Sunday, December 25, 2011

UP has a long way to go in implementing RTI

A veteran journalist and a well-known face in the city, Gyanendra Sharma, has been at the helm of the State Information Commission ever since its inception. On Sunday, Sharma, who is due to retire in December,2010 completes four years in service. M Tariq Khan caught up with him on Saturday to share his experience as one of the longest serving information commissioners of Uttar Pradesh.

Q: Right To Information is making waves in other States, yet it has not drawn the same kind of public response in UP, what do you think is the reason?
Ans: There are no parameters by which the success or failure of the RTI Act can be measured but I can say for sure that gradually people are beginning to
realise the enormous potential of this Act. I feel it (RTIA) has come of age in UP despite the initial hiccups.
Q: But people are still denied information by Public Information Officers who exploit the escape routes in the Act as is evident from the large number of complaints that land up at the Commission every day. Don't you think such loopholes need to be plugged?
A: No doubt there are flaws, which should be rectified. A major factor is the failure of the appellate mechanism at the level of public authorities. They have steadfastly refused to heed even the Chief Secretary’s directives to promptly deal with such first appeals against the decisions of PIOs.
But then that perhaps is not the only reason for the rise in cases. I would attribute the trend to increased awareness among the people, who are resorting to RTIA.

Q: Implementation of RTI has never been a priority if the successive regimes in the State. What do you think are the major stumbling blocks in establishing the information regime in UP?
Ans: Even after more than four years of its existence, the State Information Commission is yet to be provided with basic logistics to carry out its duties. A basic infrastructure on which the RTIA has to run is still not there. Another major problem is lack of training of PIOs and first appellate authorities that leads to delays, indecisions and insufficient knowledge of even the basic law. One reason why there is huge influx of complaints with the State Information Commission.

Q. What is your worst experience during the last four years?
A. We strictly ensure compliance of thirty-day deadline by the public authorities. There are three precise reasons for this: (i) untrained PIOs not fully aware about the application of the RTIA, are not able to make out between giving information and redressal of grievances, (ii) they do not have basic facilities to perform their duties, (iii) they are supported neither by their juniors and not their seniors, they are a harrowed lot in their departments for this lack of support and are virtually sandwiched between a non-cooperative team of babus below under and a unmindful and evasive lot of senior officers who have the power to make entries into the character rolls of these PIOs. Nobody wants to be nominated a PIO, in fact.

Q. Do you think the Act has brought about any change in lifting the veil of official secrecy and on the mindset of the bureaucracy and government functioning?
A. It’s a very pertinent question. A section of the bureaucracy is still not willing to read the writing on the wall. The message is clear: you can no longer withhold information from the people on public matters. Some officers, however, still want to hide behind the veil of secrecy. If they have managed to survive, it is simply because a more aware, informed and inquisitive citizenry is yet to realize the true potential of this (RTIA) potent weapon.
Q So why has SIC not initiated any action against such erring officers?
A. It is easier said than done. There is no provision in the Act to penalise the first appellate officers and then it is very difficult to catch senior officers under various clauses of the Act. Under section 5(4) of the RTIA, a PIO can seek assistance of any other officer if he or she considered it necessary for the proper discharge of his or her duties and such officer is treated as deemed PIO for any violation of the provisions of this Act. But most of the PIOs hesitate in naming such officers under section 5(4) or (5) before the Commission for fear of reprisals in the form of bad CR entries etc.

Q. Questions are raised about the quality of judgments of the Information Commission. Your comment
A. How do you decide whether a judgment is good or bad? Whether the decision is good in the eyes of law or whether it has any malafide intentions? Remember, this law is being enforced for the first time and there are no precedents, nor any benchmarks for the decision makers to refer to. May be some decisions are not very sound lawfully but this happens with every law. After all, the Supreme Court sets so many decisions of the High Courts aside.

Q. And what about the growing list of pending cases in the Commission?
A. Yes. There it is and for reasons, I stated while answering your earlier questions. The SIC is over burdened today mainly because of non-functional first appeal mechanism. Yet this is a fact that we heard as many as 8169 cases in June 2010 alone. That comes to about 400 cases every day.

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