For former central information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi, the RTI Act remains a powerful ally, finds A Ganesh Nadar
Legislators are reported to have collectively thrashed police sub-inspector Sachin Suryavanshi in the premises of the Maharashtra assembly. Following the incident Shailesh Gandhi, former central information commissioner, is circulating a petition online asking that political parties must dismiss those who participated in the incident. If parties do not dismiss such legislators, citizens will not vote for these parties in any elections in the next two years, the petition states.
“The assembly is a sacred place in any democracy and if the law-makers start breaking the law, and that too in the assembly, they need to be punished severely,” Gandhi says. “If the government doesn’t dismiss them, we as citizens must ensure that such people are never elected again.”
“I have served on both sides of the fence (he was a successful businessman before deciding at the age of 55 to turn his attention to the Right To Information). The only difference is that when I was commissioner, I could pull up errant officers, and now I can only ask them questions,” Gandhi told rediff.com.
Before he became information commissioner, he had filed an RTI plea asking how many under-trials were in jail in Maharashtra. His argument is that many of them had spent more time in jail than the sentence of the crime they were accused of.
“It is always the poor, who do not have the money to appeal for bail, who are inside. They don’t even know the maximum sentence for the crime they are alleged to have committed. At that time, once I got the figures, I petitioned the chief justice of the Bombay high court,” Gandhi recalls.
The court treated it as a public interest litigation and ordered that those under-trials who had spent their maximum sentence time in jail should be released.
“But it was a one-off deed. They did not make it part of a system that would work every time,” said Gandhi.
There is a Supreme Court judgment that says that when an under-trial spends 50 per cent of the time in jail that he would get as maximum sentence for his alleged crime, he should be released.
So when Gandhi retired as information commissioner he filed a petition to the director- general of prisons asking him how many under-trials were in jail.
“I wanted to make it part of the system and not dependent on anyone filing an RTI. They should be released the day they have spent half their possible sentence. His reply was strange. He wrote to me saying that there were 43 prisons in the state and I was free to contact them.
“I filed a second appeal to the next person above him. Nothing happened. So now I have filed the petition with the state information officer. Let’s see what happens”.
He has also petitioned the commissioner that once a year the prison department should put out this information on its website. “We should know how many under-trials are there, for how long and for what crime.”
Gandhi recollects that his proudest moment was filing an RTI in the case of a police inspector who had raped a minor girl. The girl turned hostile as a witness and the case was dropped. The inspector was reinstated six months later.
“I filed an RTI to his superior asking on what grounds he was reinstated. There was no reply. So I filed another RTI to the DSP there. The DSP was a good man. He said he would look into the matter and let me know.
“Three weeks later the inspector was dismissed. I did not pursue the matter as I was satisfied with the effect of the RTI.”
Gandhi says that people filing RTIs need not do anything with the information. “The very fact that someone asks them makes officers wary and next time they do not make the same mistake. They also warn future officers to be careful as anyone can file an RTI.”
Shailesh Gandhi is an icon among RTI activists. He is an inspiration for others. He has learnt to use the RTI to get a reluctant government to act. Others are sure to follow.