New Delhi: The Central Information Commission, or CIC, has played a crucial role in ensuring smooth functioning of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, which opened up public entities for scrutiny by citizens. Chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah speaks to Mint, among other things, on issues such as the inclusion of private entities under the Act and lack of adequate support from the government. Edited excerpts:
There was a debate on bringing in some private entities under the purview of the RTI Act. The most contentious among them was that of the stock markets, which the CIC felt should come under the RTI Act. What is happening with that?
The private bodies that we said should be under the RTI purview are stock exchanges and discoms (power distribution companies). Most of them have taken our decision to the high court. The Bombay Stock Exchange and the Delhi Stock Exchange have obtained stay orders from courts. We are now awaiting the decisions.
Choosing his words: Wajahat Habibullah, chief information commissioner, refuses to comment on whether the judiciary should be under the ambit of the RTI Act since a complaint is coming up before the CIC. Photograph: Ramesh Pathania / Mint
Are there other private bodies you are looking to bring in the RTI loop? Is there an ambiguity in the entire distinction between private and public bodies?
We have gone by the definition of a public authority under Section 2h of the RTI Act: “Anything that is under the Constitution under any law but also something that is created by a notification issued by the government or is owned, controlled or substantially financed, directly or indirectly, by the government.”
We’ve seen that in a number of crucial cases, stay orders are obtained from high courts against your decision, thereby delaying the entire process. A lot of power utility companies and educational institutions have resorted to this. How do you expect to deal with this?
There is no question of finding a solution. We just have to wait for an order from the courts. We have a legal adviser, a legal cell and a joint secretary (law) to advise us on legal issues. They are also given the responsibility of going and defending our decisions in court. A lot of our cases are pending with the Delhi high court, which has often decided in our favour.
But do you think the fact that stay orders can be obtained against your decision is detrimental to the entire process of speedy delivery of information?
That is the right of any citizen of India. They can go and file a writ against our decision in the high court. One can argue about whether or not people should enjoy this right, but I personally believe that they should have this right.
It is very crucial that at this stage of the evolution of the RTI Act we get inputs from the judiciary. It is of considerable value to our functioning and how we make decisions. In fact, I might say the high court has very often even gone further than us.
Talking about compliance issues, you now impose fines for non-compliance. Has that yielded positive results?
We do not have fines for non-compliance as such. We have fines for a number of issues like refusal to provide information, or knowingly providing incomplete or distorted information, or destroying information. Fines are imposed in such cases at the rate of Rs250 a day.
These fines have always been there but in the first year, the number of penalties imposed was very few since the Act in itself was new. Now we have expedited things. We don’t impose penalties liberally since that would be a nasty thing to do, but we definitely impose them more extensively.
The effect has been that when a notice goes out asking officers concerned why a penalty should not be imposed, they take great pains in justifying the delay. Even if a penalty is not imposed for delay, the department has to provide information free of cost to the aggrieved party.
Many are concerned about how, under RTI, people can try and get information for vested interests. How do you deal with such issues?
Well, there are all kinds of things. We have had applications for getting grievances redressed, and some that want our intervention in preventing corruption. All these are, of course, outside the purview of the Act. But if there is any information that has to be made available under the Act and the person concerned uses them for such purposes, it is beyond our control.
Recently, the CIC passed an order asking the Income Tax (I-T) department to disclose information on I-T returns of political parties to an NGO that filed the petition. Do you get a lot of requests seeking information about political parties’ funding? Do political parties fall under the ambit of public authorities?
We don’t really get a lot of questions regarding funds of political parties. They are private entities. But the point is whether, with I-T department revealing their returns, political parties can claim invasion of privacy.
In this case, it was held that public interest does require information about their I-T returns because the activities of political parties are not private, and they cannot claim invasion of privacy, unlike individuals.
Besides, this is information that even the Election Commission needs. Therefore, it is in the public domain and the public needs to know where the money is coming from.
There have been various accusations that the government has not spent enough on publicizing the Act and creating awareness among people. Would you agree with that?
Yes, I think it is true. The government hasn’t really spent enough because under section 25 of the Act, it is the government that is responsible for creating awareness. But what the government has done is to seek to create awareness among government officials about how to service the Act, which is also an extensive task. There has been considerable progress in this respect.
In terms of general public awareness, what the government has done has been very limited. Though Doordarshan, which is also part of the government, is doing a lot of work, the government as such has done very little. However, even though that is the case, I am amazed to see the extent of awareness among the masses, especially in rural areas.
Isn’t that strange, considering that this Act is an initiative of the United Progressive Alliance, or UPA, government?
Yes, it is their initiative. Why they are not publicizing it in a big way is a question you need to ask them. However, it is true that they have commissioned PricewaterhouseCoopers (a global professional services firm) to assess the importance of this Act across the country, which is constructive.
Are activists and non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, filling in for the government’s role in this regard?
Yes, they are working a lot in this area.
We have general elections lined up next year. Do you think a change of regime would affect the working of the RTI Act?
I can’t see that there can be any real change in the working of the Act. Of course, the possible alternative to the UPA is the National Democratic Alliance, or NDA. So, even if the BJP-led NDA comes to power, there wouldn’t be any difference because we have had a number of BJP leaders making extensive use of this Act. No political party will have an objection to it.
Recently, Chief Justice of India K.G. Balakrishnan said that the judiciary should not fall under the ambit of the RTI Act. What is your take?
Well, I wouldn’t really want to comment on this since it has become a subject of complaint before us and is coming up for hearing soon.
How many appeals do you typically get in a month? Has the number increased since the Act was launched?
Yes, it has. That is a matter of major concern for us. Initially, we used to get about 200 odd cases in a month and dispose of 150. Now we are getting over 1,000 cases every month. Even though our rate of disposal has gone up considerably to around 800, we still have a backlog of around 7,500 cases.
As awareness grows, there is going to be more and more pressure and more cases will come to us. However, if section 4, which requires all government records to be computerized and made public, is implemented, the pressure on us will reduce.
On which department or entity do you get the maximum appeals?
The finance ministry. Because it has divisions such as banking, insurance, income tax and so on under it. Then you have the urban development ministry, since it concerns city issues. Probably, in rural areas, rural development and panchayati raj have a lot of pressure. But everyone has been very cooperative.
K.P. Narayana Kumar contributed to this story.