Wajahat Habibullah, Chief Information Comissioner, Government of India
Right to Information Act of government of India ios one of the most powerful acts favouring the citizens that declares " whatever can not be denied to the parlimanetarians, can not be denied to the citizens." Vikas Kanungo of m-GovWorld had an exclusive discussion with the honorable CIC regarding the usage patterns of the act and the possibilities of enhancing the reach of the act to larger sections of society using mobile/ wireless technologies.
"As a professional , I accept that mobile phones have a universal acceptability these days across the country. You have mentioned 200 million subscribers, but each mobile is used by more than one person, which increases the reach further. If used innovatively, I am sure the government can provide the information and services to almost entire population through this medium. The government must consider the opportunities offered by the mobile government paradigm and we will be happy to talk to anyone who can setup such a system for enabling use of RTI by wider sections of the society"
m-GovWorld : How do you see the progress in the usage of Right to Information Act by the citizens since its notification ?
Wajahat Habibullah: The progress is more rapid than I had expected. In the initial stages, it was very slow as the public awareness was not there. I would like to admit that the public awareness is still quite low; but despite that the usage has exceeded our expectations and this is reflected in the fact that we are getting up to 700 applications in a month. Now that being the case, our rate of disposal will need to be refined to keep up with the increase in the number of applications. Our designed rate of disposal is capable of handling maximum of 560 applications in a month. The average number of applications we dispose each month is around 300 and we are trying to accelerate that. This is a clear evidence of the fact that there are more people taking the advantage of the act ; and this is from across the country. Earlier we were getting majority of applications from Delhi and Mumbai but now we have been getting the applications from all parts of the country. Delhi and Mumbai still account for majority of applications but we foresee that changing within a year’s time.We have gone out and met people from various parts of the country and the people have lots of expectations from the act even at places like Jonpur, Gonda, Katni etc. The awareness is still poor in the sense that the people have still not properly understood what the act can deliver and how to utilize it. The act only provisions a right to information and we can’t start redressing grievances, I can’t start registering cases, I can’t start punishing those who are guilty of corruption. The expectations are that under the act we can do that but the act is not the instrument to do that. The act can be a great tool to facilitate that process. This kind of awareness is still growing with the use of the act. The organizations like SPEG can help in creating that kind of awareness.
m-GovWorld: What has been the profile of people who are using the RTI act? For example, are the people filing applications from poor sections? , are they educated? Are they from media and business community? Has any study being conducted to find the percentage of urban and rural applicant?
Wajahat Habibullah : There are people from all sections of the society. We are currently doing the profiling of the applicants and this will be a part of out next annual report. I don’t have the results of that exercise with me yet but it will be ready very soon. Of hand I can say there are applicants from all sections of the society and also from people who converse in various languages.
mGovWorld: As you have already intimated, the number of applications under RTI is increasing rapidly. What are the efforts being put by the government in making sure that there is a smooth and timely disposal of all the applications and complaints?
Wajahat Habibullah: One is that there is this provision for 10 Information commissioners. Each one can handle around 100 applications. This means we will be able to handle around 1000 applications in a month. The second thing is that the computerization of our processing procedure is underway which will make the whole procedure easier. A large time is spent because the matter has to be studied before it goes for the hearing and then the decision. That time can be saved once the whole workflow is computerized and the matter under the application can be studied without having to wait for the file to come. . The third thing is that we find that there are a number of cases that come to us where a person’s application has not been entertained at the PIO level within the time limit or not entertained at all. We are developing a standard format where a response can go immediately as such cases do not really require hearing. The notice/sermons to the PIO to provide the information asked for by the applicant may be issued by the system immediately thus avoiding the delay in such cases. 15-20% of applications are the cases of this nature which can be dealt with immediately. These are some of the things we are thinking of to increase the pace of disposal of the applications. Suggestions have also come that imposing the hefty penalties will also hasten the process. However, this works in the reverse direction as you also have to issue a show cause to the person as to why the penalty should not be imposed and then the blame game starts. This actually makes the process longer. I am of the view that not imposing penalties does not necessarily results in delays in delivering the information.
m-GovWorld: Has proper orientation/training regarding the RTI act and its provisions being provided to all the PIOs and the support personnel dealing with the citizens for providing services under RTI?
Wajahat Habibullah: This is a very interesting point. As far as government of India is concerned, Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions is the nodal ministry and it has organized a number of programs. You may say that this is not enough. There is ISTM located in our premises as well. There are number of other institutes that are also providing training. The training programs are there but it is not adequate as the requirement is much more. Many officers who have been issued show cause notices and appear before me take this plea that they had not been provided adequate training and did not know the implications. And we find the plea justified. But in so far as the states are concerned, I am afraid there is a very wide gap. As this is a general complaint that comes to us. We get this kind of a response from the PIOs from many states. The nominated PIOs do not even know in many cases that they are the PIOs and also many of those who know about their designations as PIOs don’t know what are their responsibilities. I can’t comment much on this as I am not in charge of the states. However one can admit that the awareness among the officers regarding their obligations as PIOs is low especially in states.
m-GovWorld: Are you saying that the functioning of the PIOs in states do not come under your preview?
Wajahat Habibullah: Yes. States do not come under our domain and also the training is the responsibility of ministry of Personal, Public Grievances and Pensions. We have forwarded a proposal to government of India and this is now discussed with the planning commission to setup a separate training institute for building the capacity of the officers and PIOs on RTI. The institute proposed will not be purely a central government institute, but the states will also be able to utilize the services of the institute for training their people.
m-GovWorld: There is a provision in RTI that the application for seeking information can be submitted through e-mail. But also there is a fee that needs to be paid which can not be paid online. Thus the entire purpose of providing online facility for application submission is defeated as the application is not accepted without the fee. Is there any proposal to enable online payment for RTI applications?
Wajahat Habibullah: Well that’s not the case so far. It will be taking the things too far. But the systems we have are not yet ready for accepting credit / debit card payments especially the audit and account department systems are not yet ready. However there are mechanisms of paying the fee by cheque, demand draft or a postal order.
m-GovWorld: Mobile government is taking off in a big way in many countries. In the recent GSMA conference, government of India along with SBI and one of the biggest telecom players of the country launched a pilot project to enable SMS based money transfer to rural areas where even a formal banking system does not exist. Since the payments associated with the RTI applications are small amounts, why can’t the government accept payments through SMS which will take the benefits of the RTI use to a much larger population?
Wajahat Habibullah: Is that true? Can the payment be made for RTI applications through the SMS? I don’t know of that system. If that is the case, please provide us the complete details and we can take this up with the government. One thing that is already available is that the postmasters in all the post offices are being designated as APIOs and are authorized to accept the applications along with payments. But that is still a long process. If the possibility that you are mentioning is true, we will be happy to introduce that system. The fee has to be paid to the PIO and not at a central location. If any system can enable that for a large section of the population, we will be happy to consider that.
m-GovWorld: Is there any effort that is being made by the CIC to make the citizens aware about the provisions of RTI and how to apply for information under the act?
Wajahat Habibullah: The CIC is not yet been authorized to do this. But I have been touring different parts of the country and going to various forums to spread awareness about the act. We are also requesting the government to take up awareness campaigns. I recently addressed a gathering at Jaunpur and at such a small district also there were many participants and they asked many questions.
m-GovWorld: Given that fact that we have 200 million subscribers of mobile phones in the country with 6 million subscribers being added every month , don’t you think the messages through the mobile devices can be an excellent way of spreading awareness about the RTI among the citizens?
Wajahat Habibullah: You see that now the mobile phones are not only providing SMS services but also the internet browsing, I think that the NGOs and Telecom companies can send messages to the users creating awareness about the RTI. We are ready to work with such organizations. I would like to add that the electronic media can also be very helpful in spreading awareness. If it is possible to submit the applications through mobile devices that will even be better. We have not been giving out the mobile numbers of the PIOs as they started getting various kinds of calls.
m-GovWorld: But a single number can be published where people can call or send SMS for any information regarding RTI or the status of their applications.
Wajahat Habibullah: We will be very happy if such a system can be setup. In case anyone can provide that kind of a system, they can come and talk to us.
m-GovWorld: This questions is directed to you not as a CIC but as a professional who had been involved in providing the services to the citizens. Don’t you think that the mobile devices can be of great use not only in provisioning of public services but also enhancing the people’s participation in governance and enable m-democracy?
Wajahat Habibullah: As a professional I accept that mobile phones have a universal acceptability these days across the country. You have mentioned 200 million subscribers, but each mobile is used by more than one person, which increases the reach further. If used innovatively, I am sure the government can provide the information and services to almost entire population through this medium.