New Delhi: When Shailesh Gandhi becomes information commissioner next week, he will give up a cause he has championed for two years.
He has, for the past two years, repeatedly sought information on the working of the Prime Minister’s National Relief Fund, or PMNRF, through the Right to Information Act.
“I am now forced to give this up as I cannot serve as an information commissioner and pursue my applications as an activist. That would be bizarre,” he says.
Gandhi is the first right to information (RTI) activist to be appointed information commissioner at the Central Information Commission, or CIC.
Magsaysay award winner Arvind Kejriwal, however, disagrees with Gandhi and says there is no conflict of interest here. “Shailesh Gandhi should realize that he is a citizen first and then an information commissioner,” says Kejriwal. “He has every right to continue with the RTI application.”
Arvind Kejriwal says, an information commissioner, O.P. Kejriwal, has filed an RTI application with the urban development ministry. “Nothing stopped Kejriwal from filing an RTI application. So why should Shailesh hesitate?”
Gandhi says the issue will now have to be taken up by some other concerned citizen. “However, whoever applies for it will have to go through the whole process all over again.”
Gandhi filed his first application in June 2006, seeking information on the total money disbursed by PMNRF in two years and names of institutions the money was given to.
The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) said the relief fund was out of the RTI ambit as it was not classified a public authority. However, it was forced to share details after CIC held that since the PMO was a public authority, information held by it need to be made public under the RTI Act.
In December, Gandhi filed a fresh application seeking information on the names of banks in which PMNRF funds had been deposited and the names of parties to whom any advances from the fund may have been made.
The PMO had earlier refused to part with information, saying disclosure of the names of the banks and the terms under which the money had been deposited would amount to hurting the commercial confidence of such institutions.
Gandhi had then turned to CIC, which asked the PMO to respond to Gandhi’s application within 10 working days. The PMO, however, refused to part with any information.
Gandhi says he was going to pursue the matter again with the CIC, but received a call last Friday from the minister of state in the the PMO, Prithviraj Chavan, who informed him of the decision to appoint him an information commissioner.
The resources of PMNRF, which has a fund balance of some Rs1,500 crore as of on March, are used for immediate relief to families of those killed in natural calamities and victims of major accidents and riots. PMNRF assistance is also given for medical treatment such as heart surgeries, kidney transplant, cancer treatment and so on.
The fund consists entirely of public contributions and does not get budgetary support. The fund corpus is invested with banks in fixed deposits. Disbursements are made with the approval of the prime minister.