Laying the basis for a new information order

Updated: Nov 20 2005, 05:30am hrs
In a long and distinguished career as a bureaucrat, Wajahat Habibullah has held many positions, usually high profile. From conducting elections in his home state of Jammu and Kashmir to working on the finer details of Kashmir Accord of 1987 and later working as a commissioner in the state during the terrorism-wracked early 1990s, his has been an eventful tenure. He has also served in various ministries at the Centre, again holding a number of challenging positions.

A postgraduate in History from the University of Delhi, he has won several awards for distinguished service, including the Rajiv Gandhi Award for Excellence in Secularism (1994). Posting himself on the other side of the fence, he has also conducted several inquiries into human rights violations by security forces. But it is his latest appointment, after retirement from government service, that has really catapulted him into a different league.

For, he is Indias first chief information commissioner, the head of the Central Information Commission (CIC). It has been set up under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, which came into force on October 13, 2005. In an interview with Suman Tarafdar, he talks about the Act and how it will work. Excerpts:

How important is the RTI Act

Well, it is a major tenet of democracy It lays down the procedure by which any citizen of the country can seek information from the government.

What will be CICs role

The role of CIC has been laid out in the Act itself. While every ministry is to have an information officer, CIC will look into complaints in case someone is not satisfied with the replies given by the ministry. All ministries have been given 30 days to answer queries, except in the matter of life and death, where the corresponding time frame is 48 hours. As the Act came into force just less than a month ago, CIC will possibly get its cases soon.

So, for a common person, when does CIC come into the picture

CIC is a quasi-judicial body. We get into the picture only when there is a failure by a ministry and the person is not satisfied with the answer given.

Most of Indians do not have adequate access to information. How will they even know about this Act

There will have to be a sustained effort to spread awareness about this Act. Once, the cases start coming in, there should be faster spread of awareness about the Act. NGOs and media will also take the message across to common people.

How can anyone get information under this Act

Anyone seeking information can request through an application to the concerned authority the Central Public Information Office (PIO) or the state PIO or their assistants along with a prescribed fee. They have to reply within 30 days.

Some states already have similar Acts. What happens to them

Those Acts continue. Only in case of a contradiction does the central Act prevail.

Does the Act take into account possible loopholes that might arise

This is one of the most advanced Acts in the world. It adapts from the Commonwealth Human Rights Commission. The Act has just come into being, so we have to give it some time before we point to its loopholes. Also, the legislature can make changes.

How will CIC function

The RTI Act is applicable to all of India except Jammu and Kashmir. CIC will have a chief information commissioner and up to 10 information commissioners. Currently there are four information commissioners. We have the work divided amongst ourselves. The chief information commissioner has a tenure of five years, and cannot be reappointed. This rule applies to the information commissioners as well.