RTI Commissioner Sridhar Acharyulu: I’m apprehensive about the future of RTI Act

“We are in the fifth month of 2018, and we are yet to start hearing cases filed in 2018. I’m hearing cases of 2017 November,” the Central Information Commissioner says

Picture courtesy: Social media
Picture courtesy: Social media

Ashlin Mathew

“We are in the fifth month of 2018, and we are yet to start hearing cases filed in 2018. I’m hearing cases of 2017 November,” says Professor M Sridhar Acharyulu, a central Information Commissioner.  A Professor of Law at NALSAR University of Law at Hyderabad, he has authored four books on Right to Information Act. Vacancies have slowed down the functioning of even the CIC, he admitted when Ashlin Mathew caught up with him this week. Excerpts from the conversation:

How would you rate the implementation of the RTI Act ?

Today when the Commission directs the Supreme Court, they give information; when we direct the PMO’s office, they are giving information. In 90% of  cases, they give information; in 10% of the applications, there are disputes. But, that is a different issue. I would say the RTI Act in this country is successful, but I’m apprehensive of the future.

Today there is a problem with so many vacancies…leaving vacancies is a major crisis of the administration. RTI is the only source through which people can question working of Government departments. If this department suffers from a crisis of manpower, how can people question governance issues in other departments?

There are reports that the Government is planning to downgrade the rank of Central Information Commissioners. What is your reaction?

If they attempt to change the RTI Act, it has to be opposed. I don’t know if they are doing it or not, but if they do it, people should oppose it. The law is very clear; the law makers did not contemplate it. In case of them trying to reduce the stature of the Commissioner, it is not acceptable. Information Commissioners should be equal to Election Commissioners, who are equal in rank to Supreme Court judges.

Suppose, I’m a Secretary level Commissioner, then can I give an order to the office of the Supreme Court, or order the senior most Cabinet Secretary to give information—I cannot. Can I even order a University vice-chancellor to give information, I cannot. So, any officer above the rank of a secretary would be beyond my reach; that is why the law makers thought it fit to give the rank of a Supreme Court judge to the Information Commissioner.

The RTI Act is undoubtedly an intrinsic part of Article 19A, that is freedom of speech and expression and it was stated by the Supreme Court before 2005 and after 2005 also. That means the right that is enforced by the CIC is a constitutional right. When a Commission is constituted to implement a constitutional right, it is a constitutional commission.

Any institution which implements a constitutional right, it is a constitutional institution. That is the definition. So, the Constitutional status must be allowed to stay. It is illegal to reduce the stature of CIC office. I can go to the extent of saying that it is unconstitutional.In fact, I want the Commission to take a stand on this, but I don’t know if I can convince my Commission to do it. I personally feel that the Commission should protect its Constitutional status.

Minister of State for Home Affairs, Kiren Rijiju, is on record as saying that people should stop raising doubts and question authorities. How would you respond to that?

How can anyone say that? Accountability is the essence of a democracy. The Government has to be questioned. We must be ready to take questions and answer them.  The government is accountable to people and they should be made to feel so. People should ask questions, not only under the RTI Act, but otherwise too. People should also question and be vocal. That is how democracy survives; otherwise, it is not a democracy.

What are the major obstacles in the implementation of the RTI Act?

Vacancies in the Information Commissions are one of the major problems. When vacancies rise, pendency increases and because of the time lag people feel discouraged to file second appeals. If there is vacancy of even one Information Commissioner, you will miss 22 cases heard every day on an average. When a Commission cannot hear 22 cases daily, can you imagine, what will happen?

There are supposed to be 11 Commissioners at the Centre, but now there are only seven of us. Soon,four of us will retire and that will mean four more vacancies.

25,000 second appeals were registered last year. How can we manage these cases? If there is no possibility of the second appeal coming up in six months or one year, a citizen will be definitely disappointed. There must be some information that he requires in 30 days or 50 days at the most. The problem is that information being sought is not being revealed. If applicants do not receive the information in 30 days, they file a first appeal, which is a useless exercise. Having to file a second appeal means they have to wait for six months and depending on vacancies, they may have to wait for one year for the information. How can one implement the RTI Act then?

Why are Information Commissioners not being appointed?

Unlike the judiciary the Central Information Commission cannot appoint itself. However, I don’t think the CIC should be even allowed to do that. The present law is fine as far as appointment of information commissioners is concerned. The problem is that the Government is not appointing from all the fields that are mentioned in Section 12 (4) of the Act.

Section 12(4) says that Information Commissioners are to be appointed from fields of law, science and technology, social service, management, journalism, mass media or administration and governance.

But currently, most appointments are of government officers. I am not against government officers, but there should not be more than two of them in a Commission. From each of the other segment, there should at least be one representative and probably from social service there could be three. Social service should be given the top priority.

If they don’t do that, non-IAS/IPS officers will be isolated. Their voice will not prevail; in fact, their voice will be drowned. People should understand this and demand that there be commissioners from varied fields. People from only one or two walks of life are there in Commissions and that is another major problem, along with vacancies.

There should be 11 Commissioners working all the time. In none of the states are there 11 Commissioners.

The RTI Act is a great legislation brought about by the people, but the Government is not taking it seriously. What this government is doing or what the earlier government is doing is not something I would comment on. I do not want to politicise it.  But keeping vacancies pending in the Commissions is a strike at the roots of the RTI Act.

I’ll draw an analogy with the judiciary. Today at least 30% of the posts in the judiciary are vacant, that means 30% of justice is postponed. We don’t know how long it will be postponed; nobody talks about this. This means 30%  of criminals will get bail because prosecution is getting delayed. When 30% of the criminals get bail, imagine the increase in the rate of crime.  Information Commission’s posts are sanctioned posts, which means that the money to be spent on this post is already available with the government. 30% of judicial vacancies and some percentage of Information Commission vacancies. What is the government doing with this money? Where is the money going?

What do you think is the relevance of the Commission?

The Commission is the only institution which can strengthen, support, increase and build-up strong foundations for transparency and people’s right to ask for information. The Commission alone can do it. According to the legal setup, the Commission has enough power and enough scope and infrastructure to help people. Except, of course, for the vacancies that are increasing.

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