Saturday, 18 April 2015

Information Commissions: Vultures appointed to guard the deer?

Dear Concerned Citizens,
How much effort is required to choke a person to death? Is it necessary to --
a)            surgically remove his lungs?
b)            cut his windpipe?
c)             obstruct 100% of his air-supply for one hour?
The answer to all these questions is: NO. Killers smother their victims with nothing more than a handkerchief or pillow. After struggling for 30 seconds, most victims lose all hope, and their struggling become weak and ineffective.
The bureaucracy uses this technique to routinely murder citizens’ initiatives and participatory democracy.
Every year, millions of ordinary-looking caterpillars dramatically transform into butterflies. Similarly, every year, a few thousand ordinary folks in Indian cities and villages attain spiritual maturity and transform into SYSTEM REFORMERS. These enlightened citizens, aged between 25 and 65, are full of zeal and commitment. But the system suffocates them at inception by giving partial, misleading or irrelevant information. As they run here and there for information as a basis for intelligent action, their energies are diverted away from systemic reforms. Within a few months, most system reformers retreat into their private bubbles, defeated and convinced that nothing can change this system. And our democracy quietly loses a Gandhi, a Sardar Patel, a Nehru or a Lokmanya Tilak who might have shown us the way towards a bright new future.
Three years ago, the RTI Act was put in place to prevent this from happening. But already, the fingers of bureaucracy are suffocating it.
State & Central Information Commissioners (SICs/CICs) are there to watch over the newly formed system of making information available to the common man. They are supposed to be watchdogs guarding the RTI Act, to defend the common man’s newly acquired right against the choking fingers of bureaucracy. ICs are NOT appointed to defend the status quo against citizens who want to uncover facts. But that is precisely what they are doing most of the time! What is going wrong?
There is a basic flaw in the way Information Commissioners are chosen. It is like appointing vultures to safeguard a herd of deer! Consider the below points:
1)            SICs are appointed by the State Government’s General Administration Department (GAD). CICs are appointed by the Union Government’s Department of Personnel & Training (DoPT). These departments control service postings, transfers and promotions of bureaucrats. Can we realistically think they will appoint ICs who force bureaucrats to reveal information that is adverse to the system? Of course not!
2)            The pool of personnel available for appointment as ICs and their office staff consists of bureaucrats nearing retirement.  Such people are mostly tired and demoralized from decades of serving in the administration. Some are corrupt. Most are hardened bureaucrats with no sympathy for citizens asking tough questions about administrative affairs. Besides, they have many friends, colleagues and bosses in bureaucracy to whom they owe favours. How can they be impartial towards system reformers trying to enforce transparency?
3)            ICs come through political appointments. As a rule, each of them has political godfathers. And so they observe an unwritten rule: Make only token efforts to get information; otherwise somebody within the establishment may be hurt or offended.
From such people, we are expecting justice and impartiality in our fight against bureaucracy. How can that happen? My friends, we must stop trusting them so childishly!
Is there a solution to this dire situation? I prefer to think that there is.
However, the solution does not lie in being naive and trusting. The solution does not lie in being “nice people” and giving them enough time to improve themselves. The solution does not lie patiently waiting for Shailesh Gandhi to set an example and turn the tide.
The solution does not lie in giving more time while we talk and discuss. Because every additional month that passes enables the Information Commissioners to push the RTI Act a few feet deeper into the quicksand of pendency.
The solution lies in calling their bluff, and enforcing the rigorous logic of the RTI Act itself on Information Commissioners. The solution lies in decisive action NOW.
How do we do this? I propose the following action plan:
  • Let us unite and forge a nationwide SUPERVISORY BODY OF RTI ACTIVISTS. This body need not seek any governmental recognition, but let it be sufficiently broadbased to have the recognition of substantial numbers of RTI activists around the country. This body shall supervise the workings of all Information Commissions.
  • As an immediate step, it shall simultaneously identify 20 recent cases in each Information Commission of clear denial of information, and press for penalty proceedings to be taken up according to the letter of the RTI Act. Pressure can be applied by several non-violent methods of agitation, done locally and nationwide.
  • Every month, the supervisory body will identify 20 unambiguous cases of denial and press for penalty and departmental action.
  • Let us sink our ideological differences, whatever they may be, and agree to a common minimum program which consists of the following action points: (i) PIOs MUST compulsorily justify denial of information with proper reasoning under Section 8 of RTI Act. Otherwise, they will automatically attract penalty.

(ii) ICs must adhere strictly to RTI Act without taking liberties and assuming discretionary powers. If PIO has unjustifiably denied information within the stipulated time period, there is no question of leniency or giving further time for furnishing information; Penalties MUST be imposed and departmental action MUST be recommended. On the other hand, if the RTI application was not admissible in the first place, it must be dismissed.
(iii) ICs must give clear written orders without creating grey areas. Information deserved to be furnished, or it was justifiably denied; it has to be a black-and-white decision.
Can we urge stalwarts like Aruna Roy and Arvind Kejriwal  to take ownership of such an initiative and forge an All India Supervisory Body of RTI Activists? One can only pray and hope.
98215 88114

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