on orders of the commission and other such bodies because once a stay is obtained in a court, the Indian judicial system is such that… one decade (of delay) is guaranteed.

Now, if you delay everything by one decade, I don’t know what survives and I have no solution for this. We have committed ourselves to a system where we say delay does not matter but to keep delaying like this, I don’t see where you will get succour.

How did an RTI activism background help you in the tenure as an information commissioner?

I knew the RTI Act backwards-forwards, if I may put it like that. Most commissioners do not know the RTI Act countrywide when they join. (This is) because there is nothing specific that links them to RTI, they have just thought of it.

I had thought of transparency and RTI for at least five years, I had almost lived RTI in a way. It helped me relate to the citizen’s anger and angst about the whole system.

What next after you retire?

Back to being an RTI activist, back to trying to see how to improve governance, to get people (to) understand that we need to fight these battles.

 

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