Interview with Jagadananda, former Information Commissioner of Odisha

43818The Right to Information (RTI) Act came into force in 2005 and was termed as a revolutionary act that was expected to change the governance in India. And, it did. It has exposed corruption in governance, helped people get their dues, and expedite works in government offices. Government officials now know well that people are watching them. It has revolutionized the way government offices work in India.

Jagadananda, former Information Commissioner of Odisha, had campaigned for the RTI Act and contributed in its formulation. He played a key role in making people in remote areas aware about the significance of the act. In his tenure, he held awareness camps in 30 districts, introduced circuit hearings and made available RTI related literature available in eight tribal languages and Braille script for visually impaired. In a freewheeling interview with Avisek, Jagadananda talks about his experience at the helm of affairs in the State Information Commission, aspects of his personal life and how one should use the act to improve governance. Excerpts…

It has been almost eight years that the RTI Act was enacted by the Parliament. As Information Commissioner for almost five years, what has been your experience?

I had mix experience. I was appreciated for my decision and at times, was criticised. When you are holding an adjudicatory position you cannot keep everyone happy. Since I was among the social activists who campaigned for the act and contributed in its formulation; I knew in and out of the act. My main objective during my tenure was to ensure transparency in governance and make people aware about the significance of the act. I travelled across the state with my team to spread awareness on the RTI and listen to the problems of the people.

What are your major achievements as the Information Commissioner of the state?

I ensured that all RTI queries are answered. The number of application filed under the RTI act was mere 5,000 a year when I joined but the numbers have gone up to 15,000 a year now. This could happen because I stressed on making people aware about the RTI act. The commission reached out to the people in district centres, villages and held camps and workshops. There were many government departments which were not RTI friendly such as Police, Health and Panchayat Raj department. They were facing difficulty in handling RTI queries. I discussed with their respective heads and roll out RTI training workshops for their officials. It helped them in replying to the RTI applications effectively.

The commission has taken actions against government officials and imposed penalty on them. Many citizens were given compensation too. These acts of the commission fostered a friendly relationship with citizens.

What is the basic thing one should keep in mind while filing an RTI application?

I have seen many RTI applications in which people ask for vague details. They think if they ask for everything then they will find their details too. It is a wrong approach. Filing an RTI is an art. Applicants should ask for specific data in their RTI applications. It will help in getting information faster and reduce the burden of government officials. After all, the purpose is to get information fast not to annoy public servants.

What could be the best use of the RTI act?

It is a proactive tool in the hands of the people. The act can be used for many purposes. The most important being monitoring of the public works being carried out. If there is a road being constructed in your area then you can ask for tender specifications and the sample of ‘road’. One can get the sample checked in an authorized laboratory and ensure that the work being carried out by the contractor is up to the mark. RTI applications are generally filed to redress grievances, to know information about basic amenities, entitlements, service promotions and to get policy related information. I am disappointed that few people are using the act for monitoring public works.

RTI activists are under attack across the country. Many cases of violence against the RTI activists were reported even during your tenure. Their houses, vehicles and life stocks were burnt for raising their voices against anomalies in the system. What actions did you take to put a stop on such incidents?

The Information Commission regularly heard such cases during my tenure. We ensured that victims get proper government support and criminals are punished. It is not under the ambit of commission to take action against criminals but we had taken up such issues with the government. Our initiatives acts as deterrent and sent a message across that State Information Commission takes such cases seriously.

Is RTI act being misused to settle scores or for personal gains? What is your experience in that?

Any law can be misused and the RTI is no exception. I would say that there are only a few people, may be 10 percent, who are abusing it for their personal gains or settling scores with their business or political rivals. By and large, the act has helped in improving governance and bringing transparency in the system.

The commission must have flooded with many RTI applications but did you find any that was out-of-ordinary?

One villager had filed an RTI to know how many acres of land were acquired to build Hira Kud Dam and its utilisation report. His applications threw light on the issue and brought out interesting facts. There was large land that was left abandoned after acquisition and land mafia had encroached upon it. Another interesting RTI was on utilization of audit reports. The person had asked how much is government spending on auditing and how these reports are utilised. These two RTI applications were among the good RTI applications that came my way.

Have you ever filed an RTI? What information did you seek?

During my tenure as the Information Commissioner, I did not file any. Earlier, I had filed six RTI applications to know. I had sought details to find out how government hospitals use the user charge and also asked tender specification for monitoring public works.

Is there any scope for improving the RTI Act?

I am not satisfied with the section-4 of the act that asks the government department to make their reports public. It has not been done so and even if some government department have begun uploading their reports but it is just an eye-wash. They should understand that if they make their all information public then they need not answer many RTI queries. There are government officials who think that RTI applications are nuisance.

There is a need to make the RTI Act uniform across the country. It should be simplified. By simplifying, I mean that the Odisha government seek a form that is not easily accessible in remote areas. And, the state government offices only accept treasury cheques or cash as RTI fee. However, in the central act, anyone can write an application on a white paper and submit with ten rupees note or money order.

Civil society is rallying to bring political parties under the ambit of RTI? Do you think it will help in improving governance?

Any entity whether its political party or a Non-Government Organization (NGO) should come under the ambit of the RTI Act. When anyone is dealing with transaction of funds, they should be transparent. What’s wrong in it? Many politicians are reluctant to bring political parties under the ambit of the RTI Act. Only God can save this country.

Arvind Kejriwal with whom you had worked while formulating the RTI Act has floated a political party—Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). What is your view on his crusade against corruption?

Like any other political party, his party too should be accountable to people. He has already said so that he will give importance to transparency within his party. It’s good. It will premature to comment any further.

Let us talk about your other endeavours. You have been actively involved in civil society movement. Tell our readers about your contribution in the field.

I have extensively researched on civil society legitimacy and accountability issues. I with L David Brown of The Hauser Centre for Nonprofit Organizations, John F Kennedy School of Government (Harvard University) presented a paper on ‘Civil Society Legitimacy and Accountability: Issues and Challenges’. It was published in English, French, and Spanish.

I was instrumental in forming Centre for Youth and Society Development (CYSD) that is working for the welfare of tribal youth in Odisha for almost three decades. I have been a member of State Planning Board from 2004 to 2008. I have taken up many social issues in the past and part of many national and international non-profit organizations.

I was part of Drive Against Bribe campaign of Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR). I was the first national convener of Wada Na Todo Abhiyan, a national campaign to hold the government accountable to its promise to end poverty, social exclusion and discrimination.

What message you would like to convey to our readers?

RTI act has empowered people and they must use it for the benefits of their community. People should be aware how to use the information they get from government departments. They must take the issue to a logical conclusion.

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