The tenacious campaign for the passing of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, which was steered by Aruna Roy’s National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI) in the 1990s, received great impetus, thanks to justice PB Sawant, who, as chairman of the Press Council of India, insisted on drafting the law. On Monday, at the age of 90, justice Sawant peacefully passed away due to cardiac arrest at his home in Pune.
While the law drafted by him went through a series of updates through several committees later, Nikhil Dey, founder member of NCPRI, says that justice Sawant’s conviction that media must also fight for access to information, spurred him to volunteer to write the first ever draft of the RTI Act. And for that, Justice Sawant took immense efforts to ensure that it was strong enough for citizen’s access to information from public authorities.
Ms Roy from NCPRI says, “Justice Sawant was an extremely important pillar in the campaign for a strong RTI law; by coordinating efforts to create a strong model legislation. As chairperson of the Press Council of India, he was officially a driving force to introduce and pass the bill, both at the state and central levels. He had a brilliant mind and was an expert legal drafts person. The law as it finally took shape stands testimony to his competence and capability. Thanks in no small part to him, as well as many other competent legal minds, who drew on the views of the campaign, RTI is the best drafted law in recent times.’’
The prelude to justice Sawant’s first draft of the legislation, was a seminar held at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration in Musoorie, after Ms Roy’s Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), which was campaigning at the village level for transparency in the self-government bodies, steered a historic agitation in Beawar, Rajasthan.
Stalwart journalists Prabhash Joshi and Ajit Bhatacharjea also participated. The then director of the LBS National Academy of Administration, NC Saxena, felt the RTI law also came under administrative reforms and, hence, offered to have a brainstorming workshop in the academy’s premises.
The seminar was well attended by leading activists and academicians of the country. Mr Dey says, while they were at a loss to understand how to minimise rejection clauses, Mr Saxena was the one who empowered the RTI Act by suggesting inclusion of the following sentence in Section 8 (j) “Provided that the information, which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person.”
The draft then was taken to Delhi for further discussion. A meeting held by justice Sawant, in his capacity as chairman, Press Council of India, was attended by senior members of Parliament (MPs) from across political parties.
Says Mr Dey, “Justice Sawant took immense efforts to draft the law. He took inputs from NCPRI, which was the only non-government organisation (NGO) then campaigning for the RTI Act. The draft was then sent to MPs and chief ministers (CMs) of all the states.’’
Justice Sawant particularly followed up with the Goa government and ensured that the law was enacted in that state. So, the RTI Act of the Goa state had incorporated justice Sawant’s draft, unlike Tamil Nadu, which, though being the first state in the country to enact it, was bureaucratic in its approach as the content of the Act has more exemptions than access to information.
Justice Sawant’s participation did not stop there. He attended the jan sunwai held in 2000 in Beawar, Rajasthan and also actively participated in the Delhi jan sunwai in 2001 organised by Arvind Kejriwal.
Mr Dey states, “He was the pillar of support for transparency. He was an institution in himself, who played a fundamental role in India to get the RTI.”
Noted RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar says “After the Pune floods, none of the political parties in the city would come forward to investigate into the illegal encroachment that had led to the flash floods and several deaths. We decided to institute a people’s inquiry committee and it was justice Sawant alone who was willing to chair it. Despite his fragile health, he would attend the office, carry out court-like hearings and we submitted a comprehensive report to the Pune Municipal Corporation. That no action has been taken on the report is another matter but his support for us was very crucial and I experienced the vast knowledge and sensitivity to people’s issues that he had within him. Despite being a Supreme Court judge, he was very humble and gave an ear to small time activists like me.’’
Says Ms Roy, “Justice Sawant’s death is a big loss to the nation; he stood firm on constitutional ethics and morality. He was an eminent spokesperson for the constitution, and was a fearless advocate against any violation of constitutional norms. He was humane, compassionate and spoke for the underprivileged, the Dalits and the poor. His absence will be felt by many across the board. His contribution will continue to guide and support many generations to come.’’
“Justice Sawant was an important member of the Concerned Citizens’ Committee on the Gujarat riots, which was headed by Justice Krishna Iyer. His contribution makes the RTI Act one of the best drafted documents with veracity, truth and legal principles of justice and a record of what went wrong with governance in those dark times,” Ms Roy from NCPRI adds.
After obtaining his law degree (LLB) from Bombay University, Justice Sawant started practicing as an advocate initially at the Bombay High Court and later at Supreme Court. In 1973, he was appointed Judge of the Bombay High Court. Among his notable acts was an inquiry on the Air-India aircraft crash in June 1982. He was appointed justice in the Supreme Court in 1989.
Since his retirement in 1995, he was active in public affairs.
In 2002, he served with retired justice Hosbet Suresh on an Indian People's Tribunal headed by justice VR Krishna Iyer to investigate the 2002 Gujarat riots.
He also chaired the PB Sawant commission constituted on 1 September 2003 to investigate corruption charges against four ministers in the Maharashtra government, including Nawab Malik, Padmasinh Patil, Suresh Jain and Vijaykumar Gavit. Justice Sawant submitted his report on 23 February 2005, which indicted Mr Malik, Mr Patil and Mr Jain but exonerated Mr Gavit. It resulted in the resignation of two state Cabinet ministers, Mr Jain and Mr Malik.
(Vinita Deshmukh 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”