“Look at the name; it is the prime minister (PM). It is not Modi care fund. If it was the Modi care fund, we would not have asked for the information. It is the prime minister and the PM is a public authority, a constitutional authority. Who is the controller of the entire fund? It is again the PM. The PM is the executive head of the trust and the trust is handled by the ex-officio secretaries in the ex-officio capacity. That means if he is not a chief secretary or a principal secretary of a particular department, he cannot touch it. That means you are using the public authority, you are using the authority conferred by the Constitution, and you are operating in the public domain. So even without the Right to Information (RTI) Act, simply because you are a public trust, you are supposed to be accountable, and be transparent,” says Prof Sridhar Acharyulu, the former central information commissioner. He was speaking at a new RTI series called “Conversations on RTI with Shailesh Gandhi”, launched recently by Moneylife Foundation.
Incidentally, even before he became a commissioner and entered the bureaucracy in 1986, Prof Acharyulu was one of the first people to use transparency provisions for inspection of government files.
“I was an investigative journalist in a Telugu newspaper. Though it was not my duty area, I went to Tirupati, though I was supposed to be in Hyderabad. Out of curiosity, I took some interest in probing into Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD), the richest temple trust in the country after Thiruvanathapuram; I found a lot of financial irregularities. I found the irregularities scandalous, and when I started collecting information, it was very revealing. I then filed nine investigative reports in my newspapers, the circulation of which simply shot up by my reports, thousands of extra copies!” he informed.
“NT Rama Rao, the then chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, was furious because I was exposing one of the very prestigious temple trusts. He ordered a judicial enquiry. However, he said he would not appoint anyone else but the person who reported, Sridhar, to prove it. My newspaper management also said because you wrote, please do it, we will support and luckily, they did.”
“When I was in Tirupati for attending the commission of enquiry, I wanted to see the engineering contract files under TTD. I made an interim application before the retired High Court judge. The HC judge said, we never had such a thing happen in this country. Nobody asked for an inspection of the file. I replied, now I am asking, so you decide. Because it is a wealthy temple, the state government appointed a senior and very influential official of chief secretary rank. He (the officer) said it was his file and who I was to ask for it. I retorted, saying, who are you? You are an executive officer of a temple trust board. You are not the owner of the files. You are not the owner of the money. I am the owner of the money because I donated Rs100 whenever I went to Tirupati. I am the owner, I am the devotee, I am the reader, I am the general member of the public it is my file, and fortunately, my argument was accepted,” commented Prof Acharyulu on his first RTI experience before he became the commissioner.
Speaking about the information commission, Mr Gandhi asked Prof Acharyulu, “What should be the qualities of an information commissioner before they are selected? Everybody is eminent in this country.”
“It is a very, very vague expression, and whenever there is a vague expression in law, it gives huge discretion to the authorities. Out of uncertainty and indefinability of a term, the officer assumes more and extreme powers so he can do anything, and that is covered by it,” Prof Acharyulu replied.
“The RTI Act states nine fields from which eminent personalities must be selected, but the government did not follow even that literally. Forget the vagueness of the expression, but when there is a clear mandate that you have to select commissioners from those subjects, they have completely ignored some of the subjects and depended on one or two areas like administration or management experience and roughly speaking about 90% of commissioners are picked up from that category only and very rarely people like you and me are appointed,” he added.
“While you came on invitation, I was surprised to become a commissioner,” Prof Acharyulu says, adding, “I made an application and then forgot about it. There was nobody to take my application to the authority. I requested some of the members of Parliament (MP) to do it, but nobody did it, and I forgot it. But I was surprised when I got a call from the PM’s Office (PMO) that I was appointed as central information commissioner.”
Private bodies do not fall under RTI. But they do have to share information with the bodies regulating them. Speaking about details from private bodies and regulatory authorities, Prof Acharyulu says, “Very little information is available with public authorities. But most of the public authorities are regulatory bodies, and there is a statutory duty cast upon the private bodies to submit certain reports to various authorities. These reports are available with public authority. So they are supposed to share it. That is what the law says and the information needs to be shared. But that is not how courts interpret it.”
“If a public authority can collect information from private bodies, then they should share the same with the general public,” he added.
In response to high courts’ repeated attempts to muzzle RTI commissioners and their orders, 15 sitting and former information commissioners got together and wrote a letter to the Chief Justice of India NV Ramana. Prof Acharyulu was one of the signatories of the letter.
Speaking about the letter, he says, “The RTI act is very clear on one point; there is no further appeal over and above the judgement of the information commission. There is only a possibility of filing a writ petition, and that is a general constitutional proposition. However, because the information commission is a legal, statutory authority, any order of any statutory authority can be reviewed, including even the President of India. That is how everything comes under judicial review. It is a most profound and federal constitution rule and I welcome it.”
Speaking further, he said, “As far as HCs are concerned, they are limited to judicial review and the legal process. They cannot increase or reduce or annul the files. They cannot order and say information cannot be disclosed. They cannot do all this. However, the Supreme Court has a wider discretionary power, and to do complete justice, they were given such extraordinary powers to say anything. This is required in a democracy, but if such powers are used to stop disclosure of the information, then that is against transparency.”
When asked about the future of the RTI act, Prof Acharyulu says, “More and more people need to join in it and take it as a challenge to file or take questions and make it a habit for the public information officers-PIOs to give information. Unless you cultivate the habit of disclosure to the public authorities, unless people are massively involved in this mission as a movement, it is very difficult to save the right information because the judiciary is also adding so many barriers and so many limitations so many restrictions on the RTI Act.”
The session saw the attendance of many RTI activists, including Commodore Lokesh Batra. Sucheta Dalal, founder-trustee of Moneylife Foundation, asked the panellists about the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and banks going back to court against disclosure of information. She asked, “What can we as people do? We have written about the inspection reports that have been released so far. Moneylife is the only one that has put out these reports so far, and the inspection reports show two things. There are no names mentioned. Banks talking about privacy is mischievous because they have redacted everything, and on the broader issue, it is evident that there is a need to disclose this information. Do you have any suggestions on what we the people can do?”
Prof Acharyulu responded, “We have to enlist the services of good lawyers and ensure that we can defend the RTI Act and the judgement in the Jayantilal case. That is the first course. The second is raising such RTI requests in every relevant way; wherever there is a need for information, we should not hesitate to submit an RTI application, and we should go on doing it. It should be like a movement. These are two things that will increase the pressure on the banks and regulators to give information.”
Watch the full video here:
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