In a landmark move to fight for citizens’ right and to preserve the sanctity of the Right to Information Act, noted activists Shailesh Gandhi and Aruna Roy have submitted their intervention petition to the Supreme Court, seeking to quash the controversial provisions for selecting Chief Information Commissioners
Shailesh Gandhi, former Central Information Commissioner and Ms Aruna Roy, member of the National Advisory Council which helped draft the RTI Act, have filed an intervention petition (in the matter of Union of India Vs Namit Sharma) seeking to review the regressive measures—that Chief Information Commissioners should have judicial background—which would otherwise harm the Right to Information (RTI) Act, make it redundant and subvert democracy in India. The intervention petition stated, “the direction that the Commission should work in benches where one of the Commissioners is a judicial member would create several problems that have the potential of defeating the objective of the Act itself”.
Ever since the pronouncement of the Supreme Court judgment for selection of candidates for the post of Chief Information Commissioner was announced, there had been a lot of hue and cry from not only the activists and RTI community but even some notable judges were appalled. The recent move to mandate candidates to have judicial background in order to become Chief Information Commissioner had citizens fearing of “judicial overreach”, which will eventually harm freedom of speech and democracy.
Earlier, the Supreme Court entertained petitioner Namit Sharma’s stand against the Government of India for the need of Chief Information Commissioners to have judicial background, which would require the RTI Act be amended. The Supreme Court, in its controversial judgment, stated that, “Information Commissions at respective levels shall henceforth work in benches of two members each. One of them being a ‘judicial member’, while the other an ‘expert member’.” However, Mr Gandhi and Ms Roy argued that the RTI is not a court but a tribunal merely to seek ‘information’ and not ‘justice’. In their intervention petition, they stated, “The Information Commissions are not ‘judicial tribunals’ since they are not administering justice, but are only providing access to information to make administration transparent. The work being done by the Information Commissioners (ICs) do not require them to be judicially and legally trained, but only expects that they be persons of intelligence, common sense and integrity.”
Mr Gandhi had opined on Moneylife on this very issue and they can be accessed through the articles mentioned below:
The Supreme Court decision has also shocked the current Chief Information Commissioner, Satyanand Mishra, who recently said at the Commission’s annual convention on 12th October, “The approach of the Commissions in all these years has been to act like an umpire standing right on the field along with the players and not sitting on a pedestal and pronounce oracles. Openness of approach, informality in style and simplicity of systems has characterized the functioning of the Commissions. No robes, no lawyers, no liveried attendants because what the citizens seek does not go with so much of serious formality. Excessive judicialisation of the Information Commissions will rob these institutions of their flexibility. The society must decide if this is the right path.”
Furthermore, chief justice of Delhi High Court Justice AP Shah had written a critique of the judgement calling it ‘regressive’ and has hoped that the judgment will be reviewed. He had penned an article in The Times of India titled “Don’t Kill the RTI”, which said, “Namit Sharma is a regressive decision that only hampers the working of the information commissions by making it more legalistic and complex. It creates more problems while solving none.”
If the judgment is implemented it will make things a lot worse for the ordinary citizens, especially those who have already filed their second appeals. Due to the two-bench nature of the proposed structure, it will only prolong second appeals and the time taken to dispose them off will only skyrocket. This will discourage citizens seeking information from filing the RTI appeals when they know that the RTI will be subverted to suit the interest of the few who do not want information out in short time, or at all.
Rather than appoint Chief Information Commissioners based on judicial experience and background and stifling the disposal rate, Mr Gandhi and Ms Roy argued for a more pragmatic and common sense approach to increase transparency in selection process, as well as advocating for monitoring the performance levels of Chief Information Commissioners. Some of the steps he has suggested are below, which is open to debate, and requests Moneylife readers to pen down their thoughts.
•The Information Commissions should set a target for disposals; say 5,000, per Commissioner per year. An attempt should be made to increase this target number.
•Every six months they should review their actual performance per Commissioner and forecast the expected receipts and disposals for the next two years, factoring the retirements. This forecast would show the requirements for new Commissioners to be appointed.
•The government should advertise its intention to appoint a certain number of Information Commissioners depending on the need, at least four months in advance. Eminent people could apply or be nominated by others.
•A search committee, perhaps, consisting of two members of Parliament, Chief Information Commissioner, one Vice Chancellor, one Supreme Court judge and two RTI activists could be formed to shortlist a panel which could be three times the number of Commissioners to be selected. These could be announced with the minutes of the meeting at which the short listing was done.
•A public interview should be held to give citizens and groups the opportunity to hear the views and commitment to work of the candidates. After this the search committee could give its recommendation. Based on these inputs, the final decision to select the Commissioners could be taken by the Committee as per the Act consisting of the prime minister, leader of opposition and one minister.
In the recent RTI workshop held at Moneylife Foundation for advanced users, Mr Gandhi said that “Freedom of expression without the Right to Information is meaningless”, citing the importance of information in a well-functioning democracy.
Here are some extra links in which you can read some of the pieces on Supreme Court’s controversial decision:
Aurobindo Banerjee, former chief commissioner of Income Tax, in this open letter to the UIDAI chief, highlights the issue of legal status of the Aadhaar number and its acceptance as valid proof by mobile operators
Mr Nandan Nilekani,
As a young officer of the Indian Revenue Service (IRS) in the early 1970s, I can claim to have first mooted the idea of something like the Aadhaar number to track black money and we got a somewhat primitive version of today's PAN, which is much improved now.
When Aadhaar was introduced and you took over as the head of the project, with your background, I was elated, though much older and already retired. I had great hopes and was simply waiting to get my Aadhaar number and was proud to obtain one last year. I even wrote to your office to link it up with the PAN, which is still NOT done in the current version of the project (I have again submitted myself, along with my nephews for yet another series of cards.) I can, however, add that I proudly carry my Aadhaar and Pensioners' ID cards, both issued by the Government of India (GoI), on my person always.
But, as one dabbling in the arena of law for 35 years and even now, I have serious doubts about the legal sanctity of the very concept from my personal experience and hence this mail, for whatever it is worth to you. People like us cannot be associated with this type of innovations, but we certainly can give our feedback, I hope.
I am a retired chief commissioner of Income-tax and have a Pensioners' ID card as well as the Aadhaar number. I applied for getting my Vodafone mobile connection, migrated to Airtel on the basis of the aforesaid two documents. Airtel refused to accept the validity of Aadhaar number (and ID card issued by the I-T Department). As TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India) is NOT accessible, can I request the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) to take up the issue to ensure that Aadhaar number is given its proper recognition by the private operators in the telecom arena?
As a retired civil servant, it is insulting to me (and to my country) that a private party would refuse to accept the Aadhaar number as a legally valid ID or residence proof. In fact, the government should take action against Airtel for this utter disrespect of the sovereign Govt of India.
I am sure, you do feel the same way as this 68 years-old man does.
A Banerjee, IRS (Retd.)
Ex-Chief Commissioner of Income-tax
Note:Moneylife has sent a mail to Airtel and we would incorporate their response as and when we receive it.
Anand Halve motivates people to work for change, on the occasion of the birth anniversary of Dr Verghese Kurien
India’s big challenge today is to get people to work together towards making change happen. But what motivates people to join our efforts? Anand Halve, co-founder of Chlorophyll and a senior advertising professional, gave an evocative talk on how to make an emotional connect between people and good causes so that a large number of people can come together and create the right momentum to yield positive results. Mr Halve was speaking at the Moneylife Foundation’s event on Co-operating for Positive Change, to commemorate the birth anniversary of Dr Verghese Kurien. This was connected to the petition by over 12,200 (and growing) people for awarding a Bharat Ratna to Dr Verghese Kurien for this tremendous work in transforming the lives of millions of farmers and taking India from a milk deficit nation to the largest producer of milk.
Mr Halve said that his thoughts are largely influenced by an activist involved in the uprising at Tehrir Square and how they used technology to reach people. His first insight was that when you want change, the officially recognised media are often compromised and therefore, the kind of support you can expect from them is almost by definition, limited.
Having said that, the first ‘enemy’ to getting people to act is ‘apathy’. There are four dimensions to this apathy and we need to understand them in order to motivate people to join good causes. The first of these, said Mr Halve, is the assumption of futility—so it is a big challenge to get past the attitude that nothing will ever happen, so why bother to try.
The second dimension to remember is, while the action may be collective, the motivation has to be individual. The third is to be able to rope in those people who are likely to be able to do the most. Based on his involvement with the Jayaprakash Narayan movement, he said, the group that is not compromised as yet—because of family pressures or other social responsibilities are students.
The fourth challenge today, said Mr Halve is the symbolic cop out—which means, “I go to the website, light a virtual candle and go back thinking I have done my bit for the cause.”
Another important learning and realisation from the Arab Spring uprising and other movements was that people are not moved by intellect—they are moved by emotion. Whatever the cause, if it does not connect to us at an emotional level, it is not going to work. He added that the button to be pressed is emotion and the manner in which we relate to it and so the manner in which we couch our message has to be emotional and not intellectual. At Tehrir, activists discovered that if you appeal to peoples’ intellect, they will come up with a rational and intellectual cop-out. If you appeal to their emotions, and there is a sense of personal benefit or reward, then people are hooked. For instance, if you appeal to people to save electricity, it doesn’t move them; but if you tell them that using a CFL bulb will cut their electricity bill by half, they will act on it.
A third key ingredient in building movements is to be able to provide a platform—not for individual rants, but for a plan of action. In this, social media platforms such as twitter and Facebook or a wiki are important building blocks.
Finally, he said, it is important to define the cause in a simple manner. The world’s problems are too hard for anybody to solve, but when they are broken down into smaller issues there is a core group of people to support it. He also said that every individual supporter is important, because when we get one supporter, we also get his network, and when we get a network, we get a network of that network—that is the power, that is phenomenal. Having said that, he pointed out that the massive reach that is available when mainstream media supports a cause can never be under-estimated. “Arvind Kejriwal could have continued to rant at Jantar Manter, but it wouldn’t have 1/50th of effect as it did when the OB vans (of television channels) arrived”. The pull of celebrity should also not be underestimated, he said. He gave an example of the fact that more people watched Anna Hazare on the day that Amir Khan went to meet him, than any other day of his fast. The pull of film stars in attracting people is a fact and it must be recognised. It is best to recognise it.
We have become a visual society and the impact of visuals is very important he said, going back to what worked with the uprising at Tehrir Square. The activists at Tehrir Square, he said, gave out mobile phones with video capability to a lot of people and asked them to just shoot what they saw and upload it on the internet. Soon the videos were picked up by BBC and broadcast all over the world. The use of pictures also has enormous effect—“We sometimes miss out on the power of images, if it wasn’t for images, all the news items would have the same effect”, he added. For instance, the water cannons aimed at Arvind Kejriwal’s supporters had a bigger connect. In the Amul case, the movie Manthan brought home to most Indians what was really happening at Anand and in Gujarat on the milk revolution. History is replete with examples of how powerful iconic images have captured defining moments of wars, celebrations and disasters he said.
Mr Halve said, lastly, the long term-goal should always be in one’s mind. The cause may be very worthwhile and there may be a big long-term goal, but it is important to have small wins because there is a short time horizon to measuring the effectiveness of what we do. In wrapping up his thoughts, Mr Halve said, one cannot stress enough, the need for an emotional connect ; the next thing to remember is to keep things simple and uncomplicated. In whatever manner and form, one should think of ways in which things can be made easy. Mr Halve ended by saying—set off many solar flares because one never knows what will work. One has to try many things, something will work and give us the wind we need—so an issue must seem worthwhile to begin with, it must have the emotional connect and there must be small measurable goals, to take things forward!
( Anand Halve, is the co-founder of Chlorophyll and a senior advertising professional. It was his idea to recognise 26th November as Sahakarya Kranti Diwas or the beginning of movement towards cooperation for positive change. This, he says, would truly honour the memory of Dr Verghese Kurien and what he has done for millions of Indian farmers.)