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RTI Act: A goldmine for babus

By A K Bhattacharya
November 15, 2005 13:30 IST
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More than a month has lapsed since the Right to Information Act was notified by the Central government. Theoretically, citizens of this country now have the right to access all information kept by a public authority.

Even though there are exemptions for certain kinds of information, the coverage of the law is fairly comprehensive.

The infrastructure to make available the information sought by the people under the law, however, is not yet in place in most states and at the Centre. The Union government has set up a Central Information Commission and even appointed a Chief Information Commissioner. But it will take some months before the Commission and its counterparts in 29 states (including Delhi but excluding Jammu and Kashmir, which is outside the purview of this law) and six centrally-administered union territories become fully functional.

This delay defies explanation. The law was enacted on June 15, 2005. The government knew that all the provisions of the law should become operational after 120 days, that is, October 12.

It is baffling for another reason. The Right to Information Act has also meant a new window of opportunity for senior bureaucrats who are approaching retirement. Yet, not all the state governments have woken up to this. Let us explain this a little.

The rules notified under the Right to Information Act for appointing information commissioners are quite clear. Candidates for the posts of the chief information commissioner and information commissioners at the Centre and those of the state chief information commissioner and the state information commissioners must be people of eminence in public life with wide knowledge and experience in law, science and technology, social service, management, journalism, mass media or administration and governance.

But these are only the rules. In fact, what this has meant is a big opportunity for governments at the Centre and in the states to appoint their senior bureaucrats as information commissioners.

Consider the numbers. The law stipulates that the Centre can appoint a chief information commissioner (whose rank will be that of the chief election commissioner with the same pay and perquisites) and up to 10 information commissioners (whose rank will be that of the election commissioners with the same pay and perquisites).

States too can appoint a state chief information commissioner and up to 10 state information commissioners.

Civil servants are jubilant. Suddenly, the number of fresh vacancies that can be filled by senior bureaucrats has gone up to at least 330. The pay and perquisites are not a disincentive at all if you are in the government system.

You get a secure tenure of five years or till 65 years of age (unless, of course, you are impeached). Never mind that the rules of the act allow the government to have a more diversified choice and cast the net wider to attract talents from other professional disciplines. The choice will largely be restricted to the IAS officers.

The ball has been set rolling by the Centre. The first chief information commissioner is an IAS officer, who recently retired. A few other state governments, including Haryana, have decided to offer the jobs of the state chief information commissioners to their senior bureaucrats approaching retirement.

Mostly, these are chief secretaries, who will take up this job on retirement. The big question is whether IAS officers are the right choice for ensuring that citizens of this country have easy and unhindered access to information with public authorities. Given their training and the prevailing mindset, it will be a Herculean task -- both for the public to get information and for the civil servants themselves to start believing that information with them will now have to be shared with the people of this country.

A few years ago, when the government set up several new regulators to oversee sectors that had been opened up to competition (like the power, telecom, insurance and even the Competition Commission of India), IAS officers made sure that they occupied the top jobs in these regulatory organisations. That trend continues, even though the judiciary tried to intervene.

It is now time to consider the advisability of entrusting the responsibility of ensuring free information availability with those who lived their entire life keeping information confidential and under the wraps.

All IAS officers may not be the same. But this is one consideration that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cannot ignore. Don't forget he heads the committee, along with the Lok Sabha Opposition leader and a Cabinet minister, to appoint the information commissioners at the Centre. For state chief information commissioners, the responsibility vests with chief ministers.

What the government could also consider is to amend the rules so as to exclude civil servants from these jobs. After all, the rules have stipulated that the information commissioners should not be a Member of Parliament or a member of the legislature of any state or union territory.

Nor shall he hold any other office of profit or be connected with any political party or carrying on any business or pursuing any profession.

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A K Bhattacharya
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