Whistleblowers and Information Seekers should be protected. Prashanth Bhushan took the right decision not to disclose the name of Whistleblower before the Supreme Court: Prof. Madabhushi Sridhar (Central Information Commissioner)

Whistleblowers and Information Seekers should be protected. Prashanth Bhushan took the right decision not to disclose the name of Whistleblower before the Supreme Court: Prof. Madabhushi Sridhar (Central Information Commissioner)

Professor (Dr.) Madabhushi Sridhar Acharyulu is a noted intellectual and legal expert. He hails from Warangal district in Telangana.

He has written extensively on various issues such as RTI, Media freedom, and Telangana statehood. He also writes regular articles in The Hans India, The Hoot, The Indian Express, Namasthe Telangana and The Metro India. He has also contributed articles to MissionTelangana.com.

Prof Sridhar was working as professor of law at National Academy of Legal Studies and Research (NALSAR) University of Law at Hyderabad until November 20. He had resigned his job at NALSAR to take up the post of Central Information Commissioner in Delhi.

Prof. Sridhar had done extensive research in Right to Information (RTI) and has also written four books on RTI. His appointment as the Central Information Commissioner is a good recognition for the years of hard work and research.

In this interesting conversation with Live Law, Dr. Madabhushi Sridhar talks about Right to Information Movement in India and its challenges, Experience as a Central Information Commissioner, victimisation of RTI activists, National Judicial Appointments commission, and much more…

Live Law : Could you brief our readers about the motivating factors that led you to take up the position as Central Information Commissioner?

Madabhushi Sridhar: From the beginning of my career itself, I was interested in providing information to the people through my articles in daily newspapers, answering questions on law, women rights, children welfare etc and now I am directing public authority to provide information in my official authority as Information Commissioner.

Live Law: What are the challenges before the Right to Information movement in India?

Madabhushi Sridhar: Non maintenance of the records is the biggest challenge before the Right to Information 1movement in the country. If the Public Records Act, 1993 is implemented fully in the country, public access to information will become easier.

The second challenge is be digitalisation of records. This will help section4 (1)(b) of the Right to Information Act to be enforced, which prescribes suo motu disclosure of basic information of activities of public interest. It includes information about officers, their responsibilities, their salaries, the amenities available and the service that they are supposed to render. All this should be disclosed by the public authorities. This is what Citizen’s Charter is. 60% of the problems will be solved by this, because the kinds of questions that are asked are very basic. For example: what are the duties of the officers? Whether there is any complaint receiving mechanism? If I file a memorandum or complaint, when will I get a response? These are the kind of questions that come up in Second Appeal level also under the RTI. They are supposed to take care of all this under the RTI Act, as well as the Public Records Act.

Public Service Act is another legislation which makes a provision for the same. Citizens’ charter and proper training to the officers is the real challenge before the movement. For instance, National Food Security Act 2013 provides for complete transparency and placing the list of stocks and supplies in public domain besides mandating the grievance redressal mechanism. It also says if you do not provide grains to BPL family, you should give grains allowance. Based on this law I have recently ordered Food & Supply department to compensate a ration card holder who’s ration card was deactivated for none of his fault, without notice, not even responded to her RTI application.   RTI Act has vital links to all other governance related issues.

Live Law: Do you think the Right to Information Act should be extended to the private sector also, similar to the South African model? 

Madabhushi Sridhar: It should absolutely be extended to the private sector as well, because we are living in a globalised world with public private partnership prevalent widely. Most of the public sector has been converted into the private sector. They are organisations which deal with human lives more than the public sector. When they are 2dealing with the public, they have public character and thus must be under a duty to share the information. They need to be declared as Public Authorities or regulated by any public authority so that their information could be legally sought by the citizen. Like a private hospital, private educational institute, private university, private school, every co-operative society, every super market, every private airline, all sports bodies, every private organisation that is offering public services should be under obligation to give information and there should be legislation for the same. Or the existing law should be amended to include such private section institutions under the purview of Right to Information Act.

Live Law: The victimisation of RTI activists is rising across India. How can this be dealt with?

Madabhushi Sridhar: This is a very serious problem. Corrupt public servants are ganging up and suppressing every voice raised. Killing information seekers reflects the spread of bhrasthaachaar in the public offices in this country. In a way it reflects the importance of information sought, access law and the information needs of the people. It reflects how the corrupt and public servants are hand in glove, there are a lot of irregularities supposed to be questioned. The 3purpose of information is to expose this social evil and the information has to be provided. Every attack on the Right to Information activists shows that there is a serious scandal behind it and that indicates significance of giving information. Importance of legislation is also established. Whistle blowers and information seekers should be protected, they should not be victimized. It is not correct to expose the name of the source of information, because it opens them to serious physical attacks. Recently Prashan Bhushan took a right decision not to disclose the name of the person who gave the visitor’s book at the residence of CBI Director, irrespective of the consequences. That is why the Information Law also says the seeker need not disclose his identity and explain the reasons. It is most gratifying to note that Madras High Court has rectified its serious defect in their judgment dated 17th September by deleting two paragraphs which are squarely contradicted this provision of law (Section 6(2) of RTI Act) I pray the judiciary to protect the access law so that people repose confidence in judiciary and protect independence of judiciary.

The state has a Constitutional duty to protect the people and when a person asks for information, state should help him in doing so. Because he is doing great help for good governance. Just because I have a right to seek information, it doesn’t provide anybody any authority to kill me.

Live Law: Has Right to Information Act actually helped to transform the life of vulnerable and marginalised communities in India?

Madabhushi Sridhar: It has definitely helped. The information sought is definitely helped the people. In the Commission, most of the applicants are ration card holders. They seek information regarding it. Ration is the bread and butter of the people. They seek information regarding ration dealers, stocks, supplies, ration distribution etc, is very important information. The movement has changed the regional structure of the maintenance of public amenities. Voter card formation is questioned, selections are probed, discrimination is questioned, balance sheets are sought, basis of appointments were asked to be given, etc. It is empowering the people to question the wrong practices and compelling the public authorities to introduce good governance practices.

Live Law: You have double post graduate degrees, LL.M., and M.C.J (Journalism). How did it help in your career?

Madabhushi Sridhar:The process of informing the people under journalism has been consolidated with my knowledge of the theory of communication. I won all four gold medals in MCJ, my legal education, and LLM helped me in my journalistic profession and my journalistic writing urge made me law columnist. I am working with increased understanding of both the subjects.

RTI Act alone is not enough to understand the Right to Information. Right to Information is just one part of Right to Speech and Expression but the major aspect of this right lies under Article 21 i.e. Right to know, which is much wider and was not properly codified by law and not properly implemented by legislation.

Live Law: Civil society in India has been alleging about lack of access to information relating to environmental decision making. BRAI Bill, environmental clearance mechanisms are cited as examples of this scenario.  Should India have legislation in the model of Aarhus Convention in European Union to improve access to information on environmental decision making?

Madabhushi Sridhar: Absolutely. There is a need to enforce such an environmental legislation.  The environmental assessment reporting should also be included under this. Public hearing of notification, agendas, activities and report thereof should be included. In fact, open trials in judiciary and open legislature indicate the transparency and right to information of the people. Trial and legislation are not confidential or private affairs of public bodies. They should happen in open glare of the people. They cannot plead exclusion or exclusive confidentiality of their public functioning. Executive also should come into open. Access to information should be improved.

Live Law: As an expert on media law, how could we resolve the problem of paid news?

Madabhushi Sridhar: I gave a detailed report to the two member committee of Press Council of India which went into the issue of paid news couple of years ago, and every bit of it was considered by the Committee of PCI. I have shown how the Representation of Peoples Act can be used to curb paid news phenomenon. Using those provisions the Representation of peoples Act only the Election Commission of India disqualified a legislator. This was a historic disqualification. To curb corruption of candidates and media during elections, this law is sufficient.

The donations as well as the expenditure should be disclosed. The consequences of non-disclosure should be strict. All those who do not adhere to it should bear the consequences of it.

Live Law: On similar lines, contrary to journalists' expectations, Director General of Police K. Aravidna Rao has gone on record to say that sensationalism sometimes helps the police get a rare dimension or clue to aspect of crime that slips their mind. How far do you agree with this statement?

Madabhushi Sridhar: If any information printed in the newspapers is helpful to them for discovery of certain clues, let them use it.

Live Law: You recently addressed the judicial officers of four eastern states in the Regional Judicial Conference, on the topic, “Justice in time: Can ADR help?” What was your answer to the question?

Madabhushi Sridhar:It will help the institution. The judiciary should definitely encourage ADR. They shouldn’t feel that their work is being undermined. For the parties involved, litigation could be an emotional issue. The problem of backlog of cases can be sufficiently tackled by ADR. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been a proper understanding of the issue.

There are very good judgments regarding this. Judiciary is supporting it. The legal fraternity should take it in right spirit. Even when parties don’t agree, they should still be asked to give it a try. Initially the parties may not agree to ADR because of ego issues. But once it is mandated by Courts they agree to go for negotiation and other options, it’s a win-win situation. Mostly they succeed. If they fail, they can anyway come back to the courts. We usually suggest them to go for private ADR, instead of going to the Court first. Even when they go to the Court, they should be directed towards such a solution.

Live Law: You have received the best teacher award in the year 2013 and have been your students’ favourite over the period of time. How did the decision to switch role as a Central Information Commission affect you?

Madabhushi Sridhar:I do miss my students a lot. I love teaching and I don’t know when I will be able to do it again. Teaching is a great learning experience in itself. My students helped me in learning, they are my teachers.

Live Law: You have advocated better transparency in appointment of Judges in your article published in Hans India. Is the National Judicial Appointments commission a solution according to you?

Madabhushi Sridhar: If looks like an alternative mechanism, whether it is a solution is a big question. The problem here is the lack of transparency in the process. From the recommendation of names of probable candidates to the final appointment of the judge, every stage should be transparent. Collegium system would not be as bad as it is being portrayed to be. It has really worked.

Also, if it doesn’t work, it is the extraneous conditions which have affected it. The external conditions are not being considered. The independence of the judiciary can’t be compromised.

Live Law: NALSAR University of Law recommended against imposition of death penalty for the crime of rape in its report to Justice Jagdish Sharan Verma Commission. What are the changes that were then suggested to curb the crime and punish the offenders?

Madabhushi Sridhar: It was suggested that there should be heavy penalty imposed on them. They should be liable to pay heavy damages under torts. Any person who has suffered such harm will further suffer serious consequences like loss of better prospects of marriage, loss of life and liberty because of such criminals. There should be an exclusive mechanism for compensating the same.

The properties of criminals should also be attached and victims should be paid.

Live Law: The alarming delay in adjudication of cases and the pendency is a matter of deep concern. You have expressed your views on the “miscarriage of fast track Justice”. How then, can we move towards the “right” fast track, as mentioned in your article?

Madabhushi Sridhar: So far fast track courts in the country are concerned, they really are not fast track courts. They are temporary special courts. They are just given this name which is very attractive. Every Court should be made a fast track Court.

Second concern is regarding the vacancies. There are certain dates of retirements when vacancies are supposed to occur and everybody is aware of the same. So appointments should be made for filing up the vacancies, even before they occur.

Apoorva MandhaniApoorva Mandhani is a Reporter at Live Law.