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‘People consider RTI their law’

As the first Chief Information Commissioner, Habibullah had no precedent to follow. It has been over a year since the Central Information Commission was set up under the Right To Information (RTI) Act.

The CIC belongs to the Jammu & Kashmir cadre of the Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and retired as Secretary, Panchayati Raj to the Government of India. In an interview with gfiles in his office at the Old Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus, Habibullah discussed the working of the CIC, and how it is coping with the huge expectations people have of it.

gfiles : It is over a year since the Central Information Commission
was set up. How do you view its working so far?
Wajahat Habibullah : The Right To Information (RTI) Act is the most important legislation in independent India. People consider it to be their law. They do not think it is a government law, which they have to abide by. That is an important factor.

gfiles : Do the officials cooperate in the working of the RTI? Is there a tussle between people seeking information and officials unwilling to share it because this is something very new for them?
WH : The government is cool about it but individual officers are enthusiastic. They are eager to implement it. So, at the institutional level there is a certain reluctance to share information. You could see that the government wanted to amend the RTI Act to withhold officials’ notings on fi les. The officials are not averse to the notings being accessible. An honest officer is only too keen that his notings be seen. It is the political class that is opposed. But, thanks to the media debate, the government had to step back.

gfiles : Do you have to travel to make people aware about the RTI Act and the CIC?
WH : I travel, attend seminars, speak to my officers in the states and take their views. I was a director at the Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy in Mussoorie. I consider many of the officers who passed through it then as my children. When I went to Jaunpur in UP recently, the district magistrate turned out to be one of my ‘children’!

gfiles : What kind of coordination is required between the CIC and the states?
WH : CIC is not like the Central Election Commission (CEC). The relationship of the CEC with the state election commissions is hierarchical. Not so in the case of the CIC. Every state government has its own state information commission. In Maharashtra and Rajasthan, the state information commissions were set up before the CIC. The decisions of the CIC are posted on our website. Many of the state information commissions do use them as precedents but they are not mandated to do so.

gfiles : Is there a possibility of troublesome elements misusing the RTI Act?
WH : There are a few who misuse it. But they are a very small percentage of the people seeking information.

gfiles : There are complaints that work is piling up at the CIC. Is there need for its expansion?
WH : We have been clearing the work as fast as possible. There are three commissioners, and we dispose of the complaints at our own speed. I tend to give a complete hearing, and it takes me longer. But my colleagues follow the other path of disposing of cases by not spending too much time on each. People may be dissatisfied with either approach. But no one is complaining about the decisions.

Vol 1,Issue 1 | April 2007

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