Right to information? You are in queue!

19 April 2013

By Shailesh Gandhi

Gandhi is a former commissioner at the central information commission. This article is reprinted with permission from GovernanceNow, where it was first run on April 17. “GovernanceNow is a multi-media initiative for participatory reportage and analyses related to governance of all institutions and processes that are vital to public life in India.” (The article was written before the Supreme Court stayed part of its decision mandating the use of judges on infomation commissions. See Freedominfo.org.)

With most of our judicial and quasi-judicial bodies suffering from enormous delays, the system is in a way surviving on its own. Though there are some good orders and judgments, our lives are finite and if things are not done in reasonable time they become meaningless for most people.

So, in delivering information to an applicant under the RTI Act, the challenge is to define a time-frame — be it 50 days, 90 days, two months, six months or a year, which isn’t the case at present.

Despite enormous amounts of money spent on them, various commissions in our quasi-judicial systems — like women, minority, child rights or information commissions — have become unaccountable. We hear about them only when something drastic happens.

As these commissions are checks and balances of a democracy, all information on their activities must be put up on their websites in a transparent manner, as they are supposed to check and monitor government structures throughout. But that is not happening.

For example, despite a sizeable staff of 80, the office of the lokayukta in Maharashtra has not investigated any complaints. We have never heard of what they are doing either — they merely forward the complaints they receive to the ministries concerned.

Transparency in selection

While the supreme court has also called for transparency in the selection of information commissioners, what is a transparent selection process for appointments to such bodies? The RTI law stipulates a committee consisting of the prime minister, the leader of opposition and a minister for selection of the central information commissioner. The same process is meant for the states, too — in this case the chief minister, the leader of opposition and a minister.
But in reality this political team does not have the time to go through the selection process, which can lead to political appointments.

Additionally, we have to ensure that those selected are competent for the office — people who may be otherwise good but have no passion for transparency will be complete misfits in the RTI regime. We have had people from the intelligence bureaus and police as information commissioners but their mindset is bound to be different.

A search committee comprising vice-chancellors and eminent retired people could shortlist three times the number required and hold public interviews of the shortlisted candidates on national television. Citizens can then form an opinion based on these interviews and should then be able to send their views to the search committee. In democracy, there is no harm in even a political appointment if the due process is followed.

The selection panel, in fact, should recommend twice the required number (of candidates) to be selected to make the final call. Whereas all such selection processes in our country can get shortchanged, a televised public interview of a candidate will act as a big check. Though purely as a matter of formality, the department of personnel and training (DoPT) has started advertising the requirement of information commissioners (ICs). Ideally the same process must be followed in the judiciary, as judicial appointments can also be arbitrary.

Shortcomings in system of appointments

A system for delegation of appointments is also missing today. The appointments have become a game in which eminent positions are sought after retirement. Like the era of kings, most commissioners, including ICs, are selected for patronage; they are rewarded for the work they have put in.

A broad look at the various commissions shows that a majority of commissioners are retired bureaucrats or judges, whereas for the sake of accountability right people must be selected for each post. Even an undersecretary is appointed after a process more diligent than the one in place for appointing heads of these bodies. Therefore, a lot of them usually have little interest in their work.

We have to see whether these people are competent for their jobs. While I have seen that most ICs don’t even understand the RTI Act, the same applies to a host of other commissioners. Because the RTI Act has been taken up by citizens very enthusiastically, ICs are criticised much more than other commissioners.

Too many people, too little work done

The RTI law provides for 11 commissioners (per commission) but in most cases we don’t require so many officials. In my experience, we don’t get more than 2 lakh appeals and complaints across the country. Going by a figure of 5,000 cases per commissioner per year, we can say that we need 40 ICs countrywide, and the number could stretch up to, say, 80 or 100 and cases could be easily cleared off.

Instead, even with 140 to 160 commissioners at present, a huge number of cases are piling up across the country. Even a small state like Arunachal Pradesh, which gets about 100-300 complaints annually, had six to eight ICs at one point.

The apex court said the information commissions must decide in benches of two commissioners, one of whom should be a retired judge. Despite that a single commissioner hears complaints at present.  

ICs are among the highest paid public servants and they are required to do minimum work. But even that is not happening. In reality, most commissions don’t put in a bare minimum of 40 hours per week. Even a clerk is expected to work 40 hours a week.

In a five-day week, at least five hours a day or 25 hours per week should be devoted to hearings. (But) in cases where some commissioners are putting in a 40-hour week, the time is not necessarily devoted to work. Instead, many spend the time (dealing with) stock market investments or fixing somebody’s job appointment.

Further, despite putting in five years in their job, many ICs cannot figure out what the job requires.

With the exception of the current CIC of Maharashtra, Ratnakar Gaikwad, who holds 20-25 hearings a day disposing of cases at a fast pace; others attribute deficiencies to the lack of enough commissioners, power or resources. With a waiting period of six to 10 months (to release information), the RTI Act has started becoming weaker.

Each commissioner must guarantee at least 5,000 decisions in a year, declare work done in the previous six months to a year and make a workflow forecast for the next one or two years. Based on that they can calculate the requirement of commissioners, and the government should announce the requirement of commissioners.

To introduce efficiency, systems must be put in place to forecast and publicly declare in a transparent manner work done in previous months and years and in months to come. There must be a norm for disposal of applications, specifying the number of cases to be disposed of. Incidentally, I have dealt with 5,900 cases in a year (but) most commissioners who do 1,500-3,000 cases a year feel the figure is more than enough.

Perform or resign

We need to perform — or resign. While it is a normal attitude to pass the buck on to the government, it cannot go on intervening in everything. When I was in the central information commission, I proposed a transfer of resources to deliver and said that through a citizen’s charter we must make a commitment to the citizens that any matter referred there would be resolved within 90 or 120 days. People must be told whether information will be given or not — and if not, why. There was huge opposition and they said, “We don’t want to decide anything like this.”

Rather than spending huge amounts of money on so-called ‘senior citizen clubs’, which is unacceptable, the intent to take work more seriously will be stronger if the age of commissioners is reduced to below 60. For each one of us who sits in as IC, our salaries are being paid for by the taxpayer; money cannot be wasted like this. You need to deliver, and none of us are delivering.

Other bodies

Take the case of consumer forums, headed by retired high court judges. They were launched with great promise in 1986 and as per law, a case has to be decided within a maximum of three to six months. But in practice it may take up to eight or 10 years before a case is finally decided and in 80 percent or more cases you cannot go through it without a lawyer.  At least this problem has not come up so far in information commissions.

Further, bringing in more laws to add to the existing set of good laws, setting up additional bodies and then forgetting about them is of no use. Seven states in the country already have police complaint authorities but we have never heard of any work done by them. With some exceptions, grievance cells in most parts of the country are dysfunctional. If they were working you can imagine what would happen to the governance structure of our country.

Are we asking for any kind of responsibility? My submission is that we, the citizens and the media, must start demanding accountability from bodies like (information) commissions and get them to work reasonably. With citizens raising their voice ensuring that these organisations work well and the media highlighting that agenda, the government will act.

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