Leading RTI crusader Subhash Agrawal is certainly the best choice for the job of an RTI consultant to Delhi government, but how would he ensure better responses of public authorities?
Even after nine years of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, its implementation by public authorities is abysmal particularly when it comes to the suo motu disclosure of information under Section 4 of the Act. It is not rocket science for any Public Authority to understand the nature of information that must be uploaded regularly under Section 4 and the information to be disseminated to any applicant under Section 6 of the RTI Act. However, information is not easily passed on to the applicant as it should under this transparency law. This apparently was the reason for Delhi's Lt. Governor Najeeb Jung to appoint Subhash Chandra Agrawal, a leading RTI crusader as a consultant to the Delhi government. Mr Agrawal has has filed over 6,000 petitions under the Act and the information he procured, in several cases, was instrumental in improving transparency. Making personal assets of the judiciary public is one of the many examples.
Moneylife spoke to Agrawal on his new designation, which has been specially created by the Delhi government to improve responses of public authorities to RTI queries by the public...
Vinita Deshmukh (ML): How did you get appointed as the RTI consultant for the Delhi Government?
Subhash Chandra Agrawal (SCA): Earlier this year, I had made a decision to stop filing RTI applications as I was being overburdened with this work. It was like a one man Army furiously filing petitions regularly, like a machine. I wanted to be on the other side of the counter, helping and guiding people file RTI applications in a proper manner so that the awareness and knowledge of this law spreads on a larger canvas than it being confined to my space of work. I was already making contacts en masse' and spreading awareness through invitations for seminars and workshops. This news about my desired change of role was published by a leading newspaper and caught the attention of Lt Gov of Delhi Najeeb Jung. He invited me for a meeting and asked me whether I would accept the responsibility of being an RTI consultant to the Delhi government.
ML: What was your response and what exactly is the nature of your responsibility, after your one year appointment that has begun from 5 May 2014?
SCA: I was happy with the offer but I asked the Lt Governor whether there would be any binding against filing RTI applications or attending hearings at Central Information Commission (CIC). He assured me that there would be no such restrictions and that the Delhi government would like to use my expertise to conduct workshops, seminars not only for the government officers and staff but also for college students studying in Delhi University. Hence, I agreed for the one year contract and officially joined on 5th May.
ML: What are the areas which require your expertise?
SCA: I have observed that most of the public authorities have inadequate knowledge of providing appropriate information to tough queries particularly to those relating to Section 6 (3) of the RTI Act. For example, if an RTI query is received by a Public Information Officer (PIO) of the PWD department, he will transfer it to all the 100 odd PIOs of various departments under PWD, thus unnecessarily resulting in wastage of manpower and time of these PIOs. It also results in the RTI applicant caught in between irrelevant replies wherein he or she is informed that his or her application is being forwarded to some other department.
(Section 6 (3) relates to:
Where an application is made to a public authority requesting for an information,—
(i) which is held by another public authority; or
(ii) the subject matter of which is more closely connected with the functions of another public authority,
the public authority, to which such application is made, shall transfer the application or such part of it as may be appropriate to that other public authority and inform the applicant immediately about such transfer)
I have also requested the Delhi government to cut down on expenses by sending responses of RTI queries in A4 size paper and not the legal size paper as it becomes difficult for the applicant to print it. Most printers are A4 size friendly.
I would be also organising RTI workshops for PIOs, Appellate Authorities and Public Authority heads for practical lessons, which would help them efficiently and appropriately deal with RTI queries of any nature and thereby help in correct and quick disposal of RTI applications. I would also be creating RTI awareness amongst the faculty and students of the Delhi University.
ML: This again makes you in a one man army. What has changed?
SCA: This is just the beginning. Obviously, this cannot be a one man show. I am visiting various public authorities, which invite me for advice and guidance. However, I have been assured by the Delhi government of office, staff and other facilities that would facilitate me to work in a professional and organizational manner and help me to reach out to people, besides the officers. After I get an office space, I am planning to have an RTI Clinic for one full day in a week, every week. I would guide people to help file RTI petitions and answer their doubts. This is one of my dreams but I would be able realise them with the help of office infrastructure and manpower.
ML: Is there any other dream that you have?
SCA: Yes, non-implementation of Section 4 of the RTI Act is a big worry for me. I would like to ensure that every public authority in the Delhi government implements Section 4 information in true spirit.
Section 26 of the RTI Act clearly states that the public authority must create public awareness through educational programmes.
(Section 26 of the RTI Act states:
(1) The appropriate Government may, to the extent of availability of financial and other resources,
(a) develop and organise educational programmes to advance the understanding of the public, in particular of disadvantaged communities as to how to exercise the rights contemplated under this Act;
(b) encourage public authorities to participate in the development and organisation of programmes referred to in clause (a) and to undertake such programmes themselves;
(c) promote timely and effective dissemination of accurate information by public authorities about their activities; and
(d) train Central Public Information Officers or State Public Information Officers, as the case may be, of public authorities and produce relevant training materials for use by the public authorities themselves.)
ML: Do you think every state government/Union Territory should appoint an RTI consultant for such mass campaign?
SCA: If the RTI consultants are dedicated RTI crusaders or scholars, then it is fine for the government to hire them. Otherwise, we will end up having a bunch of lawyers, fighting RTI petitions for the PIOs.
is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)