I want to share my discomfort after meeting with Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan yesterday evening (Thursday, 5 April, 7 pm). This meeting was about:
• Appointment of new State Information Commissioners to hear second appeals
• Implementation of Section 4 and proactive disclosure by public authorities
• Rollback of the RTI Rules amendment dated 16 Jan 2012.
Julio Ribeiro and Narayan Varma –- the leaders of Public Concern for Governance Trust (PCGT) — had sought this appointment, and they headed the delegation. Bhaskar Prabhu, S K Nangia, Nitai Mehta (Praja.org), Anil Galgali, Chetan Kothari, G R Vora and I were invited to participate in the discussion by the PCGT chiefs.
PCGT is still to issue a press release; it may do that tomorrow. But my friends who read about this meeting in the morning papers are phoning me to ask how I feel. They are asking: IS PRITHVIRAJ CHAVAN A GOOD MAN? Is he open minded? Are dialogues with him meaningful? Does he say what he means, and mean what he says? Can we expect good things to come out of him?
More particularly, they are asking: IS HE FAVOURABLY INCLINED TOWARDS RTI ACTIVISTS’ CONCERNS? Did he make meaningful promises? My friends don’t expect me to be formal; they expect me to bluntly say exactly what I think. So, here are my answers.
IS PRITHVIRAJ CHAVAN A GOOD MAN?
My feeling is, YES. He engages in dialogue openly. He makes his mind known in his discussion. Unlike typical politicians, Prithviraj Chavan speaks his mind openly. It appears that he is not conducting the meeting as a mere formality. He patiently hears you out without cutting you short. Sometimes, he reacts sharply if he hears a contrary viewpoint, but his body-language is not overbearing and authoritarian. He is an intelligent guy. You can communicate with him, provided you are not cowed down by him. And so, meaningful dialogue is possible; whether he follows up with necessary actions, only time will tell.
IS PRITHVIRAJ CHAVAN FAVOURABLY INCLINED TOWARDS RTI ACTIVISTS / CIVIL SOCIETY?
Alarmingly, NO. He holds us in low esteem. He considers RTI activists a nuisance. He feels it is unnecessary to take civil society members into confidence while making important policy decisions. He feels that only bureaucrats should be made information commissioners, and that there is no need to lay down any processes for the selection of State Information Commissioners.
WHAT EXACTLY DID HE SAY?
1) NON-INCLUSION OF CIVIL SOCIETY IN SIC, NON-TRANSPARENT PROCESSES TO CONTINUE. Narayan Varma and Julio Ribeiro stressed the urgent need to appoint Information Commissioners, so that the rising pendency of cases would be checked. (It is currently about 24,000 and rising at over 2,000 per month.) The CM responded by lamenting that there was a shortage of good good retired IAS and IPS officers for the post of Information Commissioner. He said that DOPT was only assigning only seven new IAS officers to Maharashtra every year, whereas the need was for 15. G R Vora and I argued that he should select members of civil society, and for this, he should solicit applications. “Civil society? I don’t think so,” Prithviraj Chavan shot back. “Good implementation of the RTI Act has mainly happened due to former civil servants,” he said, while adding something about different people having different paces of working – probably so that we would not raise the issue of Shailesh Gandhi being the fastest-working Information Commissioner. He added that people were free to apply, but he would not invite applications. He was adamant that the selection of SICs would continue to happen at the pleasure and sole discretion of the powers-that-be.
2) NO NEED TO CONSULT RTI ACTIVISTS ON RTI RULES AMENDMENT. When this issue was raised by Bhaskar Prabhu, G R Vora and I, he shot back, “RTI activists? People are making a business of being RTI Activists! We may have to hold a public consultation, but we don’t have to listen to anybody and everybody who calls himself an RTI activist.” Later on, Prithviraj Chavan made a wry face and remarked that it was a waste of time to consult the general public.
WHAT DO I TAKE AWAY FROM THIS MEETING?
For open and inclusive selection of Information Commissioners, and for the rollback of the Maharashtra RTI rules amendment, we must campaign hard, and the time is now. We must gain the support of the aam aadmi as well as stalwarts like Aruna Roy. Otherwise, the new rules amendment will become part of the accepted system. The government will gain the freedom to make any rule changes at their own sweet will, and we will be reduced to grumbling bystanders. This must not happen at any cost.
PCGT filed a PIL for appointment of Information Commissioners three months ago, and it has still not been heard for admission. Instead of waiting passively for the judiciary to come to our rescue, we must build up substantial public awareness and sentiments. Prithviraj Chavan may be a good man, but he will not give us our Right to Information on a platter. We will have to work hard for it.