6 min read.Updated: 01 Sep 2013, 11:57 PM ISTAnuja
Satyananda Mishra says the government is sensitive to the fact that an attempt to reduce the scope of RTI would face resistance
New Delhi: Lack of proper maintenance of records by the government is one of the biggest roadblocks in the implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, said Satyananda Mishra, India’s outgoing chief information commissioner. Mishra, who was part of a bench that gave an order to bring political parties under the transparency law, said in an interview that the government is sensitive to the fact that an attempt to reduce the scope of the law would meet with fierce resistance from the people. Mishra will retire on Wednesday after a five-year stint at the Central Information Commission. Edited excerpts:
You have spent five years at the Central Information Commission (CIC)? How has your experience been?
I had a very satisfying tenure here because when I came from the DoPT (department of personnel and training) I had some idea about the Commission but I did not have a really clear idea of what the commissioners do. So, in the beginning there was a bit of curiosity but once I came here it was quite exciting because you are not in the government but you have a clear view of what is going on in the government. This gives a vantage view of what is happening in the government. This also gives an idea about to what extent people are disgruntled because by and large information is sought because people have a grievance or a complaint or they have apprehensions or they have doubts about how the government is working. This also gives an idea about what the people are thinking about the government…through RTI you get a realistic view of what people are thinking about the government. So that way it was quiet interesting.
It has been eight years since the RTI Act was passed. Do you think the implementation has lived up to the spirit of the law?
When the Bill was being piloted and the Act was being passed, there was a tremendous amount of hype about the Bill and what it can do, but like everything else when it actually gets rolled out on the field, it is not like what you have thought and I would not say that RTI is any different from that. If people had thought that there would be a countrywide spread instantly, that hasn’t happened. If people had thought that government doors would open, that has not happened but compared to all other laws of its type, RTI in its eight years has done considerable progress.
In spite of it, so forcefully compelling the government and its ministries to give information of all kinds, the demand for its amendment to reduce its scope has not been articulated in a very forceful way by anybody within the government. If there has been any talk about its amendment, it has been very muted.
Why do you think the government’s voice is muted on this issue?
The government is responsive, very sensitive to the fact that if there would be any attempt to reduce the scope of the law, to abridge and shrink the right would meet with very fierce opposition from the people.
Do you think there needs to be a greater accessibility within the government about the RTI Act?
Something which is new and is quiet contrary with the earlier practice is not something which would be accepted with open arms…and RTI is not an inert thing, it is a very dynamic thing. Therefore to accept it and to give information under it is something to which people will get used to over time. That there is still a lot of apprehension, fear, reluctance and to some extent even resistance in some quarters about sharing information, I am not surprised. But the only way to open the government more and more is to keep constantly trying.
How do you react to the political opposition to the order on bringing political parties under the transparency Act? Were you expecting such a backlash?
But, do you think such a kind of unanimous opposition may not set the right kind of precedent in the whole context of polity and governance?
When a law is made, it is not expected that everything in the law would always be expected…we are not like the Supreme Court. If an order is passed by the Supreme Court, whether someone likes it or not, it has to be accepted because then that becomes the law of the land. So, I don’t think we should treat any reaction to an order of this Commission should be seen in an extremely alarmist manner.
What do you think is the biggest roadblock in the implementation of the RTI Act?
The biggest roadblock in the implementation of the RTI Act is the record-keeping within the government…this has not happened. So when someone seeks information then getting the information and locating the information becomes difficult. One of the biggest problems is non-traceability of the desired information. So, we simply don’t find an information because record keeping is in a mess.
Number two is the kind of awareness about the role and responsibility vis-à-vis the RTI Act has not really taken place. So, every ministry or department appoints its information officer and the rest of the people in the department think that now it is only the responsibility of the information officer.
Third, even among the information seekers or citizens there is utter lack of training about what information to seek and what to do with that information.
Fourth, I would not spare the commissions also whether it is central or state information commissions are itself becoming somewhat roadblocks. In the sense, that they are not able to dispose of the appeals and complaints in time and when cases and appeals keep pending for months and sometimes even for years, then it automatically acts like a roadblock. Information has a very short shelf life. If I want an information today and I don’t get it for months then there is no point in getting that information. The competence level of commissions, for whatever reason, is also acting like a roadblock.
It is the third time that you are anchoring the CIC convention. What is the theme this year?
This convention is taking stock of last eight years and many issues have been raised in this period like what has RTI done really. So, this time we have kept the subject RTI and inclusive growth for in depth discussion. We have been hearing in the last one year, economic development versus inclusive growth. Where everybody in the society is getting a share of the growth...and whether RTI has played or can play a role in ensuring that more and more people benefit from this growth story.
What are your plans after you leave office?
By the time I leave, I would have completed nearly 42 years within the government and that is a long time.
Do you see yourself doing something around the RTI Act?
I think so and I have conveyed to people that I am available and in whatever way I can join them.
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