Mumbai, 16th September 2010: Late in August, Mumbai’s father-son activist duo Kishanlal & Girish Mittal procured details of foreign travel of Chief Central Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibulah and other CICs. Analysis of the facts and figures raise some pointed questions, and raise eyebrows too.
Mr Habibullah’s travel itinerary is the envy of his peers at Central Information Commission. Since his appointment as Chief Central Information Commissioner in October 2005, he has travelled around the globe nine times, lecturing university students and mentoring RTI in other countries, when the RTI implementation in India is at best limping along.
Mr Habibullah is the top spender in the Central Information Commission, with bills of over Rs 23 lakh; envy of his fellow Information Commissioners, all of whose expenditures’ sum total is around Rs 17 lakh. In fact, it should also make cabinet ministers envious, because they were denied business class travel even in domestic sector! One minister nearly lost his job for his reluctance in flying “cattle class”, remember? [News item ]
Girish Mittal points out a delicious irony. Soon after passing the RTI Act, the Union Government issued an office memorandum on Economy Measures and Rationalization of Expenditures. [Download OM ] In point 2.7 (i), it said, “No proposal for participation in workshop/seminar/presentation of papers abroad at government cost shall be entertained. With respect to these, only those proposals which are 100% funded by sponsoring agencies may be considered keeping in view the public interest and government business at home.” This was reiterated in an almost identical Office Memorandum in September 2007… but who was listening? Certainly not Chief CIC Wajahat Habibullah!
Mr Habibullah’s nearest rival in this respect is former DOPT Secretary A N Tiwari, who made trips to New Zealand and Mexico in 2007 and ‘08, billing the taxpayer over Rs 10 lakh. All the other CICs taken together spent around Rs 7 lakh.
[Details on costs of various journeys made by various Central Information Commissioners are in this table: http://www.box.net/shared/tgrl506scz . These facts and figures are extracted from about 200 pages received under RTI -- copies of bills, vouchers, airline tickets, permission notes and other official papers.]
Are we being petty-minded in grudging India’s Chief CIC his entitlement to travel first-class? After all, as the face and the voice of India’s Right to Information regime, Wajahat Habibullah’s duty is to travel abroad and spread enlightenment in this regard, is it not?
But the average RTI appellant would indeed begrudge him this privilege. The reasons? Firstly, Wajahat Habibullah is considered one of the slowest to clear pendencies. He is currently hearing appeals and complaints that were filed in early 2009. So RTI appellants may be forgiven for feeling that maybe he should have stayed home more, and kept his nose to the grindstone, performing his core functions, i.e. clearing pendencies by holding regular hearings and passing orders. Reducing the waiting period by a month or two makes a huge difference to appellants; every week of delay causes the information to lose its value, and defeats the very purpose of the RTI Act! (On the flip side, how does the RTI appellant benefit from talks delivered to students of some US universities at a cost of Rs 8.1 lakhs? Also, if these universities invited him, they would have footed the bills, wouldn’t they? And so the question arises, did they invite him or did he invite himself in order to have some other meetings on the side?)
An even bigger reason is this: Many RTI activists who frequent the corridors of Central Information Commission feel that the place is mismanaged… and the buck stops with Mr Habibullah. Sec 12(4) of the RTI Act states: “The general superintendence, direction and management of the affairs of the Central Information Commission shall vest in the Chief Information Commissioner who shall be assisted by the Information Commissioners.” RTI expert C J Karira of Hyderabad, who moderates RTIindia.org, India’s biggest online forum, says, “There are files and papers stored on and under cupboards, under tables, in passageways. Letters lie unopened for many days. The registry is in a mess! One wishes that the Chief CIC had spent a week or two every year putting proper systems in place, instead of globe-trotting.”
An uncomfortable question: Did Mr Habibullah spend taxpayer money to secure a post-retirement job?
Over Rs 16 lakhs were spent in travelling to USA alone. Mr Habibullah is all set to take up a prestigious assignment with the World Bank as head of its Access to Information Board as soon as he retires this month. [See news item Also World Bank Press Release ]
So was it just a coincidence that he went to USA thrice, and in particular, to World Bank’s Washington headquarters twice in the last two years?
Consider the facts:
(i) 2-9 March 2007, Mr Habibullah was on US tour to deliver lectures at Brigham Young Univeristy at Provo, Utah and at Harvard University, Boston. Cost to taxpayer –Rs 8.1 lakh plus. Benefit to taxpayer? Zero.
(ii) 19-23 May 2008, he went to Miami and Washington “to attend a conference in Miami and to address representatives of the World Bank, IMF and Inter-American Banks. Cost to taxpayer — Rs 6.8 lakhs (airline tickets) plus lots of other payments i.e. his regular salary, Travelling allowance @ $75 per day, reimbursement of airport tax, gift allowance (Rs 25,000 or actual) etc. The amounts reimbursed are not clear from the papers provided in the RTI reply. Benefit to taxpayer? Uncertain.
(iii) 17-21 May 2010, he again went to Washington, ostensibly to attend World Bank’s ComNet Forum, and generally to spend time at World Bank. This visit was at the hospitality of World Bank, but he would still receive salary, TA, reimbursements etc. as per norms of Ministry of External Affairs. The permission letter says that he was on “deputation”, and therefore, one supposes he was not there on leave. Cost to taxpayer – uncertain. Benefit to Mr Habibullah? A nice, prestigious job.
There is nothing wrong with touring to secure ones post-retirement future. But this isn’t a minor thing like using the office computer to log onto naukri.com; it is slightly bigger than that.
Girish Mittal 93234 62428 email@example.com
Krishnaraj Rao 98215 88114 firstname.lastname@example.org