The Right to Information (RTI) Act—that empowers citizens to demand information from the government and obliges officials to provide it—completes five years on 12 October. Chief information commissioner (CIC) Wajahat Habibullah, who presides over the implementation of the Act, leaves office on Wednesday.
In an interview, Habibullah, who has been associated with the Act since the beginning, talks about its successes and failures. Edited excerpts:
Has the implementation of the RTI Act succeeded in meeting the original vision behind the law?
I wouldn’t talk of a complete success, but I do think that it has set a certain direction. Therefore, that direction is the principal achievement I think. If I can call it that, it is the growth of realization within, particularly the government. The information held by the government must be given when asked for. There are exceptions of course; information in certain cases is exempt from disclosure… But my feeling is that there is a growing realization, at least in the government of India, the information I ask for has to be given.
Radical change: Wajahat Habibullah says the implementation of the RTI Act hasn’t been a complete success, but it has set a certain direction. Amit Agrawal / Mint
This is quite a radical change from what there was before, when we were not only conditioned, but actually trained to believe that the information that is held by the government is held in trust for the government and should never be given unless you are compelled to do so… I think, this would, in my view, be the principal achievement.
But there have been conflicts over the jurisdiction of the Act. Has implementation suffered because of that?
I think these conflict areas have been diminishing... An area (on contention) was: up to what extent are the high courts and the Supreme Court or the judiciary subject to the RTI Act? There also we have had reconciliation... One area, which is still ongoing, is the area of extent of the limitations of the RTI Act.
What do you think are the drawbacks of the Act, and how have they hampered its implementation?
The drawbacks have really come from what one may call teething problems. The commission itself was not quite sure of the extent of its authority. The government was not sure of the extent of the authority that Parliament had granted to the commission… The second thing was that of there were administrative problems, financial problems. We did not have money, we did not have proper premises… These difficulties persist, but staffing continues to be a problem.
We tried to make do with such staff that we have, the result has been—of course because of the lack of staffing —that there have been delays, not so much in the fact that information commissioners themselves are not hearing enough or giving orders but in the processing of applications at the official level. So this process has been a lengthy process and we had to depend upon outsourcing. And because we have been outsourcing, there has not been the kind of—and extent of—discretion, which we may have otherwise like to exercise, but these are minor matters.
Why hasn’t the government done enough to make people more aware of the Act through advertising and other forms of publicity?
Inside the government, a certain degree of misunderstanding still persists and it is not just with the government, it is with the activists also and that is why I have been disputing the use of this expression of RTI being characterized as a weapon against the government… I have also been critical of the government for not having done enough.
The level of RTI (awareness) owes much to NGOs (non-governmental organizations), but they have been largely focusing in larger cities and that accounts for the fact that the awareness in larger cities is high and the use of the Act is also high. The government now has stepped up, you will notice that the government is issuing ads like it does in (MG)NREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) and other little shots and slides in television to promote the awareness of the RTI Act.
How many applications do you get from rural areas? Does the government have specific plans to deal with the rural-urban awareness divide?
The system for providing information in the rural areas has not been too systematized. The government already has a programme for rural common service centres that is going to be expanded across every district of the country. The idea being to provide computerized facilities right down to the district level, if not beyond. I see that the principal use of that will be use of the RTI... Karnataka and Gujarat have moved ahead with this kind of thing.
Some activists who were campaigning for the RTI Act have now gone to the other side. Is their criticism constructive?
Yes, all criticism is welcome. Of course, some criticism is abusive and it is, of course, not welcome. It is not that they have gone on the other side—they wanted the Act to come, they had certain expectations with the Act, they may find that its implementation is falling short of that.
The level of awareness among public information officers (PIOs) is also very low. According to a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) study, 45% of them said they have no training in implementing the RTI Act. Why is that?
The PIO in my view actually has a very powerful position, which he is not using. He can demand his department to make the information accessible as is mandatory under section 4 of the Act, so his work is reduced, and if it is not done he has every right to come to the commission and say that the department is not complying.
They also complained about not being paid incentives and that they were penalized if things went wrong.
…The penalty may not fall on the PIO, but on the person who has failed to give the information… I do think that the fact that they have to give extra work, extra time, extra hour for this purpose and if you expect a good job to be done, then I would think that some sort of recompense would be advisable.
Are we going to see an RTI implementation cell anytime soon?
The government has considered it... I don’t know what happened after that. It is (supposed to be) an advisory body. So far as the commissioner is concerned, his autonomy will not be eroded, but it will be a body that will just advise the government.
We already have the National Advisory Council as an advisory body to the government. Can NAC step in to advise the government on RTI?
I think it already does. But NAC can’t become a kind of cell and it can’t be summoned by the minister that now you come and please advise us. The initiative will lie with NAC, they may summon the minister to come and advise them, but not the other way around!
After five years, is the Act working smoothly enough so as not be affected by a change in the political regime, or with one CIC handing over to another?
Political regime I don’t think is a threat at all, because I have of course been in discussion with the leadership of the (main opposition) BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), with the Communists and with a number of people… Everybody has been actually making use of the law and I don’t think the law is under any threat from that quarter. The political class in general has been supportive.