To: R.K. Mathur - Chief Information Commissioner (India) Yashovardhan Azad - Information Commissioner (India)
1) Thank you very much for the lively interaction earlier today at the CIC Seminar 2017, SCOPE Complex Auditorium, CGO, New Delhi - 110003. I especially enjoyed Mr. Azad's sense of humour interspersed with his firm way of handling boisterous youngsters like Sarbajit (in copy) and me, and the way his one-liners were timed to perfection. I also thank Mr. Mathur for his patient hearing us out.
As requested by Mr. Mathur, I prefer my views here, for your kind attention.
2) At the outset, very briefly, after being actively engaged in the early years of RTI, I abdicated in recent years, simply because it became very complicated and matters of public interest started moving into the legal arena. In addition, the body language and way of CIC office staff dealing with applicants vis-a-vis the way of dealing with people from Public Authorities was another reason - it was clear that applicants were almost like accused. Just a cursory glance at the condescending and patronising way subordinate staff at CIC office treats applicants vis-a-vis the way they bow and cringe in front of Public Authorities is enough. Furthermore, under the previous governments, it was clear that RTI was no longer a priority.
Sarbjit, ofcourse, has the oldest pending RTI in history as introduction.
3) My core competencies in RTI in the early days were -
a) Trying to bring transparency not just in governance but also in all segments of Indian society. b) Working on public interest issues. For example, even submitting an RTI Application was difficult in the early days. c) Trying to work for a positive narrative on the improvements taking place in India. d) Going after symbols of colonial rule in our democracy. Red beacons and the term VIP were favourites. Reclaiming public spaces was another. The one I worked really hard on was Definition of Public Authority in Veeresh Malik vs SAI/CWG, and will always be grateful to CIC for the support then. Amir Khusro park in Nizamuddin is more recent.
4) However, as soon as the RTI Act reached a level of some larger benefit, I observed that many of the key organisations and personalities therein started jockeying for positions of pelf and power, and their favoured method appeared to be what I call "appeasing the drain inspector" tactics. My objective of ensuring that the variety of NGOs in the RTI arena themselves show transparency and suo moto declarations were not viewed favourably by them. Other things like Kejriwal got into politics, Prakash Kardaley passed away, Shailesh Gandhi became an IC, my family is indebted to and we are Indians in India because of Wajahat Habibullah, and so I moved on. Last straw on the camel's back was attending an RTI Convention where President of India was Chief Guest. Never felt more like demeaned than that event at DRDO Bhavan. I also got busy with health and personal issues. In any case, RTI had started becoming a business and also the RTI pipelines were clogged variously, and when public interest RTIs became dangerous for me, I opted out. The big elephant in the room of departmental RTIs was another factor because I could see how that was corroding the pipelines at CIC.
5) Over the last few years, I also realised that using the online Public Grievance Cell for public interest matters worked better, was easier, did not make me feel like an accused, and in certain cases, rolled up to CAG much faster than when using RTI. In addition, the PG Cell network is largely free of the cancer of vested interest anti-National type NGOs, so it is also a question of the company one keeps being important.
6) Coming to today's events -
a) The two positive talks, lady from Pune and Commodore Lokesh Batra, were the good narrative highlights for me.
b) Usual suspects from CHRI and fake NCPRI were there with their regular snake-oil. Nothing short of the codes for nuclear weapons will satisfy Venkatesh Nayak, it seems.
c) The lady who called us "common people" needs to be given a copy of the Constitution of India and the term "citizen" explained to her.
d) Thorough research on NGOs participating needs to be done and foreign NGOs need to be seated separately as observors, from Indian citizens.
e) Term "Honourable" is no longer in use.
f) How and when did the Information Commissions start referring to themselves as "e-Courts"? The whole concept of RTI was to spare us the Courts as much as possible.
g) The term "petitioners" as used by the CIC staff also may need to be looked into. We are applicants, not petitioners.
h) I have been thrown out of multiple legal and quasi legal forums, including CIC, for trying to take audio-video recordings as well as wearing brightly coloured kurtas. Am grateful that this was not objected to today.
6) Specifically on CHRI. I have in the past also researched them thoroughly, and find that their relationship to the Church of England's activities in the post-colonial world as well as their funding, and their more recent collaborations with our Western neighbours, are not exactly kosher. In any case, as an organisation, they do not fit into the "citizen of India" condition present in the RTI Act of India.
Once again, I do believe that there is a lot of positive to the RTI narrative in India, especially if viewed on ease of filing RTIs online now. This narrative is not reaching out. Grievance type RTIs are better served now through the PG Cell and there may be some amount of reduction in RTIs soon because of this. Fishing expedition kind of RTIs I personally do not favour but then that is something way beyond my paygrade.
What I do want from RTI in India is an Indian in India kind of approach. We are Indians, we will make our RTI Act better, we will make governance hopefully better.
I also want an option of filing AND getting response on paperless methods. Where PIO is given the option of a paperless response to the applicant. Like on the PG Cell.
And most of all, with all respects, the wall between PIOs and applicants will need to be chipped away. I find, in that context, Subhash Chandra Aggarwal's approach of helping PIOs facing unreasonable RTI Applications to be very fresh and a way forward. The waiting room at CIC for applicants and public authorities needs to be common.
Once again, thank you for the great seminar,
Veeresh Malik D-61, Defence Colony New Delhi 110024