SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Performance guaranteed

Information is a right: Sailesh Gandhi.

Information is a right: Sailesh Gandhi.   | Photo Credit: Photo: Vivek Bendre

MEENA MENON

Till recently he was filing Right to Information applications. Now Shailesh Gandhi will be adjudicating appeals.

It is not often that activists find themselves at the other end of the spectrum. From filing Right to Information (RTI) applications, Shailesh Gandhi, one of the four freshly appointed central information commissioners in New Delhi, is now adjudicating second appeals.

The pioneering RTI activist that he is, Gandhi gives a performance guarantee. In an interview, he promises that appeals will not be pending for over three months. “I am thrilled at the appointment. I believe what I am saying is ‘do able’. I am a hard business manager and there is really no reason to go wrong here. This is a chance for me to prove it’s possible and raise the bar for everybody,” he says.

Activists have been protesting that commissioners are not selected in a transparent manner and 75 to 80 per cent are retired public servants. But when the latest lot of names were being finalised, leading citizens like Julio Ribeiro, B.G. Deshmukh and others wrote to the Prime Minister and Sonia Gandhi nominating some candidates of which Gandhi was one. But “we did not expect anything to come of this,” grins Gandhi.

Delays galore

Convenor of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), 61-year-old Gandhi has some nasty things to say about the work of information commissioners. “Virtually all the commissioners are not working,” he points out. The appeals challenging the decision of the public information officer (PIO) or the appellate authority are mounting and, at the last count, there were 16,500 appeals pending with the Maharashtra information commissioner, he says. At the centre, 8,500 appeals are pending.

What irks him is the time taken to dispense justice. “The delay is going to kill the Act,” he fears. Some time ago, he and other activists decided to monitor the working of the Maharashtra information commissioners and they attended 96 hearings for second appeals with two commissioners in Mumbai.

What they found was shocking. The average time taken was eight minutes. Also, of 96 cases, 18 were adjourned for no reason. Importantly the commissioners do not come on time and only have about eight to 15 hearing a days. This means they effectively work for a couple of hours a day.

“This kind of under performance is curious. Why are these commissioners taking things so lightly?” remarks Gandhi. He compares this to the number of cases dealt with by a high court judge. An average judge disposes of 2500 cases in a year. “The complexity of cases is far more than an information commissioner,” he says.

Potential of RTI

A chemical engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Mumbai, Gandhi ran a successful business which employed 500 people. Five years ago he sold it and, around that time, came across the Right to Information (RTI) law in Maharashtra. “I first used RTI when I wrote to the Mumbai police commissioner asking for information on political interference in police appointments. I began to see the huge potential of RTI to change things from an elective democracy to a participatory democracy,” he remarks.

Activism is not new to him. “When I was in college I did a lot of things. I had decided then that I would work till 35 and then do something for society,” he says. However, his priorities changed, as he went along till his old professor provided a trigger over a decade ago. “He said you were so critical of everything and yet you did nothing. By the time I was nearing 50, I felt society had worsened. I decided it’s also my responsibility to change. I coined a slogan Mera Bharat Mahan Nahin Par Yeh Dosh Mera Hai (India is not a great country but it is my fault) and decided to act.”

Sensing the huge opportunity, Gandhi decided to dedicate his time to conduct about 10 to 20 RTI workshops every month, mostly in Mumbai and Thane apart from New Delhi. The workshops teach people how to use the RTI Act effectively. “The Act is like giving food to a famine-stricken area. People have not been empowered over the years. First you have to break the cynicism that nothing is possible. What holds people back is their apathy and cynicism. If they overcome that, this can be a wonderfully empowering tool,” he adds.

Coming from a man who has filed anything between 700 to 1000 RTI requests in the last few years, you can readily believe that.



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