Sixty-one-year-old Shailesh Gandhi, who was awarded the Nani Palkhiwala Award for civil liberties this year, is widely known for using the RTI Act effectively for better governance and accountability in public life
The recent appointment of Mumbai-based Right to Information (RTI) activist Shailesh Gandhi as one of four central information commissioners has been widely hailed as a boost to civil society.
Other newly-appointed central information commissioners are Satyananda Mishra, presently secretary with the department of personnel and training, M L Sharma, special CBI director, and Annapurna Dixit, widow of veteran diplomat and former national security adviser J N Dixit.
Being the only RTI activist among the appointees, the new posting is expected to be a real challenge for Gandhi. “I see this as a good challenge and accept it. Normally we just keep criticising the information commissioners for delays in clearing files and giving judgments. Now that I am in the hot seat, I will either prove that the work can be done efficiently or fail completely,” Gandhi said.
Five years ago, Gandhi sold his successful plastic manufacturing company that he had run for 23 years so that he could spend the rest of his life doing social work. “I felt I had got everything in life, a good education, a successful career, and good family life. The time had come to give something back to society,” he said.
The 61-year-old former IIT alumnus, who was awarded the Nani Palkhiwala Award for civil liberties this year, is widely known for using the RTI Act effectively for better governance and accountability in public life.
Gandhi was among four other names proposed last month by civil society leaders Anna Hazare, Medha Patkar, Arvind Kejriwal [comment: Kejriwal won the Magsaysay Award and gave a brownbag presentation at ADB on 29 August 2006] and Sandeep Pandey as part of a strategy to put pressure on the government to look beyond the pool of ex-bureaucrats whilst selecting information commissioners.
His appointment is also seen as a balancing act by the government at the Centre that chose him instead of an IPS officer who blew the whistle on the Narendra Modi government during the Gujarat riots in 2002.
According to media reports, it was because of pressure from L K Advani, who is part of the selection committee in his capacity as leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha, that the government agreed to Gandhi in place of former police officer R B Shreekumar from Gujarat.
The police lobby still has something to cheer about, however, in the appointment of special CBI director Sharma. The 1972-batch IPS officer of the Rajasthan cadre will be the first information commissioner-cum-police officer. He has been on leave since he was overlooked for the top post in the CBI around a month ago.
The most controversial appointment is of personnel secretary Satyananda Mishra who heads the very department that administers the RTI. Since the existing five members of the Central Information Commission (CIC) already include his predecessor A N Tiwari, Mishra’s appointment has set a pattern of coveted postings being cornered by successive personnel secretaries.
Another reason why Mishra’s appointment has raised eyebrows is his record of defying the direction of CIC to drop a claim made by his department on its website that file notings of bureaucrats and ministers could not be accessed under the RTI.
The appointment of Annapurna Dixit, widow of former national security adviser J N Dixit, has come as a surprise as her credentials to sit in judgment on RTI appeals against various central departments are as yet unknown.
Gandhi’s appointment will create a piquant situation for the three others as he claims he will function as an information commissioner for a token salary of Re 1, and not take the bungalow and other perks.
Gandhi decided to take up the post because the pendency of appeals at the CIC had touched an all-time high of over 8,000. On average, an information commissioner disposes of 15-200 appeals every month. “This is cause for worry. My commitment is that I will dispose of 350-400 appeals every month,” Gandhi said.
He added that he would try to keep the pendency to a minimum of three months. “I categorically state that no file will remain with me for more than 90 days. I want to ensure that there is correct interpretation of the right to information and the laws related to it so that there are fewer disputes. Also, I want to bring about more transparency in the disbursal system.”
The strength of the CIC, presently comprising Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah, and Central Information Commissioners A N Tiwari, M M Ansari, O P Kejariwal and Padma Balasubramaniam will go up to nine after the fresh appointments.
Balasubramaniam is retiring in November this year and Kejariwal is due to retire next year. The total number of commissioners at the CIC is fixed at 11, under the RTI Act.
Source: DNA, September 7, 2008
PTI, September 7, 2008
DNA, September 6, 2008