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Central Information Commission

Address by Chief Information Commissioner

Address by Shri Wajahat Habibullah, Chief Information Commissioner at the National Convention on RTI
15-10-2006 : New Delhi

Our honourable Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, Minister of state for Personnel, Public Grievances & Pension Shri Suresh Pachauri, my colleagues on the dais and friends.  It is a pleasure for me to welcome Dr. Manmohan Singh to the Valedictory Session of this three day f National Convention, the first of this kind that we have held on the closure of the first anniversary of the full enforcement of Right to Information Act, 2005.  This Convention sir, we have held in order to assess the progress that we have made in the last one-year and to chart a course for the future, but not one which we determine sitting in closed offices but one in which we can consult all stake-holders. 

Sir we had the privilege of being honored by the visit of the President   to the inauguration.  At the inaugural President A.P.J.  Kalam said these words and I quote " I am sure the Annual Convention will give an opportunity for bringing  better and reasonable approach and better understanding of both expectations arising from the implementation  of the Act.   This will also make India a highly participatory democracy." He also went on to talk in terms of the National E -Governance programme and the state wide area network, or what is call the SWAN, which could be the lifeline for the effective implementation of the RTI Act. And this in fact is what we have also identified as one of the major features of the RTI Act. This is Section 4(1) (a). The President gave a number of examples. He talked in terms of regularly updatng website and he talked about the fundamental rights with the right to information being a part of Article 19 (1) (a). He concluded by stating that seeking of information should always be in public interest and for public good.  To the Commission specifically he gave the following advice: -

That we should seek to promote public awareness   and we should monitor all the Ministries;  develop a more effective search engine on our web site-I had the pleasure of course to informing that we have a search engine but there are other areas which require immediate attention.

The key-note address was delivered by Dr PC Alexander, M.P. in which he affirmed that information belongs not to Government but to the public. In this matter he highlighted a few points, which he felt were worthy of immediate attention.  He disputed the idea that bureaucrats were opposed to disclosure. Bureaucrats he said were not against this.  He stressed the importance of personal hearings and talked of cutting down pendency. He also talked of file noting being disclosable and no pardons from penalties for those   committing an offence under the Act.  He also sought a clear clarification of public interest versus personal rights.

Sir, I had the pleasure to inform you that the last three days' discussions here were both lively and exciting in many ways. I think there has been a certain consensus of approach that has developed over these last three days and I would of course come to that.   There are some major issues which I will highlight. One is that the manner in which this Convention started was a call by certain sections of the audience that I be sacked, but I don't know if that is still their conclusion after three days of  deliberation  between all of us! 

There were several major issues on which there seemed to be consensus.  One was the extensive use and strengthening of Section 4 of the Act, another major area which was identified was training of staff and Public Information Officers but at the same time easing their work. What was concluded here was that although many departments have appointed PIOs, and of course it was pointed out that  in  some of the states  PIOs have not been appointed it was also recognised that the pressure of work on these PIOs is heavy and many of them are not quite aware of what they are supposed to do under the Act.  In fact the first year has evolved in learning about the Act by those who were appointed as PIOs but without the training for the purpose.  Another area which came in  for discussion was the light use of the penalty clause.  In the Commission-and we have consulted with other Information Commissioners also in this regard-the feeling  has been that in the first year  it was a learning phase.   Many of the delays and many of the mistakes that occurred   at that time were not necessarily because there was any malafide intent and there was therefore reasonable cause why there was delay,  but I think the conclusion has come about that now a sterner  view will have to be taken in terms of default. Most organizations,   particularly in the last few months many have them have become much more acquainted with what the Act is and what the Act can do.  So on my behalf I can commit on behalf the Central Information Commission that we will take a closer look at the use of this penalty clause whenever we find that the law has been defaulted deliberately.  Another matter which came up for discussion was the question of autonomy of the Commissions both administrative and financial and there was a concern regarding enforcement of decisions.  Many decisions have been taken in many Commissions in the States but the enforcement procedure is slow. There was also a unanimous view, something that was in fact proposed by Dr. Alexander in his keynte address, that the disclosure of file notings should be kept intact the way it is in is in the present Act. 

Now there were Several panels Sir and I will not at this stage because  time is limited go into details of what each panel recommended I will just highlight what the Panels were.

Panel number 1 was "One Year of RTI ", "Taking Stock of its Success and Shortcomings" it was headed by Mr. K.K. Mishra, the Chief Information Commissioner Karnataka  and amongst its members was Dr. S.P. Joshi, Chief Information Commissioner, Maharashtra, Dr. Kastu Bhattachraya, National coordinator of PRIA, Mr. Bishwajit Bhattachraya,  an Advocate  of the Supreme Court and  Mr. Deepener Pathak Ms. Sonali Singh, Deputy Commissioner of Police representing the Commissioner of Police of Delhi.  There are number of recommendations here which talked in terms of effective implementation of Section 4 (1) and in fact talked of charter of rights being made part of that section, and talked of extensive computerization and network being essential.

Then second Panel talked of "Approaches of maximum of disclosures and promotion of open government especially with emphasis on improving information storage, maintenance and thereby faster retrieval". This was headed by Dr. R.S. Tolia, Chief Information Commissioner of Uttaranchal among his members were Mr. B.N. Yugandhar, Member of the Planning Commission.  Ms. Shailaja Chandra, former Chief Secretary of Delhi and Public Grievances Commissioner Delhi, Engineer Sarabjit Roy, Mr. Trilochan Shastri. The others talked in terms of the publication of 16 theme manuals as given in Section 4 (1) B  and dissemination widely in suo moto mode is the most important obligation of all Public Authorities and the same has been found to have been done in an unsatisfactory manner.  It talked in terms of the Central Information Commission and the State Information Commissions using their monitoring and reporting powers given to them under Section 25 of the RTI Act effectively, and ensure satisfactorily compliance.  

The third Panel in this Convention was headed by the distinguished Social Activist Mr. Anna Hazare. It talked in terms of "Dealing   with challenges and chalking  out the roadmap for future including creating awareness to the grassroot level  and simplification of procedures". Mr. Anna Hazare headed this grou. Also among its membership is Mr. Shailesh Gandhi who has joined us from Mumbai, Lt. Gen. Patabhiraman, Mr. Anand Saroop, former Secretary to Government of India, Mr. M. Sridhar and Mr. S.C. Kuntia.  It talked in terms of how the NGOs to be used for generating public awareness and all rules being within the parameters of this Act.  It talked also in terms of time limits to be set for the decisions of the Commission and it talked again in terms of training of all authorities concerned with the RTI Act and with its implementation.

Then there was the final Panel, which talked in terms of issues raised by the Chief Information Commissioner and the Information Commissioners of the States.  This was headed by Mr. Ramakrishnan, Chief Information Commissioner of Tamil Nadu, Justice Khan was among members who is Chief Information Commissioner of U.P.,and included Mr. Madhavan, Chief Information Commissioner Hariyana, Mr. Rao, Chief Information Commissioner, Nagaland, Mr. Rajan Kashyap, Chief Information Commissioner Punjab and our own Information Commissioner Mrs. Padma Balasubramanian.  It talked in terms of disclosures of public authorities, autonomy of the Commissions, uniformity of rules and procedures, accountability of public functionaries and that the Appellate Authorities within Departments should be equally responsive and accountable. 

So these were some of the major steps that were suggested. I will now , present to you a copy of Outcome and Recommendation of the National Convention for your kind consideration Sir.  But in conclusion  may I also say that in the mean time the citizens had also got together and formed a group of their own, and they have given certain recommendations which they have requested we may pass on to you. These recommendations talk in terms again of providing required resources, funding and personnel to the Information Commissions to be able to   implement the RTI Act, to require all public authorities fulfilling the requirements of Section 4 and Government giving an undertaking that no changes will be made to the RTI Act.  These were among the recommendations that they have made which we pass on to you for your kind consideration at this moment. 

May I conclude by saying that its very good of you to have found time and given the valedictory address to this Convention of three days which is the first of its kind but I hope it will be followed by further meetings of all levels and state levels between various stake-holders. In the implementation of this Act it is quite clear that all of us have seen a revolution and a revolutionary step taken in strengthening our whole democratic process.

Thank you Sir Jai Hind.

 

 

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