CIC has given a voice to the people: Uday Mahurkar
Mahurkar, Central Information Commissioner, shares how the RTI Act can bring transparency into governance
While Uday Mahurkar has completed less than half of his tenure at the Central Information Commission (CIC), he has already achieved more than his peers have previously managed to during their entire commissions. Mahurkar, who was appointed Central Information Commissioner in October 2020 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other members of the central government, has already resolved 5066 cases in almost 18 months, a record far outpacing that of any other commissioner thus far.
A veteran journalist with nearly three decades of experience in the newsroom and out on the field, as well as a political analyst and author, Mahurkar believes he is uniquely experienced to actually make a difference. And indeed, the CIC, has never had a journalist in its august ranks before.
The CIC was set up in 2005, under the aegis of the Right to Information (RTI) Act passed in the same year, to act upon complaints from those individuals who have not been able to ‘submit information requests to a Central Public Information Officer or State Public Information Officer due to either the officer not have been appointed, or because the respective Central Assistant Public Information Officer or State Assistant Public Information Officer refused to receive the application for information.’
Mahurkar explains, “The objective of the act is to make legitimate information available to the citizens and to empower them. It is also about bringing transparency and accountability into the system, that is to say, the government system as it is to do with government only.” He adds that this means the act itself, as well as the commission, has played a very big role in giving a voice to the people.
However, he says the idea of it bringing greater accountability and transparency into the system still remains to be fully served. “This has to do with the understanding of the law by the people, as I think there is still less comprehension of the law so it is being used very effectively by people to address their own personal grievances by seeking legitimate information to coerce or even blackmail public officials.”
Mahurkar says that some grievances, like citizens being wronged by the administration or certain public officials, ought to be addressed in this manner, but some people with their own agendas and vendettas have tried to use the CIC in a manner that is beneficial to them and perhaps not society at large.
This is where Mahurkar’s prior experience as a reporter and editor come especially handy as he uses the language in the documents to drive home the point that incorrect usage of the information being sought can land the appellant in significant trouble.
“After 18 months on the job, I can pick out from the applications which of them have ulterior motives and so have instituted certain practices of my own to help deal with that. For instance, I’ve introduced a line into the documents which make clear that in case of any wrong objectives behind seeking information or disingenuous motives, the appellant can be charged with perjury as well as contempt of the commission.”
Indeed, Mahurkar has used the language of the documents in a number of creative ways so that would-be public justice warriors are made aware of the consequences of any frivolous actions, whether it is inserting lines reminding appellants of their own civic responsibilities as well as the full ramifications of what they’re asking, given that the commission will then direct the relevant government offices to start their own investigations.
Another major change is affidavits. “A lot of people get worried about physical threats when they’re applying for information, and this is a feeling that could go both ways: to and from the appellant and to and from the officer. I’ve started instructing them to sign affidavits in which they guarantee not to threaten, coerce, or physically intimidate the other party and then it’s in legal writing, making them more cautious and unlikely to try and cause any conflict,” he says.
Mahurkar is also determined to give everyone a fair hearing no matter what their antecedents. “For instance, we have a gentleman who keeps seeking different information on different government workings and has sent in requests after requests, leading the commission members to become quite tired of him. I had an application come in from him with 60 questions in it, which is very cumbersome for the different government departments, as according to the act they have to answer each question individually and devote time and resources to the same. Now, this can lead to hampering the functioning of government offices.”
His solution was to whittle down the 60 questions to five, with the provision that the appellant could pick any five questions and the relevant public offices would have to answer them no matter what.
Having been a journalist for nearly 30 years, and having covered the gamut of news beats from politics to public policy to infrastructure to rural affairs, Mahurkar believes the ability to draw in people to speak and to be able to just listen and thresh out what they really are saying and wanting is an invaluable asset to his current position.
“I have always believed that we are for the people, and the nation and all other things are secondary. I’ve passed some very good advisories, including on law points. They are only advisories, but they can bind a person as per the laws. For instance, the lapse of time cannot be the reason to deny justice,” he concludes.
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