Q&A: Satyananda Mishra, New Chief Information Commissioner

Last Updated: Sat, Dec 25, 2010 18:50 hrs

New Chief Information Commissioner Satyananda Mishra tells Akshat Kaushal that the Right to Information Act is helping India understand itself better.

The Right to Information (RTI) Act has been in existence for more than five years. But the recent outbreak of scams suggests the government has become more opaque. Is this a comment on RTI? That it has not worked the way it should have...
It is difficult to comment on this. Scams have been brought to public attention. The RTI Act has contributed to unearthing of some of them. I think the Adarsh Society scam was uncovered through information which came out in an RTI application. I don’t think RTI has failed.

But it also means that those in authority have learnt to circumvent the Act while taking decisions...
The only way you can circumvent the Act is by not writing anything on the file. I don’t have enough information to say that people are taking fewer decisions. In fact, the reverse has been reported. These days, we find bureaucrats refusing to collaborate with politicians in wrongdoing because they know that everything they write can be accessed using the RTI Act. In many ways, the Act protects many bureaucrats.

A concern that has been voiced by civil society activists is that bureaucrats like you, who have been trained to withhold information, should not be responsible for an organisation which has the mandate of disseminating it...
I have also read in the newspapers that civil society activists have raised concerns that a civil servant must not be appointed as an information commissioner. However, the law does not state that he cannot be appointed. Everyone has a past and it is unfair to judge a person on the basis of his past. I think, instead of judging him on the basis of whether he is a civil servant or not, people should judge him on his decisions.

But there has to be a balance. Out of the six information commissioners, including you, only one is an RTI activist and four are former bureaucrats. Don’t you think we need more civil society representation?
Unlike the Constitution of India, which for instance spells out in the case of the Union Public Services Commission the rules for appointment to the public service commission, the RTI Act doesn’t say anything on how many information commissioners should be from the civil services and how many from the civil society. I can’t comment on what the right mix should be.

Do you see an urban-rural divide in use of RTI? In June 2009, a PricewaterhouseCoopers report said that only 13 per cent rural population and 33 per cent urban population was aware of the Act. And, only 12 per cent women were aware of it.
Posing this question to a CIC won’t provide you the accurate picture, because unlike state information commissions, we don’t deal with rural areas directly. Except for banks, by and large the services of the central government don’t extend to rural areas directly. Central schemes are implemented through the state governments. But, in most of the appeals in the banking sector that we hear, many applicants are from places like Saharsa, Begusarai and Darbanga. These are not urban areas. People ask questions about Kisan Credit Card, etc. I can’t speak about the state governments, but we find that an increasing number of people from rural areas are asking questions. However, it is far from satisfactory and the awareness is very limited.

It’s interesting that you raise the issue of awareness because campaigns promoting schemes like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme are aplenty. There is hardly any campaign to promote RTI. Is this deliberate?
No, it is not deliberate. You must have seen the campaigns done by the National Disaster Management Authority or the consumer affairs ministry. The Budgetary support to RTI is simply not comparable to the support these campaigns get. It is for the government, especially the ministry of personnel, to launch these campaigns. The information commission has hardly any budget. In fact, it has no budget. In spite of this, we are taking certain steps. In fact, in the last meeting of all information commissioners, we decided that I would speak to NCERT if it could print the RTI message on the back cover of its text books.

So, that is in your wishlist for the Union Budget?
Yes, we think it is good to launch a campaign once in a while.

The information commission has passed something like 20,000 orders in the last five years or so. What do the nature of these orders tell us about the direction in which the government, and governance, is moving?
Of the appeals that we have received, a majority — 80 per cent — is for personal information: Loans, personal account information, auction of property, etc. You can’t really blame anyone for this. After all, the Act is for information and so people will seek information on what impinges their lives directly.

But, occasionally, there are other requests also, which force the government to become more transparent. The other day, a person wanted the pre-board meeting agenda of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to be made public. It is well known that RBI had sought exemption from RTI, but this was turned down. On this information, it said it was not in the country’s economic interests – they called in national economic interest – to give this information. My order, passed about a month ago, was that they have to start disclosing the agenda within three months.

Countries like South Africa have extended RTI to the private sector. Is the commission proposing anything along these lines?
I don’t know if the government has such a proposal. But the law says that information can be sought from any public authority. This includes private bodies if they are substantially financed by the government. With inceasing number of government activities in the public-private partnership (PPP) mode, the issue whether a PPP entity can be brought under the Act is being raised by civil society activists and by us. This is something which is not clear. However, there is a management issue too. If we decide that we need the private sector under the Act, we will need ten commissions of this size.

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