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Interview With Wajahat Habibullah

Interview With Wajahat Habibullah

RTI Act should not be diluted: Former CIC Habibullah

Parliament has approved the amendment to the Right To Information (RTI) Act, but not without arguments and counter arguments between the government and the opposition in both houses of Parliament. Rajya Sabha on July 25 passed it after negating an Opposition sponsored motion to send it to a House committee for greater scrutiny.  The Lok Sabha had already passed the amendment bill. In Rajya Sabha, DoPT Minister Jitendra Singh said that the amendment was brought in good faith and will lead to institutionalisation of chief information commission and strengthen the provision of RTI Act. But the opposition parties, social activists and former Information Commissioners differ.

Anju Grover for Indian Currents spoke to first ever Information Commissioner in the Central Information Commission Wajahat Habibullah to know reasons for opposition to the amendments in RTI Act. Former IAS officer Habibullah and several other bureaucrats wrote to the prime minister because they believe that the Act in its present form is empowering enough and should not be diluted. Habibullah maintained that the present RTI Act is the best tool to ensure swachhta in governance. It is a cornerstone of democracy. Every year, lakhs of RTI applications are filed by people in India which is a major indicator of their effectiveness in embedding the regime of transparency that the Act’s preamble spells out.

IC: The government's RTI amendment bill has come under criticism from the opposition parties and social activists. Being the first Chief Information Commissioner in the Central Information Commission, do you think the existing RTI Act needs amendments?

Wazahat Habibullah:   The government has not understood the importance of RTI Act. The Act helps government information about itself. Prime Minister himself had stated at a convention of Information Commission in 2015 about the relevance of questions and answers provided through the RTI Act to the government.  The RTI Amendment bill will weaken the law itself as it will make the Information Commissioners to beholden to the government. The bill lays down their salaries, perks and tenure will be determined at par with the Election Commission.

IC: What made you believe that the government has not understood the importance of the Act or amendments it wants to bring in the existing Act?

The bureaucracy wants the Information Commissioners to come under its control. It is not necessarily the political leadership which wants to control the Information Commissioners.

IC: Do you suspect a political motive behind a RTI amendment bill?

I would tend to suspect on the basis of my own experience and not go by opposition parties. The opposition demanded for a select committee of Parliament.  The RTI is an important tool in the hands of common men to seek information from the ministries or government departments.

IC: One argument is that the RTI Act 2005 had been brought in a hurry. Your comment.

The movement for RTI had started in Rajasthan in 1990s. Many states brought RTI Acts in 1990s. Delhi had brought in RTI in 2002. The statement made by Jitender Singh in Parliament was not based on facts.

IC: What did you write to Prime Minister on the RTI issue?

It is in public domain. In brief, the argument that CIC is not a Constitutional Authority...The Information Commissions at the Centre and states, on the other hand, are the last court of appeal to safeguard a right that has been held to be a fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution in repeated judicial pronouncements. While the CVC only has recommendatory powers, the Information Commission’s decisions are binding.

If the salary and tenure of the Information Commissioners are to be decided by the Centre, then Information Commissioners may hesitate in taking up cases against the government or may not be able to do their job fearlessly. The bureaucracy doesn't want CIC to be a powerful body. I would request political leadership to be wary of bureaucrats.

IC: Do you think the existing RTI Act needs to be strengthened. If yes, How?

The RTI law is strong but it needs to be further strengthened in terms of appeals, process of appointment of Commissioners and Information Commissioners' professional background. Also there is a need to review the areas/departments which have been kept outside the purview of RTI Act like CBI and CRPF.

(Published on 29nd July 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 31)