gfiles magazine

April 19, 2011

‘The knowledge about this vital act is very limited’

After a stint as a State Bank of India probationary officer, Satyananda Mishra joined the IAS and spent 10 years in various field postings in Madhya Pradesh, including as Collector and District Magistrate. After that, he has worked in culture, information and public relations, urban development, small-scale industry and human resources. A 1973-batch IAS officer belonging to the Madhya Pradesh cadre, he formulated the culture and information policies of the Madhya Pradesh government, was Chairman of the Special Area Development Authority, Korba, provided urban infrastructure such as roads, sewage and drinking water, and dealt with conservation and habitats. He also shaped the human resource development policy for the Government of India.


gfiles: The Right To Information (RTI) Act, 2005, was passed in order to help promote social and economic justice by creating total public accountability. How is it now viewed?
Satyananda Mishra: My feeling is that knowledge about this Act is extremely limited. Just like knowledge about many of our laws is very limited. Raising any kind of awareness through the established channels such as the print media or the electronic media has limitations. If you are targeting the people at the grass-roots level, then these two have their limitations. This is, assuming that we’ve enough funds and motivations to really use both these channels to spread awareness. Just as we are doing in the case of “Jago, Grahak, Jago”, the consumer thing. Unfortunately, in the last five-and-a-half years, the budget allocation for awareness raising has been insignificant.

‘My feeling is that knowledge about this Act is extremely limited. Just like knowledge about many of our laws is limited.’
gfiles: How much is the budget?
SM: Less than a crore of rupees. One of the stated objectives of the government is also to create awareness by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs under the name of “Jago Grahak Jago”. That has been getting a lot of emphasis and focus because the target there is mostly the private sectors. “Grahak”, that is, the consumer, is to be made aware about his rights, vis-a-vis private people like grocers, shopkeepers, insurance companies and so on. But RTI is entirely against the government. So raising awareness of the people means a law for better governance.
But I have a feeling that here the person who is errant, as it were, before the Commission is the government officer for not giving the information. If the information was to be given without the law, then there was no need for a law. The fact that a law was necessary means the legislature wants to regulate the government and bring it to a level where it will like to disclose the information. So, in a sense, the target of this law is the government. This law gives power in the hands of the people to ferret out information from the government.
Traditionally, there was no covenant with the government that all information must be shared. We are hearing this in the last few years, that this is also a right. Otherwise it was assumed by people that the government is doing its business in the department offices. Our interaction with the government is only when I have to subject myself to some controls or regulations of the government in order to obtain such and such facility from the government. The need for information was limited to an individual need. The Right to Information Act has completely changed the paradigm. The citizen does not have to seek information only about himself. In fact, this law means a citizen has locus standi in seeking the information. Section 6 of the Act clearly says that nobody shall be asked the reason why he is seeking the information.

‘Unfortunately, in the last five-and-a-half years, the budget allocation for awareness raising has been insignificant.’

I’ve been here for the last two years and I was thinking, what is the philosophical basis for the RTI? This is the law which legitimizes the government. A democratic government legitimises itself every five years through an election process but people are not willing to wait for five years in order to legitimise their government. They would want to legitimize the government on a daily basis. How’s it done? It’s done through the media, which brings up issues between the citizens and the government and then arrives at certain conclusions. It tries to find out whether the government action is legitimate or not. But, on a larger scale, if you want to legitimise the government then you have to really connect people with the government. How do you do that? The connection is through the RTI. The citizen just has to put in an application and he will know what is there in these files. The RTI Act has, in a philosophical sense, removed the walls around government officers.

gfiles: Is there still a mental block among government officials to part with the information?
SM: Since we are to enforce the law, even if there is a reluctance it usually does not come in the way of enforcement because we have the power to penalise and we do impose the penalty. But I would say that, yes, people within the government, both at the Centre and in the States, are not yet totally used to the RTI Act. We should not look for a short time-frame for this to change. It will change over a very long period or it may not even change. I’m told, in the US the number of RTI applications received by government offices is several times more than what we receive in India. That means, even in a country where there is so much digitisation, so much openness in government working, people still need to seek information. So, as long as governments do not completely lay themselves bare, there will be a need. Within the government there will always be a reluctance to part with information for two reasons. One is not to part with information because that gives the government official a sense of power and if you share the information then you reduce your own power. But also, to some extent, it increases your work load. For example, the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) is already doing several other jobs. In addition, he has been giver this job. This is an arbitrary appointment with the attendant risk of being penalised. A section officer or deputy secretary arbitrarily becomes a CPIO, he runs the risk of being penalised for not giving the information. Therefore, obviously there would be reluctance. This reluctance is unlikely to be over in a short period. There is and there shall be a general tendency to not very willingly part with information.
We have put this to the government on various occasions – supposing every Ministry comes out with a disclosure policy for each department. Except the following items of information, all the rest shall be given. Then all the information would be disclosed without asking. Of course, the cost might be a problem in a big Ministry, since we work in paper. Scan the papers and upload. It’s a costly affair. RTI is not the only need of human beings, so the money can’t be spent entirely on it. If that situation would come, where each department comes out with a disclosure policy, listing the type of information they won’t disclose.... Section 8 of the RTI Act lists 10 types of information which need not or can’t be disclosed. Suppose the Home Ministry comes out with a website for the general public to know that the following 10 types of information will not be disclosed. All other information will. Once such information is published on the website by the Ministry, then the officers down the line would know that they have no choice but to give the information except for those 10 types. The conflict between citizens seeking information and the government officer would get minimized. Then the public also would not ask for such type of information.

gfiles: You are an autonomous body, your power is compared to that of the Chief Election Commissioner. In several ways you have the right to give a directive to which the government should respond.
SM: No, there is a difference. This law gives only two powers to this Commission. One set of powers comes from the fact that, in disposing of appeals and complaints, it has the power of the civil courts. The other set of powers relates to imposing the penalty for wrongful denial of information or delayed supply of information. This carries a penalty of Rs 250 per day up to a maximum of Rs 25,000. But that is levied on the information officer who is arbitrarily appointed, and is not necessarily the repository of the entire information. So even a penalty on the information officer is some kind of symbolic act. Yes, he’ll shell out Rs 25,000 from his salary. But it is a symbolic act because he alone is punished. There is no provision in the law that if the information is denied, levy a penalty on the head of the office.
‘Section 6 of the Act clearly says that nobody shall be asked the reason why he is seeking the information.’

gfiles: Is Rs 25,000 not very high?
SM: If the information has not been given for 100 days or delayed by 100 days, then it’ll come to Rs 25,000. Less than that would be a multiple of Rs 250. It doesn’t have to come within 30 days, it has to be sent within 30 days. Supposing it’s received on the 1st, it has to be sent by the 30th. It also depends on the quality and volume of the information sought. If somebody is asking for one piece of information which can be culled from a single file then even 30 days is a long period. But if you are seeking 50 types of information which has to be culled from 100 files then 30 days is a short period.

gfiles: There are some shortfalls on both sides. There are complaints that Information Commissioners are not being trained properly. Also, that we don’t have any electronic compilation of what has been done so far. Is it true?
SM: No. I’ll limit myself to talking about the Central Information Commission because there are more than 20 State Information Commissions. I’ll not speak about them as they are independent bodies. About the CIC, all our orders are uploaded on the website as soon as they are signed. So all our orders since this Commission came into being are on the website.
There is a serious problem regarding training of the Information Officers and appellate authorities in the government. Frequent change of Information Officers is another problem which has to be addressed. The government must ensure that a person who is appointed Information Officer should remain for at least 2-3 years because this job requires some amount of skill and knowledge. While hearing appeals we come across these people and I find such an abysmal lack of knowledge about the provisions of the law even after five years. In some places in the country where the nationalised banks’ branches are located, some officers even now do not know that the Rs 10 fee has to be paid in a particular mode. They insist that it should be paid in the manner which is not provided for in the law.

gfiles: What about public awareness, and women’s awareness....
SM: The demand for information is preceded by knowledge about the existence of the information. Suppose somebody does not even know how something happens. So the awareness has to be not only about this law but about individual rights vis-a-vis the government in various walks of life. For example, suppose every Minister compiles a compendium of schemes and programmes which every department has more or less in the annexure – say, a 50-page list which a citizen can ask for. Take NREGA. In the implementation of NREGA, the following information can be sought by the citizen. It’s a part of the disclosure policy, the government would encourage the people to ask, “Please give me a copy of the master role of the village for the last three months.” So the people would not even think about what they have to ask for. They have to get this copy or this bulletin has to be pasted in every gram sabha, so that every literate citizen in the village can go there and know that he can ask these questions.

‘Information gives the government official a sense of power and if you share it you reduce your own power.’

gfiles: Is e-governance affecting this process?
SM: e-governance should greatly help disclosure of information because retrieval of information would be faster, almost instantaneous. Right now, the retrieval of information is a major problem. We have not discussed this, you have raised a very good issue. We have talked only about the rights and awareness, not about record-keeping, archiving and retrieval.

gfiles: Is it not a serious matter?
SM: It’s very serious because until now nobody really paid much attention to it. Over the years we’ve only increased the amount of paper work and the record retention policy is not being followed very strictly. Every government office has got more records in its possession than it should normally have, leading to a situation that now records are simply impossible to retrieve except for the current files which are on the tables of the officers. If you are asking for a file which is three to five years old, it’ll be a nightmare for most government officers to locate it. So the record-keeping and progressive digitization of records is one aim of e-governance. I think something is being done, on a pilot basis. The government has taken up 100% digitization of some of the Ministries and departments. I read about this sometime back in the newspaper. The Cabinet Secretariat is one of them. The CIC is also one place it’s being attempted. We have decided to deal only with efiles. We are planning that, when an appeal arrives in our registry, it will be scanned and digitalized to be sent to Commissioners.
We are extremely informal. We have no court-room, we hear people across the table. We discourage people from bringing in lawyers, we don’t give any adjournment, whether the party has come or not, we pass the order. Disposal of any case is delayed by frequent adjournment. This is in contrast to some State Commissions which give 10 adjournments which is a sure recipe for delay. We receive something like 3,000 appeals and complaints per month. We have a team of six people, one Chief Information Commissioner with five Commissioners at present. We are disposing of roughly 300-350 cases per Commissioner per month. That works out to nearly 15-20 cases per day. You will surely agree that, after reading the files, hearing people and writing the orders, you can’t do more than 15-20 cases a day. It’s humanly impossible. If we were to follow the practice of saying yes or no, then of course we can dispose of anything.

gfiles: You were saying that the RTI Act has been implemented but the government is not very enthusiastic about it.
SM: That would not be exactly appropriate. I mean, within the govt there are vast numbers of people who are yet to really come round to the fact that there is an RTI Act and information has to be given. This I say on the basis of the following premise: if the information is to be given then it should be given willingly without people asking for the information. How is that done, by disclosing it on your own? The RTI Act has a Section 4, which mandates every public authority to publish 17 types of information within 120 days of the law coming into being. It means, by December 2005, all the information should have already been on the website. Please go to the website of any public authority and check how much information is there. We’ve done random checks and I’ve not come across a single public authority which has put all the information as expected. So what does it show? That even a mandatory requirement has not been complied with.

‘There are vast numbers of people who are yet to come round to the fact that there is an RTI Act and information has to be given.’

gfiles: How does this happen?
SM: Because the law does not provide for any penalty. In future, if this law is ever to be strengthened then this is one area where it has to be strengthened by putting in some kind of penal provision if a public authority does not publish all the details. The head of that authority should be responsible and should be penalised monetarily. Just like the CPIO. Imagine, if that provision were there then everybody would be uploading and disclosing information. But we are quite satisfied that this law is making steady progress.

gfiles: You have mentioned that your monitoring system is very weak....
SM: The Central Information Commission is not a monitoring body. It’s only a quasi-judicial body for hearing appeals and complaints. It has no other functions. The monitoring, creating awareness orany other attendant functions belong to the government. It’s the job of the Centre to monitor and create awareness. Recently, somebody had put a question in Parliament as to how many RTI applications had been received in the year 2010-11. So my attendant brought the figure that 37,000 RTI applications had been received. I said that it’s some kind of joke. He said, “Sir, in spite of our repeated request, only 5% of the public authorities have given their figures. So it’s 37,000, otherwise it’ll run into more than 7-8 lakhs.” In order to publish our annual report for placing before Parliament, we have to collect such figures. So we write to the government departments and ask them to send the numbers of RTI applications received but they do not send. So, yes, the monitoring is poor.

gfiles: How do you deal with the challenges of not just the CIC but also the State Information Commissions?
SM: This is a very serious problem. People who are into RTI, civil society organizations, Commissioners, mediapersons who think that RTI is a good thing must also come out because right now we are receiving 3,000 appeals and complaints. If we would be 1+10 then each one of us would be dealing with roughly 300 cases which means about 15 cases a day (20 working days).

gfiles: Do you feel that the RTI Act has managed to touch on some of the problems?
SM: No doubt about it. IAS officers working in the Government of India with whom I interacted have said that, now, while writing a note in the file they are always aware of the fact that this note can passed on to the people. It gives such a tremendous sense of responsibility to a person.

gfiles: How do you deal with systemic problems?
SM: This is a larger question of administrative reforms. For example, decision-making in the Government of India today passes through five levels before the final decision is made. In the corporate sector, decision-making is done at two levels. We are almost slaves to the system we created. With so many letters moving, not only is the process delayed, more records are created. Information becomes involved within.

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