I first met Shailesh Gandhi several years back at a Pan IIT convention in Mumbai. Someone had introduced him to me as the 'relentless crusader of right to information'.
I could not have been more surprised.
A voice inside told me to take this 'five-foot three-inch frame with an infectious smile' little less seriously. Which is when Gandhi offered me a cup of tea and we started talking, about RTI, of course.
Five minutes into the conversation, and my notion about the man stood on its head.
For, here was a man who walked, talked and breathed RTI -- here was someone who had sold his 23-year-old plastic manufacturing company to take up social work as a full time career.
Having won the Nani Palkhivala award for civil liberties earlier this year, Gandhi was recently appointed Central Information Commissioner, New Delhi.
His e-mails and visiting cards carry an interesting tag: Mera Bharat mahan, nahin hain; par yeh dosh mera hain (My India is not great but I am to blame for it).
In an informal chat with Assistant Managing Editor Indrani Roy Mitra, this 61-year-old former IIT alumnus spoke about his dream of an India that would swear by RTI, his achievements as the central information commissioner, Indians' lack of awareness about RTI and many other issues.
What made you give up your business and opt for social work?
Success does not come easy, no matter which field you are in. At one point of time in my life, about six years back, I felt there was nothing else to achieve in the business that I was running.
I was one of those lucky few who had had a good education, a satisfactory career and a happy family life. 'It is high time I gave something back to the society', I told myself and that is how it started.
I disposed of my business and became an RTI activist.
Just when I was feeling I should do something for society, somebody mentioned at one of the citizens' meetings that RTI would be good for the country. I was instantly drawn towards the subject.
I did a bit of reading and gradually understood what an enormous powerhouse it was.
My first RTI move to do something about political interference in police transfers failed but it did succeed in showing me the right way.
I came to realise what ails India.
Taking the cue from your answer, what ails our country?
A profound lack of awareness is a bane for us. Ours is a funny kind of democracy where each individual functions like a rudderless ship.
There is hardly any group participation in the democracy that we live in. Things are, however, different in the Western world.
In India, each one of us wants to win an individual battle. Everyone wants to challenge the authority or governance but cannot as he finds the process extremely time-consuming and complicated.
Right to information bridges this gap between an individual and an authority. It empowers a citizen to raise an eyebrow and question.
Tell us about the RTI Act. How can it transform India?
This Act empowers people's right to know about the government and governance. Because of the RTI Act, an individual citizen becomes the monitor of the government.
The Right to Information is derived from our Fundamental Right of Expression under Article 19 of the Constitution of India.
If we do not have information on how our government and public institutions function, we cannot express any informed opinion on it.
This has been clearly stated by various Supreme Court judgments since 1977. This Act reaches to every stratum of the society.
Thanks to the RTI Act, the State's response to non-entities and general people goes up considerably.
Remember how Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was once thrown out of the first class compartment of a South African train in Pietermaritzburg in Natal?
Even at that time (a century back), a letter of complaint was replied to and a railway official had intervened.
This is something one can't imagine in India. RTI is a great ray of hope in this respect.
Was there any specific reason for you to accept the post of central information commissioner?
Working as an RTI activist all these years, I found the number of pending appeals had touched an all-time high -- pleas at state information commission stood at over 16,000, whereas the appeal at the Central Information Commission was over 8,000.
The information commissioner on an average gets to handle 15-200 appeals per month, which is far from satisfactory.
While taking up this new responsibility, I have made a commitment of disposing 350-400 appeals every month and will also try to keep the pendency of a case to a minimum of three months.
I will not make any compromise whatsoever in the process. If the system tries to co-opt me, I may even bid adieu.
Are you happy with progress you have made in the past one and a half months as the CIC?
I would say I have taken the right steps forward.
After assuming office in mid-September I have managed to have 142 cases disposed of and have issued notices in 32 matters wherein principal information officers have been asked to showcause why penalty should not be imposed.
During this time, RTI helped a citizen, Rajesh Kumar, get his security deposit of Rs 5,60,000 from the municipal corporation of Delhi.
The fund had been lying with MCD for eight long years. RTI helped him get his money back.
In another case, the commission upheld an appellant's right to seek information about action taken post his complaints against illegal structures.
The commission found one Vijay Singh guilty and culpable for 30 days' delay and penalised him at the rate of Rs 250 per day of delay as per Section 20 (1) of the RTI Act.
The penalty thus worked out to Rs 7,500 (30 days x Rs 250).
In one of the cases that I handled, RTI findings indicated denial of aid to widows.
The commission found one S K Jha guilty of not furnishing information within 30 days specified under sub-section (1) of Section 7 of the RTI Act.
Since Jha contended that he had given directions to other officers to provide the information, he was directed to give the list of such officers responsible for this serious lapse to the commission so that it could initiate penal proceedings.
While handling such cases, what hurdles do you face?
The greatest obstacle, I feel, is people's lack of awareness. Even though the RTI Act has been passed, Indians are yet to take full advantage of it.
We are yet to contemplate RTI as our birthright, for it has long been denied to us.
Indians, therefore, either don't put forth their grievances or don't question inordinate delays while seeking redressal.
Also, the lack of a proper system to gauge the RTI growth rate is quite frustrating.
How do you think these issues can be addressed?
I conduct about 25 lectures and workshops across India per month and get to interact with about 50 people each time.
Of late, I do come across a section of the audience who had used the RTI and got a tangible result. The wheel of RTI, I feel, has started rolling, however slow.
The onus now rests on us, the activists, to spread the good word.
Also, the activists have to come up with a feasible standard of measuring RTI progress. It is a difficult task no doubt but it has to be achieved at any cost.