The government should set up an authority to "compel" ministries to disclose information on their websites and reduce the burden of RTI applications, India's first chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah has said.
The government should set up an authority to “compel” ministries to disclose information on their websites and reduce the burden of RTI applications, India’s first chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah has said. Hailing the Right to Information Act (RTI) as a “great success story”, Habibullah added that there were still challenges in the implementation of the 12-year-old law. The absence of updated information on websites by ministries, both at the central and state level, and the maintenance of autonomy and independence of the Central Information Commission and information commissions in states were some of the challenges, the former CIC told PTI. Under the RTI Act, Habibullah said, it is expected that every ministry and department under the Centre or state government should not only develop a website but also ensure that it contains a host of routine information.
The websites are there and a lot of information is there but that “information is unfortunately out of date”, he said. Every ministry must be “compelled” to disclose all this information which can be disclosed legally, he said. The government should set up an authority to supervise ministries in declaring all disclosable information on their own, the 72 -year-old former bureaucrat said. Habibullah, who was CIC for nearly five years from 2005, said, “Unfortunately, the law itself carries no clause for enforcement of section 4 (of the RTI Act) which talks of computerisation of all records. There is no authority to actually enforce it, the information commission can advise but cannot enforce it.”
Another challenge for the RTI, he asserted, was that information commissions were expected to “stand alone” and supposed to be not only autonomous in their functioning but also independent in their decision making. “They take no dictates from the government. Unfortunately, that (independence and autonomy) has not happened,” he said, adding that the performance of the Central Information Commission on this front had been much better than commissions in the states. Asked how the government could influence commissions, Habibullah said Prime Minister Narendra Modi had himself mentioned a way out. The prime minister has said the government should treat RTI as an instrument by which it can improve itself, he noted and suggested that every ministry should have a group or a team that vets the type of information that is sought.
It will give the government a clear indication of the areas of concern, he said. “The PM put his finger on it. Unfortunately, nothing much has happened so far, (but) since the PM himself is behind it, activists, commissioners, people working within the establishment, should work together in making this a reality,” he said. Asked whether RTI was being misused by some people and was, in certain cases, putting a burden on government departments, Habibullah said there was some truth in that argument.
“When I was the CIC, I myself would dismiss any complaints of its misuse, saying it was being misused because of the lack of information you are putting out. If you put out all the information there is no question of misuse,” he said. “The fact that we (establishment) are not taking the trouble of suo motu disclosing information which is disclosable under the act and unnecessarily applying the Official Secrets Act where it is not really applicable, we have made it more difficult for ourselves,” he added.