I think I made a Change: Activist Commissioner

Right to Information (RTI) activist Shailesh Gandhi was appointed Central Information Commissioner by the Centre in September 2008. He became the first high profile activist to be appointed to such a position. Gandhi is a Mumbaikar, an engineer-industrialist who retired early and took up the responsibility of making RTI more effective. He has filed more than 700 applications asking for information since Maharashtra passed the RTI Act in the state in 2003 and also after the Centre passed the RTI Act in the country in 2005.

Since joining Central Information Commission (CIC), Gandhi has been in the news for a variety of reasons. First for reversing his decision of not accepting any salary or perks as a commissioner just 15 days after joining. Even his decisions have been criticised for not being consistent. Many prominent RTI activists feel he let them down. Excerpts from an exclusive interview to Hardnews:

Sonal Kellogg Delhi

Q: Tell us about your experience till now as an Information Commissioner at the Central Information Commission.

A: It's been good so far. I am not here on a government job. I am here because we need to make a difference in governance. I see it missing at the moment. I feel that RTI Act will bring in transparency and accountability which will result in better governance. I have completed around 1200 cases so far. I had promised in Mumbai before moving to Delhi and joining that I would ensure by April that pendency of cases in my area were reduced to 90 days after a case is filed in the CIC. I now feel that I will be able to achieve this by mid-March or latest by March end. I strongly feel that the judicial process must deliver in a reasonable time to be effective.

Q: Did you face any hostility in the CIC, since you were an RTI activist before you joined?

A: No, I didn't face any hostility; at least I couldn't feel any. But I also had a policy as a RTI activist to not criticise any individual. I directed my criticism to the system or the judgment but not to any person.

Q: Tell us why you reversed your decision of not taking the salary and perks as an information commissioner?

A: Yes, I will like to explain this. When I first agreed that my name be forwarded by RTI activists as a commissioner, I agreed that I would take just Re 1 as salary. At that time, it sounded all utopian and noble but I did not account for the fact that I would have to shift to Delhi and therefore would need a house, car, help in the house and the whole wherewithal to start working and living in Delhi for a long period of time. I was told that I would be provided whatever I needed from the people who were ready to help. But when I came here I realised that for everything I would be dependent on someone else. I did not feel comfortable about this. Though I was entitled to a salary, house, car and other perks, I would have to ask someone for a house, for a car, for support to even keep a house help or a driver. So after careful thought I decided to accept the salary and perks since I felt that I would fail as an information commissioner for all the wrong reasons if I tried to continue without the salary and other perks. I took the decision, told my wife and then declared it publicly. I would like to say that even asking people for my needs instead of taking a salary could also translate into pressure from another quarter.

But I understand that some RTI activists are upset about my decision since I reversed my earlier decision just 15 days after joining. If it was Mumbai, I would have been able to manage without a salary since I have a house and the required infrastructure there.

 

Q: Since you joined you have been also been embroiled in controversy, whether it is your decisions in various cases or your stand to not penalise public information officers (PIO) despite defaulting. What is your take on this?

A: I want to clarify that I do believe that penalty is a very necessary tool in the act to make it effective. But I found that the all pervasive atmosphere in government department is for not giving information. Public information officers felt that they could get away with it. So when I started the hearing, I issued show cause notices in hundreds of cases but I penalised in just three cases because I want to create a scenario where PIOs feel that they should give information instead of denying it. But change takes time.

Even as an activist I was not a great believer of penalty as a major tool in implementing the act. I was on the receiving end in many cases as I didn't receive information from them. But I never insisted on a penalty for the PIOs during the appeal process. 

Instead what I have done is to conduct workshops for departments so that they learnt the regime of act and know that they have to give information. I conducted a workshop with around 120 Municipal Corporation of Delhi officers, and I think I made a change.

When I became a commissioner, some people assumed that I would impose penalty every time. If I was to go by that logic I would have had to impose penalties in 400-500 cases. It was never feasible, practical or desirable.

Also one another thing I want to point out is that when delay occurs, a lot of it is due to the number of pending cases. When there is a delay in hearing cases in CIC of six-nine months how can I have the moral authority to impose penalty on PIOs.

My only work is to hear appeals under RTI act but the PIOs have other work as well. How can I penalise officers when I do not have any norm for delay at the CIC? At present I warn officers and ensure that they give the information. But once the pendency of cases reduces I will impose penalty and PIOs will know they cannot get away by not giving information.
I believe that there will be a huge change when the pendency of cases in appeal comes down to around 60 days. Then PIOs will start giving information since they will know that the case will come up for hearing in a short time and he can be penalised for delay.

Retribution itself cannot be a change agent. It is a combination of things that will make the change happen.

Q: Is your work satisfying and do you think you can make a difference?

A: I am enjoying myself since I am doing the work that I believe in. I believe the Act can bring about transparency and accountability which can in turn bring about better governance.

I believe that nothing can reverse the Act, no political party or bureaucracy can reverse this process. But what can kill the act are information commissions and courts. If hearings of appeals are delayed endlessly and no justice is granted in courts either then the act will prove to be ineffective. Therefore I have taken on myself the challenge of reducing the pendency of cases. I have proved that we don't need to delay ruling.
I feel I can clear around 500 in a month, by June I will be able to bring down pendency of cases to just 60 days. If others also take this up, we would have ensured that RTI Act is effective. Presently I am also working on Saturdays to reduce the number of cases but later on I will be able to work for five days in a week.