Interview with Shailesh Gandhi, former Information Commissioner

The only RTI activist appointed in the Central Information Commission as an Information Commissioner, Shailesh Gandhi has set the bar high for the other Commissioners by clearing nearly 20,000 cases in four years. On Friday, July 6, as he demitted office at the end of his term, he spoke to Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar about how to improve the delivery of information through the Right to Information Act. Excerpts.

How do you reflect on your stint in the Central Information Commission?

It has been a very interesting and challenging assignment. In the last 45 months, I have been forced to think more cogently about the law. [I have] gained some insight into the reasons for our unsatisfactory governance. I have realised it is possible to work within the system and force change.

When I joined the CIC, most Commissioners disposed of less than 2,000 cases annually. I set an example of disposing over 5,000 cases and making disposals a key issue; most Commissioners now dispose over 3,000 cases.

Has the Commission succeeded in meeting the objectives for which it has been established?

Not adequately. Most Information Commissions are slowly going towards a situation where pending cases will pile up for three to four years. The pressure on Public Information Officers (PIO) will disappear and the common man — in whose name we cherish and promote RTI — will stop using it. The adherence to good record keeping and Section 4 disclosures by Commissions are not satisfactory.

Has the Commission been able to provide information to RTI applicants in the measure it should have?

It should have done much better. The Commissions should take the responsibility of delivering RTI to citizens. They should also put in greater effort in getting Section 4 compliance.

Do you believe the tool of imposing penalties on Central Public Information Officers (CPIO) not providing information under the RTI Act has been used effectively? Would you advocate its greater use to act as a deterrent against denial of information to applicants and to encourage greater flow of information?

The RTI Act works to a large extent because of the threat of penalties. However, Commissioners have been rather reluctant to penalise PIOs. In over 50 per cent of the cases before most Commissioners, PIOs have defaulted in providing information. For penalty to remain a viable threat, at least around 10 per cent of defaulting PIOs (this would mean about five per cent PIOs) should be penalised. Instead, it is often less than 0.5 per cent. This results in the PIOs losing any real fear of defaulting in RTI.

As an RTI activist yourself, what would your advice be to other applicants on how they should file their appeals?

RTI queries should be short and focused. The information seeker should basically seek records or anything which is likely to be on records. In a good RTI application, the queries seeking information would generally be less than 250 words. It is useful to seek information which will be available with one department and put different RTI applications for different departments. This is not stated in the law, but in practice, a short and focused RTI application gives much better results.

Are you satisfied with the manner in which most Information Commissioners are handling work?

No. Information Commissioners must primarily take decisions based on the law and have belief in transparency. They should also conduct hearings for around five hours each day and give their decisions on the day of the hearing in most cases. Section 4 (1) (a) mandates computerisation of records. Most Commissions are doing nothing in this direction.

What is your opinion on the disposal of cases per Information Commissioner and how do you feel it is impacting the RTI movement?

The national average of disposal must be around 1,000 cases annually. I have disposed over 5,900 cases last year and believe that with proper systems and trained staff it would be possible for an Information Commissioner to dispose over 6,000 cases annually. Because of the slow disposals, matters are languishing in Commissions for years making the information irrelevant and reducing the citizen’s faith in RTI.

Any specific satisfying achievements?

Deploying systems and templates in work; using over a 100 interns for short periods to give useful work inputs, besides exposing them to RTI — two have become IAS officers; working without paper files and running an e-office since the last two years, and disposing of around 20,000 cases in less than four years.

From engineer to entrepreneur to RTI activist to Information Commissioner. Where is Mr. Shailesh Gandhi headed next?

I plan to work on RTI from Mumbai. I will teach citizens to use RTI; persuade Information Commissions to deliver on the promise of RTI and become accountable to citizens, and voluntarily declare their Citizen’s Charter. Having seen the pathetic state of our government in delivering to citizens, I also plan to work towards getting governments to go for complete computerisation, since this could result in reduction of corruption by around 30 per cent, besides improving the ability to deliver to citizens in time. Citizens need to work for getting a good government which is capable of delivering good governance. Unless we get a first-rate government, we cannot get a first-rate nation.