After an eventful four years at the Central Information Commission, Shailesh Gandhi will step down as information commissioner on Friday.
Firstpost spoke to Gandhi, a well-known RTI activist himself, on why he believes information commissions have become the biggest threat to the transparency movement.
Excerpts from the interview:
Earlier this week, in an interview to CNN IBN, you said that RTI will be irrelevant in the next five years. What do you foresee happening in that time?
I believe that there are three serious threats to RTI. The lowest threat is from the government itself. RTI is basically challenging everyone that is powerful. Unfortunately, we’ve seen statements from the Prime Minister downwards that the RTI is getting out of hand. And this is going down to the bureaucracy. And the government is also trying block giving replies. People are getting smart and cunning rather than open. That is the lowest threat.
A slightly higher threat is from the judicial system. A lot of progressive orders are getting stayed by the courts. And the way our courts function, a case can drag on for five-ten years very easily. If this trend continues, which it is likely to because powerful government departments and those in power whenever there is a decision that goes against them will get a stay order from the courts, it will threaten the RTI. The most serious threat comes from the commissions themselves. Firstly, a lot of commissions are not transparent themselves.
Do you mean transparent in the selection of commissioners?
The selection is obviously completely flawed and arbitrary. My own selection is a completely arbitrary random event. That applies to most commissioners. But more serious than that is that huge pendencies are building up wherever RTI is becoming popular – the central commission, the Andhra Pradesh State Commission, Maharashtra, Gujarat, there are lots of commissions – where already for a seven-year law, we’ve got cases of two years and three years pending.
If current trends continue, according to my forecast for the central commission, in the next five years the pendency could be over 80-90,000 appeals and complaints. That will mean a three to four year wait at the commission. If that happens the average person is no longer going to be interested in RTI.
Then what would happen is that the common man would stop using it and only very few die-hard activists will continue. But RTI would have lost relevance for the common for whose governance and empowerment it is meant for.
Incidentally, this applies to most commissions in our country. Whether you talk of the scheduled castes commission, women’s commission, child rights commission — all of which have become vehicles for employing the old senior citizens such as me. They’ve become senior citizen clubs rather than serving any purpose. There is very little accountability. I think we need to something.
How many cases are pending at the central commission? And how long does one have to wait for a hearing at the Commission?
At present the number of cases pending is around 20,000. And on an average, waiting time for 20,000 cases is about 8-9 months. But unfortunately the way things are organised, a lot of cases from even 2010 are still being heard. It is not systematic the way things are going. The average itself does not have too much meaning now.
What needs to be done to redress this?
It is not very difficult at all. Take the central commission. When I joined the commission the average disposal was about 1500-2000 cases per year per commissioner. Now it is about 3000. My own disposal last year was 5900 cases. And if every commissioner disposes even 5000 cases a year — again if I look at the central commission as a model – five years from now there will be no problem.
What is slowing the process down? What aren’t more cases being heard by commissioners?
The commissioners are not taking ownership of what they are doing. Again to reiterate, this is not unique to information commissions. Most of them look at it as a post-retirement option. At the central commission I have been battling for a citizen’s charter and make a commitment that we must deliver to citizens. This concept itself is alien to our judicial and our constitutional system. Our judicial and constitutional systems both seem to believe that all the human beings are immortals. If we were immortal, five years-ten years won’t matter. Unfortunately, human beings have limited time and when you take indefinite time, it all starts becoming irrelevant.
Is there also the added problem of commissions being understaffed?
In terms of staff, yes that is partly true. The way I am looking at it, if I am the commissioner I am among the highest paid public servant. And it is true, we are understaffed. I’m not denying that. I am personally employing people in my staff who I pay from my salary. The point I am making is that it is for the commissioners to fight this battle with the government. But that is not how it is being looked at all. All commissions say it is somebody else’s problem. That doesn’t seem right to me.
Is shortage of commissioners also adding to problem?
This is an absolutely false premise. Are we saying we must have commissioners who are under performing and therefore have more of them. This is a completely flawed thinking that has seeped in everywhere. When we talk of Supreme Court, we say we don’t enough judges. We talk of information commissions, we say not enough commissioners.
During the last four years, what has been the trend in terms of the number of RTIs, the nature of complaints…
RTI is growing. The way RTI is structured, it is fulfilling a very basic and fundamental need of Indian citizens. It is very early days. My own guess is, it should be growing at a much faster pace than what it is right now. That growth is there. And that is expected. It is not a surprise at all.
Unfortunately, at the other end, people are now feeling frustrated because partly government’s reluctance and those who succeed get into a court hassle. In the last three to four years, I have seen citizens taking to it. It is entirely a citizen’s phenomena. It is not because of government, not because of commissions. RTI is something that citizens are taking to like fish take to water. The growth is citizen driven, entirely.
Also, in the last one-and-half years, we’ve heard a lot of scams. It looks as if Indians have suddenly become very corrupt. I don’t think that is true. And I think some of these exposures have been because of RTI. And the whole atmosphere is changing because everybody is saying they want greater accountability.
What are the most complaints by citizens? Is there a growing resistance by the government to give information and therefore more and more people are having to come to the information commissions and have their case heard?
The complaints are of a wide variety. Roughly 70-80 percent of the RTI applications are being filed by citizens to redress their grievances or to get personal information.
Supposing you apply for a ration card, a passport, a water connection and it doesn’t happen. Roughly around 10-15 percent are looking at exposing corruption, getting better governance. I would admit about 5-10 percent are what people would call misuse of RTI, where the purpose is only to harass somebody. That’s also there. I’m not denying it.
For the first category of applications, if I put it in perspective worldwide, say I go to the US, 90 percent of it a citizen would be able to get on telephone. In India, a citizen dare not use a telephone. Even if he goes the office, he doesn’t get a reply. And so he has to use RTI.
Is government getting better at refusing information?
I don’t think it is organised. There is a certain cunningness that is being developed to find smart ways of refusing to give information. When any social movement starts to achieve a certain level of success, obviously the other side also becomes smarter. But what is more damaging is that powerful forces that were earlier talking of transparency are quite openly now saying that it is getting too much. That is a bigger cause of worry.