Sunday, March 29, 2009

RTI: Do not Leave it in Lurch!

Indians got their RTI (right to Information) Act in place, which is supposed to usher a new era of transparency and accountability. That is so nice. CIC (Central Information Commission) oversees the RTI implementation all over the country. Mr. Shailesh Gandhi, Central Information Commisssioner says observes:

1. "The government has created the CIC and left it to fend for itself."
2. To a question, "How would you rate the information commissions in various states?", he quipps: very poor.

This speaks volumes of the current state of affairs of RTI. The public has to demad a better accountability of RTI itself! I look at this isisue this way: The democracy becomes effective only if there is a balance of Raj -shakti and Lok-shakti. The governemnt enacted RTI, good enough! but if the people (Lok shakti) do not wake up the realities and demand a better system, no one will deliver them. As citizens how aware and duty bound dow e feel towards our society!

Following are the excerpts of the interview with Mr. shailesh Gandhi, Central Information Commissioner, that appeared in The Tribune. Worth reading!

Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi has been promoting and teaching Right to Information (RTI) to various sections. He has conducted over 500 workshops for citizens and officers in slums, clubs, offices and colleges.

Having used the RTI to inform citizens about the Maharashtra CM’s Relief Fund, stopping misuse of over Rs 1000 crore in the redevelopment of Mumbai’s Crawford market and curbing political interference in police transfers, he is today among the six Central Information Commissioners.

In an interview with The Sunday Tribune, he discloses some thorny issues which are hindering the CIC. Excerpts:

Q: Why is the CIC lagging behind?

A: Pending cases is the main problem. There is acute shortage of staff with the Information Commissioners. We are unable to clear more than 1500-1700 cases per year. If we have adequate staff, we can settle at least 4,000 cases.

No proper systems and norms have been put in place as to how the CIC should function in the country even though more and more people are filing RTI petitions. The norms need to be identified and put in place. The commissioners and the staff also need to be trained on how to handle the cases.

Q: Should the RTI be made more stringent and its scope enhanced?

A: No. Presently, adequate number of bodies and offices are covered by it. This would mean amending the RTI Act itself, which would not be advisable. There would be no improvement as such.

Q: How is the Centre’s attitude towards the CIC?

A: The government has created the CIC and left it to fend for itself. Its response should be better to help deliver the goods. The commissioners don’t have the brief to tackle senstive issues which differ from department to department.

Q: What should the Centre do more about dissemination of information?

A: Transparency should be institutionalised. The RTI has ushered in a cultural
change and everyone should understand it. Of course, this change will come
about gradually.

Q: About four Commissioners have retired and their posts have not yet been filled. Isn’t it affecting the work?

A: Some Commissioners have been appointed. The Act provides for 10 Commissioners besides the CIC. If there were seven of them, it would be adequate to settle the cases.

Q: How many cases do you receive every month? Has the average increased
over the years?

A: Last year the CIC received about 15,000 cases. This year it would be much higher; the monthly average of cases has risen to about 1500. This will further go up if the backlog of cases is reduced.

Q: You also receive false cases. Why? How can this practice be checked?

A: It is a common problem with every law or Act and the RTI is no exception. It is a reflection of the present-day society. There are rogues everywhere and every law is misused. There is need for attitudinal change in society.

Q: How would you rate the information commissions in various states? Shouldn’t they be strengthened to become more effective?

A: Very poor. Most commissioners settle hardly 700-800 cases per year. The best disposal, outside the CIC, would be about 1500 cases per year, which reflects a very poor state of affairs.

The number of pending cases is on the rise and it is turning out to be alarming. If this continues over the next four to five years, the Act itself would be dead. The situation needs to be resolved by the government on priority.

Q: What is the CIC’s most important achievement? And how has the RTI empowered the common man?

A: The RTI has empowered the citizen in letter and spirit. He can now sit at home and seek information from the government which it is bound to provide. And the RTI’s real strength is that it is deepening the democracy in the country. Over the next three to four years, there can be a sea change in governance, provided we are able to clear the pending cases.

(Backlog of RTI cases alarming: Gandhi by Girja Shankar Kaura/The Tribune March 29,09)
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