The empowering Right To Information Act (RTI) completes five eventful years Oct 12 (Tuesday). Newly-appointed Chief Information Commissioner Anugraha Narayan Tiwari, who has a very short tenure to work in, is keen to make the act more powerful and more accessible.
Tiwari, a 1969 batch IAS officer and former secretary, Department of Personnel and Training, took over as the new CIC Sep 29, succeeding Wajahat Habibullah. Tiwari is to hold office only till Dec 19 this year.
In the short span since he took over, Tiwari has already taken some path-breaking decisions, including bringing Income Tax returns of political parties under public scrutiny.
In an exclusive interview with IANS, Tiwari said he would try every possibility within the short time he has to make the Act more effective and easily accessible to all sections of the society.
‘It’s been a magnificent journey of five years for the RTI Act. The progress is more rapid than expected. We get about 4 lakh RTI pleas every year and about 95 percent of them are filed by public authorities. It will be nice if there is more participation from other sections of the society.’
‘Many people don’t even know to draft RTI queries and appeal,’ he said, adding, ‘so the answers to their queries would obviously get delayed’. ‘This gap should be bridged. My priority is to enhance the efficiency of the commission and speed up the movement of documents with the appellates.’
To keep pace with the latest advancements in technology, the commission was in the process of upgrading its technology, by efficiently processing and maintaining the records online. ‘We want to reduce the manual operation. We are also planning to outsource the helpline number, for more effective use.’
Talking about the changes the act has brought in during the past five years, Tiwari said: ‘Citizens get information that had been inaccessible to them for years post Independence. Certain unopened doors have opened. Information such as the attendance of MPs and MLAs in parliament and the assemblies are also easily available, which were earlier kept as secrets. Even the proceedings of public authorities, government departments are more transparent nowadays.’
Asked why RTI activists are accusing the commission of not penalising government officials for inefficiency, Tiwari said: ‘The RTI act is not like IPC (Indian Penal Code) and CrPC (Criminal Procedure Code). It empowers and enables the public to get information.’
‘In a year about 4 lakh cases are filed, of which 5 percent cases are penalty-related. Of them, in less than 1 percent cases, is penalty imposed. In many cases of penalty, the public authority gives us convincing answers, for example, in case there is delay in providing information on data over five years. Also, when an RTI query is to be addressed by more than one department, it would cause delay. Ultimately, the information should be provided by the officials concerned. I’m not bothered about the time taken.’
Quizzed why many RTI activists claim that the whistle blower policy does not offer much protection, the CIC told IANS: ‘We should give merit to the criticism. RTI activists are targetted by mafia gangs many a time. The central and state governments should add more teeth to the policy.’
On the issue of transparency in the appointment of information commissioners, Tiwari said: ‘The selection committee consists of the prime minister, senior ministers and Leader of Opposition. The appointment cannot be more transparent than this. We cannot sit down in a square in Chandni Chowk and choose a commissioner.’
Tiwari says that the poor in the country are not well informed about the Act and only literate people are able to benefit from it. He has urged the civil society and RTI activists to help poor people access information through the Act. The proportion of urban and rural citizens who seek information through RTI is 70:30, he says.
There are about eight Information Commissioners and they handle around 300 cases a month. On an average 3,000 cases are disposed of in a month.
On pending queries, Tiwari said: ‘There are about 13,600 pending cases, and 7,000 of them are less than three months old. Of the remaining, 91 percent is less than six months old. We are speeding up the process and planning to take up the three-month-old cases initially. The eight information commissioners have jointly decided to devote another day to handle the queries.’
Asked if the proposed amendment to the RTI Act, which aims to hike the application fee, restrict access to exam-related information and to cabinet documents, harm the transparency of the commission and efficiency of the Act, he disagreed.
Tiwari said: ‘I don’t think so, people try to over state. With the amount of experience the RTI act has gained over the years, the proposed amendment will not harm the efficiency of the act.’