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Critics of RTI activist Shailesh Gandhi silenced

As an RTI activist turned Central Information Commissioner (CIC), Shailesh Gandhi was often criticised, for some of his orders as CIC. A set of 10 orders upheld by the Supreme Court recently, serve to prove that he did his work without fear or favour


The latest Supreme Court judgment, exploding on the face of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and all other banks, which have been rejecting RTI queries regularly, also bears testimony to the judiciousness of Shailesh Gandhi. The apex court order mentions 11 orders passed by the Central Information Commission, out of which 10 were decided by Mr Gandhi, the Right to Information (RTI) activist turned Central Information Commissioner (CIC).
He, being an activist seemed to have had an adverse effect sometimes, as fellow activists expected that he should always decide in their favour. A sterling example is the appeal in a case related to the Mumbai airport by an activist against a rejection of his query by the Airports Authority of India (AAI). Mr Gandhi had turned down second appeal of the applicant who sought information from IDBI Bank, which had extended a loan of Rs4,000 crore to the Airports Authority. The RTI applicant had sought details on the loan, with copies of documents submitted, reason for the loan, copy of the MoU and whether 9% interest on the loan was justified.
Mr Gandhi turned down the request, stating there was a ‘fiduciary’ relationship between the Bank and the borrower, and unless the public interest is clearly evident, this information falls under the exceptions provided under Section 8 of the RTI Act. He put the onus on the applicant to prove public interest; his order had been widely criticised by the RTI activist community.
I am not going into the merits of the decision, but highlighting how activists were shocked that a member of their fraternity, now on the other side of the bench, could have given a pro-establishment decision. The expectations from Mr Gandhi as also journalist turned State Information Commissioner Vijay Kuvalekar were too high and often unreasonable. One has rarely seen bureaucrats turned information commissioners being similarly criticised for their decisions (people expect they are made that way and conditioned to be pro-establishment). Both Mr Gandhi and Mr Kuvalekar have given sterling orders but they came in for flak when their decisions were found unacceptable by activists.
To cite an example, there has always been a heated debate on whether co-operative banks come under the RTI or not. Mr Gandhi stood firm on his view that they did, despite lobbies trying ways and means to interpret it otherwise. In one of his decisions as CIC, a Baroda resident had sought information on procedure, rules and regulation of inspection being carried out in co-operative banks and, in particular, the inspection report copy of  the Makarpura Industrial Estate Co-Operative Bank Ltd.  Mr Gandhi, directed the CPIO, who refused to give information, to provide complete information on the inspection reports, thus laying to rest whether co-operative banks come under the RTI or not. It was a historic decision. The links of other bank related decisions have been mentioned in this Moneylife story.
RTI activist Vijay Kumbhar, who has been closely observing the performance and public perception about the two information commissioners – Mr Gandhi and Mr Kuvalekar -who were not former bureaucrats but were highly regarded in public life and were selected as information commissioner. He believes that sometimes people scrutinized their work rather unfairly. He says, “We know how bureaucrats turned information commissioners have largely seen their role as an extension of their government jobs and rarely took strong decisions; the passion for RTI as a citizens’ movement has been missing. Society needs to understand the value of a person in public life becoming information commissioner and playing an invaluable role through decisions that empower citizens. Only such people can take the RTI forward in its true spirit.’’
Highlighting some decisions by Mr Gandhi and Mr Kuvalekar, Vijay Kumbhar says, “(Mr) Gandhi has given so many sterling decisions (quantity and quality) that they are fit to be included in the Guinness Book of Records. Mr Kuvalekar’s decision on ‘missing files’, ‘answer sheets’ and ‘private organisations with substantial government funds’ are historic.”
Mr Gandhi always felt strongly hurt about CIC decisions being stayed by the courts. In his blog, Mr Gandhi, who after serving as Central Information Commissioner, is back to being a simple RTI activist, had stated, “As Central Information Commissioners presiding over appeals on the Right to Information Act, my colleagues and I have the same conditions of service and salaries as Supreme Court judges. And yet, on several occasions, public authorities do not obey the orders we pass. When faced with action for non-compliance, they rush to the High Court and obtain a stay on our order. My question is simple. Long after the deadline for complying with our order has passed, should a person or organisation that has flouted our order get a stay from any Court? Shouldn’t there be some penalty for violating the orders we pass? If not, what value are our orders?”
Today, none other than the Supreme Court has delivered justice to Mr Gandhi. In the order, the apex court stated, “…orders were based on elaborate consideration, gave valid reasons and did not ‘suffer from any error of law, irrationality or arbitrariness’ and therefore, ‘need no interference by this Court’.

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