Earlier this month, Prof Dr M Sridhar Acharayalu retired as Central Information Commissioner. Prof Acharayalu made waves by issuing a show-cause notice to the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) just a few days before his retirement. Here are excerpts from an interview with Prof Acharyulu…
Moneylife (ML): How was your five-year tenure as Central Information Commissioner (CIC)?
Prof M Sridhar Acharyulu (Prof Acharyulu): It was a very learning and satisfactory experience. Even before I joined CIC, I was studying the Right to Information (RTI) Act all through. I used to write about it, be critical about it and also give public talks on RTI. Then, when I got into the job of its implementing and interpreting it, I found that there is lot more than what I understood – that, RTI is a high potential legislation which can address the needs of the people in democracy. With RTI, we can implement every other right. Or we can equip ourselves with the capacity to implement other rights. With RTI, we are also equipped with necessary tools to realise other fundamental rights, constitutional rights and other natural rights. That is the most important aspect of the RTI Act. We are yet to understand its complete potential.
Though I am a Professor of Law, I could never imagine that RTI could be applicable and serve in criminal justice also. I will give you an example. In Lucknow, a minor girl was kidnapped under the camouflage of a love affair. It was so perceived by the people and so projected by the alleged accused too. Then he bribed the police apparently for Rs50,000 in order not to register any case. Then somebody raised an issue that she was a minor and a PIL (public interest litigation) was filed in a court of law. Then, the alleged accused, filed an affidavit stating that if it is proved that she is a minor, he is ready to go to jail. Then, Siddharth, an RTI activist who is also a lawyer, invoked RTI in the victim’s school and obtained a copy of her Std X school leaving certificate which is legally valid as birth certificate. It proved that she was a minor. Immediately, the accused was sent to jail and the bribe he gave to the police proved useless for him. It was a crime of abduction and she was saved from human trafficking.
ML: Didn’t you feel suffocated in the bureaucratic atmosphere, considering that you have been eloquent and given bold decisions?
Prof Acharyulu: I was all alone in the CIC, representing the non-bureaucrats; but I also got support from bureaucrat-turned-CICs, particularly from my colleague Yashovardhan Azad, who was a former IPS officer and had good knowledge of ground reality. He comes from a political family and, therefore, has an understanding of people's problem. His father is Bhagvat Azad, one of the most honest CMs (chief ministers) of Bihar. One of his brothers is former cricketer, Kirti Azad, member of the 1983 World Cup winning team and a fighter against corruption. Yashovardhan stood by me all through, especially when there was a confrontation. We joined together and retired together. Even today, he is with me. He is a wonderful person. Also, in several cases, my other colleagues supported me and chief information commissioner also supported me in a couple of cases.
All bureaucrats are not bad, but most of them are toeing the line of the government and that's the problem. I do not doubt their integrity. They believe, they have to protect the information of the government and administration requires a reasonable amount of secrecy. That’s the problem. They need to understand some of the secret information is anyway protected by RTI Act, so there's nothing to worry. What they have to understand is that they should draw the line; but they don’t know where exactly to draw it. That is the conflict; it is not a major conflict but sometimes it appears like a major conflict.
When a government appoints a person as CIC who worked with it as an IAS officer in close liaison at a high level, he has to work with the government, the latter feels it is his duty to work with the government. I do not blame him for that because once he becomes CIC, the appointing authority expects favours from him. It’s a practical point and what kind of favour – don’t direct disclosures for embarrassing information. My appeal to them is, you have been by God’s grace, appointed as a very important person as CIC, and hence you must act independently. This is my appeal to all CICs. I’m not aiming at present or past CICs; I’m generally making an appeal. Once you become a CIC, you are on par with the Chief Justice of India, so please behave like him and as independently as he does. Understand the potency of RTI. Help the people know the government and let the government know about the people.
ML: What according to you should be the ratio of retired government officers becoming CIC and independent private individuals...?
Prof Acharyulu: My suggestion is you just act according to the law. What does the RTI Act say? Look up Section 12(5). It gives eight fields of social life. Appoint one from each field and the remaining you may please appoint as per your choice. There should not be more than one bureaucrat whether it is central or state commission. I'm not opposing the appointment of former government officers; they must be appointed as they are experienced and they know how the administration runs. If they are committed to people then they can do wonders; if they are committed to the government, then they will do blunders. They have to choose, whether they want to create wonders or make blunders. If the government appoints majority of information commissioners from the field of the people which is the intention of the RTI Act, which is also the intention of the people who wrote the draft and NGOs who struggled and organized movements for that purpose; the government must implement it and see the wonders of RTI. And so long as you do not do, you'll face blunders. That’s what we are facing. That's the reason for my struggle. I also struggled to be a known voice in the middle of the bureaucrat world. But when I raised my voice for the right issues, my colleagues understood its reason, logic and law and even the hardcore bureaucrats agreed with me.
ML: What would be the state of RTI Act if these proposed amendments came by, of which you have been vocal about?
Prof Acharyulu: These amendments should not be carried on and it should be totally opposed by the entire nation. It has the serious potential of taking away the positive benefits of the RTI act. These amendments will amount to the killing of Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) movement and democracy. Government has no authority to move this amendment. It does not have the people's mandate. Today, RTI has to be treated as the basic structure of democracy of the Constitution of India and it should not be diluted. Every contesting political party in election should have in its manifesto mentioning commitment to RTI Act. The governing party should do something to strengthen the RTI but nothing to weaken it. If they weaken it, they will be traitors of the nation.
ML: How did you feel when you were pulled up by the Chief Central Information Commissioner up for your decision of directing RBI to make information of willful defaulters, public?
Prof Acharyulu: As per the Law, RBI has no choice but to disclose the list of willful defaulters. It comes under Section 4.1 (b) of the RTI Act. They have to do it from time to time. Every three months, whenever they get a report from the bank, about the willful defaulters, it should be on the website of the banks, RBI, finance ministry and PMO office.
As for the Chief Information Commissioner, I felt that he was under pressure. On his own he is a very good person. I do not want to say anything for which I do not have any proof, but I feel he was made to speak those things to me. Personally, he does not agree on all these things, I believe. He also said to me that he is simply communicating to me the others side. I do not think he pulled me up. Then, my objection was that when he raised those doubts, I orally cleared all of them.
But unfortunately, what he wrote to me, appeared in one newspaper, which put the blame on me unnecessarily, without taking my point of view. It published a one sided version. That really pained me. Then I thought I should put it in writing to make the record straight. Then I addressed my letter to the CCIC, stating that you have communicated certain observations and I'm replying to each one of them. That letter made things clear and much to the appreciation of the newspaper, it carried my letter in its entirety.
ML: As per your experience, what are your views on how individuals are using RTI in this country?
Prof Acharyulu: Approximately 90% of it is being positively used and 90% of the PIOs are giving information. There should be a comprehensive study by an objective organisation to assess the positives of the RTI Act which has not been done for the last 13 years. I feel critical reviews and criticism is also correct, but in the name of criticism we shouldn't ignore the positive benefits that really arise out of the use of RTI. Let the nation not get an impression that RTI is a failure, because it really isn't true. RTI is not a failure. It’s a resounding and enormous success.
Non-disclosures are happening in 5-10% of the cases only. They are high profile, and corruption-shielding exercises. The corrupt fellows are united, big in number; they have huge money which is a great power and also have power. Power plus money power- that's huge amount of money power. Money power plus power plus non-disclosure is great power – Power of 3! Why are they not disclosing that also goes in the favour of RTI? They fear that the disclosure will destroy them. So you want disclosure but they don’t want it. And that fear generated by them is a successful outcome of the RTI Act.
ML: What are the main issues where RTI is used for?
Prof Acharyulu: Mostly they are using it for grievance. And most of the RTI users are government employees, even today. Government employees know the governance, not the people, and that's why they are questioning and asking for information. The governance is bad so it is generating so many questions from the government employees. Governance is bad and leading to the problems for the people, which is why there are so many questions are raised and RTI applications filed by the people.
Though most of the RTI applications seem problem based or personal issue based, they reflect governance issues. So, they should not be considered as selfish RTI applications. If someone is asking information on his pension, promotion or increment, it may seem as selfish but he or she is actually questioning the government’s mechanism, they are questioning your administrative deficiency and your useless governance.
Some RTI applications are about Bhagat Singh's status in the Government of India. Is he a martyr or not, is he a freedom fighter or not? Tell me is it not an interesting and an important question? And if you don't have a policy, I say it is policy bankrupt-ness. In my view such questions are also of great importance.
ML: Do you think political parties will ever come under RTI?
Prof Acharyulu: I must say, the Commission has failed and I also failed in getting the complaints to be taken to the logical end. The problem is the bench collapsed because of the recusal of one CIC who was dealing with complaints against non-compliances of RTI provisions by six major political parties which are declared as public parties by CIC. Now once CIC has declared that six political parties are public authorities, RTI should have been implemented by each one of the six political parties. So, there is a collective and deliberate failure of the six political parties. And failure of commission because the bench collapsed and though I wrote some letters and tried to pursue the commission to constitute an alternative bench, the situation was beyond my control. I couldn't do anything.
I wish all the political parties - because they are taking huge favours from the government – should have volunteered to come under the RTI Act. The single most favour they have is 30% income tax relief. Suppose they have collected Rs100 crore donation, it is income. The common man who is earning one lakh rupees per month, is paying Rs 30,000 as tax.
Why don't the political parties give 30% of their income to the country? Okay, you have got this relaxation because you are ruling us. Then shouldn't you be held accountable? And, this single most concession is more than enough to make every political party to come under RTI. It is atrocious and undemocratic for any political party to be out of the RTI Act. I'm extremely upset the way the political parties are behaving. Why do you want High Court or Supreme Court telling you that you should be under the RTI Act? Don't you have the knowledge? Are you not democratic? Are you not taking the highest benefits of the democracy? Are you not ruling the country? Don't you have the responsibility of being accountable and answerable?
So, it is a collective failure of all political parties, including CIC.
ML: What are your views on killing of RTI activists?
Prof Acharyulu: There are two kinds of attack on RTI seekers, seekers of information. One is physical attack which includes murders, that is loss of life. Second is harassment. Suppose you are an employee who is seeking information, you'll be dismissed or harassed. Now we need to protect the information seekers from harassment, physical attacks and murderous attacks. It is the duty of the democracy. It doesn't mean that they should be given security for RTI activists. You should have a law like Whistleblowers Protection Act. It should consider RTI information seeker as Whistleblowers. Then he should be given all sorts of protections. And they should be immune from harassment.
Like Security and President of Trade Union shouldn't be transferred. The same way an RTI seeker should not be harassed, whether he is a government employee or an outside person. This is the first level of protection. Secondly, whenever there is an attack, immediate action should be taken against the person. From a different angle, information is very powerful and the powerful ones don't want it to come out and for that they will kill also. I'm unhappy that it is resulting in the killing of people.
ML: Do you think CIC has put all the information, which the RTI activist was looking for after his murder?
Prof Acharyulu: It should happen and if it’s not happening- somebody should point it out. In the five years of my tenure, I haven't received a single complaint from citizens. We made a system that it should be uploaded. The government drafted a rule which says that after the death of the appellant, appeal will be abated. I opposed it, activists also opposed and the government withdrew it in the second draft. The second draft couldn't be pursued because of RTI rules 2017 redrafted by the DoPT, which needed further revision but which was not done. Then we pursued with the commission to have a set of guidelines to deal with this issue and the CIC had to agree with us. We made certain guidelines which are very conducive for RTI appeals and appellants. One guideline that is very helpful I for the protection of RTI activist is - death by any reason of the appellant, not only by murderous attacks, will not stop the second appeal. Information shall be given, whether it is in the public interest or not. It shall be given to the dependents of the applicant or it will be posted to the address given by the deceased appellant. And if it is of the public interest then it will be posted on the website. I appreciate Radha Krishna Mathur for this pro-activeness.
ML: So you expect individuals should also make a complaint …
Prof Acharyulu: Yes, if an appellant has died for whatever reason, you must write to the CIC.
What I used to do as a commissioner and this has to be pointed out for its importance...suppose the applicant files a second appeal and he cannot appear for any reason, due to frustration or because he was prevented from doing so, the commission has to decide the case based on the content of the RTI application filed. Absence of the applicant shall not result in dismissal of appeal. I have never dismissed any such cases. In fact, most of my landmark orders are in the absence of the applicant. Because the rule of the civil procedure court says the order must be passed even if either of the parties is absent. The judgment should be made, based on the material that is available. This is the principle of civil procedure. If this happens in civil cases then why should it not happen in RTI rulings? In all cases, I did not hold back hearings for absence of the appellant. Nor did I ever punish if a single PIO because he was absent.
ML: How many cases have you heard? Second appeals?
Prof Acharyulu: More than 17,000; I believe it is about 20,000 to 23,000 cases.
(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”