“The introduction of the RTI Act has meant great things for the common citizen in India. Since I was the chief central information commissioner (CIC), transparency has improved, but it can be much better with suo moto disclosure of information under Section 4 of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. The power to seek accountability is now in the hands of the people,” says Wajahat Habibullah, India’s first CIC. He was speaking at a new RTI series called “Conversations on RTI with Shailesh Gandhi”, launched by Moneylife Foundation.
While information has been a fundamental right since the Indian Constitution was established, the RTI Act was codified with rules and regulations in 2005. Mr Habibullah, a former officer from the Indian Administrative Services (IAS), headed the first-ever central information commission and helped set up the institution, frameworks and ensured it was strong.
Calling him one of the best bureaucratic commissioners, Mr Gandhi, a former central information commissioner and RTI activist, kick-started the conversation by asking Mr Habibullah about his vision for the RTI Act and how it has turned out in 2021.
“When I was appointed the chief information commissioner, I had taken up that role over another as the vice-chancellor of a university. When I became chief information commissioner, I was confused because I was not clear on what exactly we had to do for the Right to Information. This was because in my opinion, the government was fully transparent. But it did not take me long to realise how wrong I was,” Mr Habibullah says.
“Elementary information was always available, as I had assumed. But the information that was supposed to be in the knowledge of the public was not in the public domain. Once I joined and started working on this, my first job was to see that transparency came into governance. But as it grew, I realised this was not just a simple law. It was an event, a revolution and a movement, no less,” he added.
Mr Habibullah completed his five-year tenure as CIC in 2010. He says over the next decade he was expecting transformed governments, transformed social and political relations. However, he says, “There has been much progress, but this is nowhere close to what I had expected it to be when I left the Commission.”
While we still have a long way to go, Mr Habibullah shared with us the happy news that the Commission was the first to introduce a video conferencing facility.
“We were the first to introduce extensive use of video conferencing. At that time, I was in touch with high courts and the Supreme Court to make their proceedings accessible through video-conferencing. My colleagues in the information commission felt that it was not going to work, but these same colleagues went far ahead of me in its use by the time I had left,” Mr Habibullah pointed out.
Official file noting is an essential part of information seeking in RTI. However, during the initial days, there was a lot of noise and controversy about sharing official file notings under RTI, Mr Gandhi recalled. “I know there is an interesting story behind it, I have heard you recount it. Would you like to share it,” he asked Mr Habibullah.
The first CIC responded by saying, “Official file notings as per my reading of Section 2 of the RTI Act, are information. Interestingly, when I started ruling that file notings are information and should be given, there was an adverse reaction. The government started questioning who had given me the right to rule this way? I said, am I not the chief information commissioner? Do I need your permission to rule that file notings are in fact information?”
In June 2009, Mr Habibullah, the then chief information commissioner, issued notices to two officers of the department of personnel & training (DoPT), saying they would be prosecuted for not following the CIC orders. Under pressure from the CIC, the Union government then decided to make available file notings of government decisions—except those taken by the 18 exempted organisations—under the RTI Act.
Mr Gandhi then discussed the amendments in the RTI Act. “Everybody in power does not like RTI. This might be an exaggeration, but most people in power dislike the RTI. The previous governments tried to amend the Act but abandoned the effort following adverse reactions from activists. However, this government did not listen to the people and went ahead with the amendments,” Mr Gandhi pointed out.
While it might be true to an extent, Mr Habibullah says he remained optimistic. He says, “RTI has revealed a certain level of skulduggery and corruption in the government. It is important that the right under RTI came at the right time. There were standard corruption levels you could expect, you had to pay so much to get work done, and these procedures of government were standardised in that way.”
“The RTI, however, acted as a counter to this chain. You had to give reasons as to why you were doing something or not doing something. So, of course, there was an adverse reaction in some levels of government. However, in some other levels, it invoked the reaction that the RTI Act gave strength to ascertain their opinions,” Mr Habibullah further commented.
Sharing his closing thoughts before the open question & answer (Q&A) session, the former chief information commissioner says, “Transparency from RTI has introduced you to information that you earlier felt to be inaccessible. For example, RTI has now made it routine for a person to find the status of your application on things like driving licenses, passports, ration cards and other such documents.”
Sucheta Dalal, the founder-trustee of Moneylife Foundation, asked both Mr Habibullah and Mr Gandhi about their thoughts on first-line regulators refusing to share information and come under RTI. She says, “Mr Habibullah, you and Mr Gandhi were part of the Commission, and it is going to be 16 years since the enactment of the RTI Act, and I think it was during your tenure that the decision was taken to bring certain organisations like National Stock Exchange and Indian Banks’ Association (IBA) under the ambit of RTI. Most of these organisations, however, have gone to court. Even though they have lost in front of single judge benches, they are gaming the system to buy time. But don’t you think the ministries can easily issue a notification and say that the public organisation has to come under the Act. Why are they allowed to misuse the system?”
Note: You can now get all your RTI related queries resolved with the click of a button. The Moneylife “RTI Advice” app is now live on the Google Playstore https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.moneylife.rticentre and the Apple playstore https://apps.apple.com/cy/app/rti-advice/id1481314091. So download now and ask all your RTI related queries now!
Mr Habibullah replied, “The law itself states that every law is subject to the RTI Act. Unfortunately, courts have ruled in their favour, going against the ruling that the RTI is a fundamental right. Your question is a good one, but again it will depend on the courts. So I think what needs to be developed and what I thought would have been developed by now is the total atmosphere of transparency and openness in society. That has not happened.”
“We still operate in a colonial structure, which is based on mistrust. And this structure is now stationed at the centre of the system, which depends on not trusting each other. It has to depend on mutual trust. The RTI Act is an instrument to this. If we use RTI Act as an instrument and not a weapon, the ‘jammed’ doors may be opened for information,” he added.
Subhash Chandra Agrawal, a noted RTI activist from Delhi, pointed out the lack of uniformity in the websites for filing RTI at different states and the fee charged for appeals. For example, he says when one files an RTI application on the Odisha government portal, the applicant is required to send printout of the application by post to the concerned public information officer (PIO).
Mr Habibullah suggested appealing to the chief information commission, which, in turn, can write to the state information commission of respective states for making the necessary changes in their portal so that such issues would not occur.
There is a delay in hearing and disposing appeals at the state and central information commission. According to Mr Habibullah, there is an additional load on the commissions in terms of an increased number of appeals. “The reason is, Section 4 of the RTI Act, where the public authority is required to put all information in the public domain, is not being followed by everyone. If the information is made available transparently by public authorities, then there would be fewer people filing applications and seeking information under the RTI Act. So, public authorities must comply with Section 4 of the RTI Act fully. Otherwise, an amendment could be introduced in the Act to fix the time limit for disposing of appeals at the commissions.”
You can watch the entire recording here:
Note: You can now get all your RTI related queries resolved with the click of a button. The Moneylife “RTI Advice” app is now live on the Google Playstore and the Apple playstore. So download now and ask all your RTI related queries now!