Wajahat Habibullah speaks softly. So softly that at times it’s hard to hear him. But when he is voicing his opinion on the Central Information Commission (CIC) he heads, he is loud and clear.
Set up to administer the Right to Information Act a year ago, the career bureaucrat says the Commission is limping along for want of funds and staff: “We have a sanctioned staff strength of 79 but are functioning with just 30 people.” Worse, the Commission continues to function out of a makeshift office in a government guesthouse in the old JNU campus building. “At that time, we received 10 to 15 appeals a month. Last month we received around 600. We need more space to function,” he says.
The result? The appeals continue to pile up and the disposal rate is less than 50 per cent.
Ironically, the UPA government counts the RTI legislation as one of its biggest achievements, along with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.
Also ironically, at the opening of the three-day meet to mark one year of RTI, protestors stood up to interrupt President APJ Kalam’s inaugural address. Their grouse was against Habibullah: He was soft on erring officials who denied information, despite the Act, they said.
Though shaken by the protests, Habibullah went on attending the deliberations as though nothing had happened. Three days later, as the meet concluded, he rose to brief the gathering that included Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. “One of the informal consensus on the opening day was to sack me,” he said with wry humour. “I do not know whether that consensus still stands after three days of deliberations.”
Earlier, Habibullah had refused to be drawn in the debate to amend the Act by keeping file notings out. Although his colleague and fellow commissioner, OP Kejriwal spoke up against the move, Habibullah kept quiet and his silence was interpreted as sympathy for the government’s so-called intentions.
Habibullah met the criticism by saying that as CIC, his role is that of an arbiter, not activist. He believes in going by the book, exercising only those powers that the Act confers on the Commission. “Civil society expects us to assert the right of the citizen. That is not our role,” he says.
Habibullah is no stranger to criticism. While serving in the United States, a paper he had written on Jammu & Kashmir created controversy. Yet, he remains the Centre’s interlocutor on Kashmir.
But it’s not been brickbats all the way. He has his share of admirers. Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit recently promised that RTI awareness would be made a part of the school curriculum. The suggestion had come from the CIC.
Making transparency and accountability a part of the system is what Habibullah says he wants. Parallels have often been drawn between his office and that of the Chief Election Commissioner.
The CIC has been criticised for not doing what the likes of T.N. Seshan or James Michael Lyngdoh did. “The CEC is an established institution. My role is to establish the Commission. But first let us have the ship sailing,” he says.
For now, that course is far from smooth.
Email: Jatin Gandhi: firstname.lastname@example.org