Chief Information Commissioner speaks to NDTV: Full transcript

Chief Information Commissioner speaks to NDTV: Full transcript
New Delhi:  In an exclusive interview to NDTV's Nitin Gokhale, the Chief Information Commissioner, Satyananda Mishra has said that one of the big drawbacks of the act is withholding information.  But under constant pressure, he says, from the commission and from the people, from civil society, from the media, the government officials are slowly opening up.

Full transcript of that interview:

NDTV: The Right to Information (RTI) Act has really caught the imagination of the people over the past seven years since it was passed by Parliament. The role of the Chief Information Commissioner is the most crucial role as far as the implementation of the RTI Act in the country is concerned. There are several issues that have come up as far as the implementation of the Act and also its use or misuse is concerned.  To answer queries on those issues we have with us the Chief Information Commissioner, Mr. Satyananda Mishra.

NDTV: It has been more than seven years now that the RTI Act was enacted by the Parliament. As Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) for almost two years now, what has been your experience?

Satyananda Mishra:  I must tell you that it has been very gratifying that the RTI Act has done really well compared with other acts we have enacted in so many other spheres. To begin with, this act has been owned up by the people in a manner no other act has been owned up. You can imagine that any attempt to amend this act even marginally has been resisted so stoutly by the people that recently the government had to drop the proposed amendments. So to that extent the RTI Act has found a place in the heart and mind of the people. Many people have used it, in fact last year a million people applied for information only in the Government of India. If you add the people in the states then it would be 2 million people who used the RTI act. So I don't think there is any comparable act which people in such large numbers are using. So by and large I am very satisfied with the RTI act. It is making right progress.

NDTV: There is of course a flip side to this, that increasingly we hear complaints especially from government officers that the RTI act is being misused by people for their personal gain, to settle personal scores or settling enmities with their peers in the government or in departments. What is your experience in that? 

Satyananda Mishra: You know any law can be misused, so I cannot rule out that some of the information being sought by the people must be used for settling personal scores, not only with the government servants but maybe among companies, about business enterprises between people. It is expected of any law but we should not be deterred by such minor misuse of the law. By and large nobody has said that the RTI is being used only for such purpose.

NDTV: That's true. But also if you see last year, in 2011 the agitation for Jan Lokpal became a very big agitation and it caught the imagination of the people. Do you think the idea of Jan Lokpal will empower people or is it an idea whose time has not come yet?

Satyananda Mishra:  As I have said in the past, in some other occasion that when you go to battle you use both offensive and defensive strategy. RTI is the defensive strategy, Lokpal is an offensive strategy. Lokpal or the CVC or the CBI, all those instruments of the state are meant to catch hold of the wrong doer and then punish him. RTI works towards stopping the wrong-doing in the mid-stream itself. So if RTI is implemented, well then we won't have occasions for Lokpal to catch hold of a corrupt government servant. It strikes at very root of corruption by bringing in transparency and accountability.

NDTV:  Do you think there is scope to improve RTI further?

Satyananda Mishra:  The improvement in the RTI is not in the structure itself. RTI Act is one of the few very well drafted of laws. The improvement needed is in the government offices where record-keeping is in a very bad state. Computerisation of government records, indexing of records, keeping the record well catalogued so that searching for subjects becomes easier. Today, searching a government file is not an easy task. So when somebody asks for information which is about 2-3 years old, you just don't know in which file the information is contained in. So therefore, a lot is to be done inside the government, that's A. Then B, people will also have to be made aware of what kind of information they should seek. Seeking information is not an easy task. You have to seek the right information, and then having sought the information, you must know how to make use of it. So, it is a total package, seeking the information - making use of it. It can't be that I seek the information and then sit over the information. It makes no use.

NDTV:  But then in that case there is also this complaint or this feeling that government officers are the major obstacles in giving out information even when ordered by the CIC under the RTI act. What is your experience?

Satyananda Mishra:  To some extent you are right. From the beginning the government officers have not been very forthright or very forthcoming in giving information. Giving information means giving a part of their power. Nobody wants to share their power so easily. But under constant pressure, both from the commission and from the people, from civil society, from the media, the government officials are slowly opening up. But I would not say that it is the ideal stage. It will take many more years for the government officials to realise that sharing information is better for them than keeping the information to themselves.
When you look at the total package of RTI, do you see more and more people trying to use it? Have the numbers increased? People who are coming to seek information from the government officials; is it only to root out corruption or is it also to get information about government schemes? What is the overall trend?

Satyananda Mishra:  In the last seven years of my experience I can say from Central Information Commission that close to 70-75% of information sought is for personal use. Only 20-25% information is used for public purpose. But I hope as the years go by, more and more information for public interest will be sought rather than for personal interest. Of course you can't rule out...after all if you have a law and it helps at an individual level than why should they not seek the information. But as time goes by, I think more public spirited people will seek information for public purpose.

NDTV: Is there a case to extend the RTI to public-private partnership (PPP)?

Satyananda Mishra:  Absolutely, with more and more government (actions) taking place in collaboration with private enterprises, there is a need to bring in even those entities under the Right to Information Act. It can be nobody's case that we give away hundreds of kilometers of roads or airports or ports to private people to develop and then the entire area becomes a black hole. People should have information, if not about the entire PPP but at least to the extent at which government resources are invested. If some private person has invested his own money maybe the citizens have no right to know about his money but surely the people have right to know about the government's investment, if not in cash then in kind.

NDTV: And what about the suggestion that political parties should come under the ambit of RTI?

Satyananda Mishra: Mr. Gokhale, I will not be able to make a comment on that because currently we are hearing a case and my own bench is hearing that case so I will desist from making any comment. But going back to the PPP, I have a feeling that there should be a consensus between the government and the people that PPP be brought under the RTI.

NDTV: Do you think that the upcoming proposed Privacy bill will affect the implementation of the RTI?

Satyananda Mishra:  I don't think so. I have heard many civil society people expressing worries and apprehension about the Privacy bill, but I don't think Privacy bill will have any particular effect on the RTI . The RTI itself provides that personal information should not be disclosed. And what more can the Privacy bill, bring in that is not there in the RTI itself.

NDTV: Let me take you a little bit back to your own career. You have been a long serving civil servant and distinguished civil servant at that. Then you became the Chief Information Commissioner. There is a constant demand that the bodies like the CAG or the CBI or the CVC should be made autonomous, should be made more powerful than they are currently so that they are not coming under pressure from interested parties. What is your view on that?

Satyananda Mishra:  You know already the bodies which were created under the constitution -the CAG, the Attorney General, The Election Commission, the Union Public Service Commission- all these bodies are already enjoying a great degree of independence from the executive government and to the extent that removing any of these people is almost impossible, so also the judiciary, namely the superior judiciary - the Supreme Court and the High Courts. Now we hear, demands that that there should be more institutions that should be more than or as independent as the CAG or as independent as the Election Commission. I do not subscribe to that view. I do not see how creating more such institutions will help unless you have a really sound accountability system built into this new institution. We have already given tremendous amount of freedom and independence to the bodies I just listed. Have we ever sat down and assessed and evaluated what has been their role in nation-building? Similarly if you make more bodies and do not have accountability in place, then those bodies will be as good or as bad as the existing bodies. So I do not see any particular merit in creating more and more so called 'constitutional bodies'. Even the statutory bodies like...  I am in the CIC, but not for a day have I ever felt or none of my colleagues have ever felt that anybody in the government has made even a phone call to anyone of us regarding what we're doing. I think the CVC or the CBI, I cannot say about the CBI, but I know the CVC also enjoys a great amount of statutory independence.

NDTV: Is there a case then, not to give too much of concentrated power in one person's hand, like the CAG for instance?  There was a suggestion in the last 24 hours or so that the CAG's membership should be increased, it should be made a multi-membered body. What do you think of that?

Satyananda Mishra:  I cannot have an opinion on that because CAG as it stands today, there is only one CAG. It's an organisation and he heads that. Whether the CAG should be one or a multi-membered body is something for the Government and Parliament to decide. As far as I am concerned, I think the CAG and such other bodies are doing an extremely good job and they are within the mandate given to them.
NDTV: Mr. Mishra, there has been a suggestion of late, that the information commissioners should necessarily be persons of judicial backgrounds. What is your view on that?

Satyananda Mishra:  I can speak from my own experience in the Information Commission. I have been here for four years, I have interacted with my colleagues who have been here before me. We have not felt handicapped even for a moment by lack of any judicial training. The kind of decisions we have to take here, we have taken them all our lives, when we were in government, in fact more serious, more complicated decisions. Here the decision making is about whether this piece of paper should be given to a citizen or not. Because what is information? Information is defined by law as a piece of paper on which something is written. So if somebody asks for a piece of paper, like a file noting or a letter or copy of a bill or copy of a document, this document, that document, all that you have decide here is whether it is to be given or not given. Very rarely do you come across a case in which application of mind in the sense of judicial mind is required. So that might be less than 1% of cases.  Just for less than 1% of cases to argue that you need people with vast judicial experience is somewhat exaggerating the work or type of role we are discharging here.
We are only talking about the Central Information Commission, what has been the experience in the states? Because sometimes we hear that and as I was coming here I heard from my colleague in Kerala, one of the information commissioners there has been suspended due to wrong-doing, in misusing the position. Are there instances where such misuse of power has happened?

Satyananda Mishra:  You know the Information Commission's job is to hear appeals and complaints and that happens at the second stage. This is the second appellate mechanism; whether it is the Central Information Commission or the State Information Commission. A citizen comes here only after he fails to get information at the first two tiers. So the Information Commissions use very little power, they have very little power, so the misuse is very unlikely to happen. But if it happens somewhere, it is a complete act of aberration. There are nearly 100 information commissioners in India today in state and Centre together, so if 1 single instance in some place has occurred, I don't see how that can be said to be a universal characteristic.

NDTV: No, No, certainly not. That should not be taken as the prime example of corruption or misuse. But coming back to organisations which keep demanding that they should be exempt from implementation of  the RTI. For example, the CBI wants to be out of it, the Armed Forces has been asking to be out of it. What is your view on it because some of the information that they can give out is being delayed or is being withheld for reasons that are not really understood by common citizens.

Satyananda Mishra: You know already all the organisations which could have been exempt from the RTI have already been exempted. Government has placed all of them in the exempted list. CBI was last such organisation which placed in the exempted list. When the law was being made the government must have considered whether the Armed Forces should have been exempted or not, and in its wisdom the government decided not to place it in the 2nd schedule to the law. But look at the case of the CBI, even though CBI has been put in the 2nd Schedule, it has hardly helped them because the law says that even an exempted organisation will have to give information if there is an allegation of corruption. As you know about 90% of the information held by the CBI is about corruption. What has helped them really? There are just nominally in the exemption list.

NDTV: One final question which has nothing to do with the RTI, you made a statement recently in one of the interactions about the former Army Chief , General. VK Singh, that he has given a call for gheraoing the Parliament, you made a very strong statement that just imagine what would have happened if he were still the serving General. What is your view about his behaviour both pre and post retirement?

Satyananda Mishra:  I don't have any comment to make on the individual concerned. He was occupying one of the highest posts in India, we have all great respect for that post. When somebody asked me, like you another reporter asked me, what do you think about this call for dissolving the Parliament, I thought immediately that it is being made by a gentleman who only a few months back was seeking the government to change his date of birth. So if his date of birth had been changed to 1951 he would be our Army Chief now. So if a person in this position would have this kind of idea about the government and the parliament, I was really perturbed as a citizen. I still think that it is a very disturbing idea that people occupying such high position should have such extreme thoughts about our institutions which are the symbols of our democratic nation.

NDTV: Thank You very much for being so candid.

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