Debate continues on the ambit and scope of the Right to Information Act (RTI), which has been used extensively by citizens to access information on public authorities. Chief information commissioner Satyanand Mishra spoke in an interview on issues including bringing private entities such as Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) under the Act, the proposed Lokpal law and whether the RTI Act is slowing down the functioning of the government. Edited excerpts:
The Right to Information Act completes six years next month. How far has the Act succeeded and what are the areas that still need work?
I have a feeling that for any comparable Act, this has done far better in the short period of six years. Compliance with the directives of the Act was rather prompt compared to other Acts. The growth in the number of RTI queries is steadily going up. One good thing about this Act is that it has really whetted the appetite of people for more rights.
On the second part of your query, one is that there is a lot of training necessary for government officers and employees. Secondly, the fact that there is an RTI Act now and there is no escape from the fact that the information has to be given instead of under duress to be given deliberately, proactively, with joy in sharing the information, that is yet to come.
Corporate affairs minister M. Veerappa Moily was cited on 25 September by ‘The Indian Express’ newspaper as saying that the RTI Act is “transgressing into government functioning” and there needs to be a fresh debate on the Act. What are your views on it?
Yes, I have seen it, but one has not really seen the whole comment. It is just a news report. It appears to be a personal comment that anyone can make. However, there is always a scope for debate, and it is always a good thing. The current demand of the society seems to be that if any Act needs to be revisited, it has to be done through a national debate. If the comment of the minister is to engage in a national debate, then it is good.
Do you think that the Act transgresses into government functioning?
It is wrong to say that. As long as a law is there, we are all committed to that law. Whether at all it transgresses or not is to be contested within the scope of the law. And, if there is any such feeling, then it must be contested in the scope of the law—at the commission or in a court.
In less than a month, the Central Information Commission at its level will decide whether BCCI can come under RTI. What are the things you are looking at?
I cannot comment on that case because it is for us to hear and decide, but in any such case in which a body which is not obviously a government body, it has to be in conformity with the provision of the law. The key thing in that section (of the RTI Act) is whether it is substantially financed by the government will be looked at.
What do you think about including sports bodies such as BCCI under RTI?
As a citizen, my feeling is that any organization which is operating in the public domain and for public good and is not operating for profit, such organizations should also be accountable, should be transparent, so that they earn legitimacy. Whether the law provides it or not is absolutely irrelevant. It is morally incumbent on such organizers to make themselves more accountable and more transparent.
The Central Bureau of Investigation, National Investigation Agency and National Intelligence Grid are now out of the RTI. That expands the list of exempted bodies to 25 from 22. What are your views on exclusion of such agencies from RTI?
The idea of having a class of public authority which should be exempt from RTI is very clear in the law that it should be in the nature of security and intelligence gathering kind of organization... provided that information of a certain kind has to be disclosed—those relating to allegations of corruption or human rights violation.
It would be good not to expand this list indefinitely. I have a feeling that there must be sufficient ground for the authorities to decide to include them (the above-mentioned agencies) and I understand that this decision of the government is under challenge in courts of law. At the commission, we would like the list to remain as short as possible and as necessary as possible. Not one more, probably not one less.
A lot of people see the proposed Lokpal (ombudsman) legislation as an extension of the RTI. What are your views on the proposed legislation and the public agitation around the Jan Lokpal Bill?
Jan Lokpal or Lokpal is nothing but the right to have a corruption-free government. If any law helps in that, it will be a welcome thing. Coming to the specifics, this has become such a controversial matter that to make any comment on that is actually entering into a very dangerous area.
I have gone through the details of the Bill which goes under the name of Jan Lokpal Bill, it has got many practical problems. I have a feeling that it is actually far too big to be practically a very successful body.
There are about 50 lakh employees in the government, if you add the army and the paramilitary forces. Out of this 50 lakh people, if we get complaints even against 1%, it would be 50,000 complaints in an year. Because if it is less than that, then there is no need to have an independent and draconian body like the Lokpal. If you want such a draconian, autonomous and totally independent kind of set-up only because you think it has become unbearable. Which means there are far too many people in the government who are resorting in corruption.
So, 50,000 to one lakh complains in a year, how many people will you need to investigate? That number could run into thousands.