Can he weather the storm?
Controversy and accusations surround the recent appointment of Maharashtra's Chief Information Commissioner (CIC), Ratnakar Gaikwad. Gaikwad claims that allegations against him are baseless
The appointment of Ratnakar Gaikwad as Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) of Maharashtra has invited the ire of many Right to Information (RTI) activists in Mumbai. Gaikwad, who was also the former Chief Secretary (CS) of Maharashtra was sworn in as the CIC of the state on June 6, 2012. Since then, many RTI activists have been asking for his removal from the post of CIC, Maharashtra. In a recent meeting between activists and Gaikwad, at the state CIC’s office at the New Administrative Building (opposite Mantralaya), RTI activists confronted Gaikwad with some serious questions, which revolved around cases of impropriety in the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) when he was the Metropolitan Commissioner; the Adarsh scam, etcetera. Krishnaraj Rao, an RTI activist elaborated, “Firstly, the Information Commission and the State Government should be “at arms-length”, i.e. they must not have a very close relationship with the government.
By Ratnakar Gaikwad’s appointment, the quasi-judicial nature of the State Information Commission is severely compromised, as Gaikwad was the former CS of Maharashtra as well as Metropolitan Commissioner of MMRDA. Given the current bench assignments at the State Information Commission, Ratnakar Gaikwad will hear cases relating to Mantralaya and MMRDA, which he headed in the previous few years. The cases of second appeal against these public authorities relating to his own tenure will be heard by him personally — again a violation of the principle— No man is permitted to be a judge in his own cause. So the appellants’ right to a fair hearing will be minimised and their Right to Information will be severely curtailed by this.”
The activists also pointed out that the post of CIC had been vacant for the last 10 months. GR Vora, RTI activist said, “Being a CS earlier he deliberately did not take any efforts to appoint a CIC. For 10 months the Chief State Information Commissioner’s post was kept vacant by the Chief Minister (CM), and within five days of Gaikwad’s retirement as CS, he was appointed as the CIC, Maharashtra.” Vora further added, “He was amongst the top three persons in the Government of Maharashtra who were responsible for appointing someone as the Chief Information Commissioner. He appears to have used that position in his own favour to make himself the CIC.”
There is contention over Gaikwad’s role in issuing an Occupation Certificate (OC) for Adarsh. While, Gaikwad initially issued an OC for Adarsh, later it was withdrawn. Said Rao, “Ratnakar Gaikwad was chief of MMRDA, which is the overall planning authority for Mumbai Metropolitan Region. It was his job to look at the security-threat angle in the case of Adarsh, before giving the OC . Adarsh is a 31-storey building in Colaba that offers a strategic view of Naval Defence Installations, Bombay Harbour and many key parts of South Mumbai. As a civilian building, it would be easy for terrorists to severely damage the Western Naval Command from such a vantage point. Despite these security risks being repeatedly pointed out to Gaikwad, he brushed them aside and hurriedly gave the OC. This indicates terribly bad judgment on the part of Ratnakar Gaikwad.” Apart from these issues, the activists believe that Gaikwad’s appointment as the CIC of Maharashtra was not transparent. “No advertisements were given out in print and electronic media to inform citizens that the CIC's post in the state is vacant and that applications are invited for the post,” said Vora.
The next course of action is to file a Public Interest Litigation (PIL). Said Sulaiman Bhimani, RTI activist, “We will first file a PIL in the High Court or the Supreme Court.” Vora further added, “We are in consultation with eminent and public-spirited lawyers who would take up this PIL.” Activists in the PIL will seek the following, “Gaikwad’s undue appointment should be scrapped; the CM and others responsible for this malafide selection should be reprimanded. Safeguards should be prescribed for all State Governments so that such unhealthy selections do not happen in future. The recent appointment of some Tamil Nadu Information Commissioners was scrapped by the Madras High Court, and the matter is currently before the Supreme Court (SC). The SC is now examining how selection of Information Commissioners is done as per the whims and fancies of the political set-up that is in power — and hence, there is a hope for a favourable verdict. On another parallel track, we will initiate criminal proceedings against Ratnakar Gaikwad by taking up cases of corruption, dereliction of duty and decisions taken against public interest in favour of builders etc,” explained Rao.
A few RTI activists however believe that Gaikwad at least deserves a chance as the CIC of Maharashtra. Bhaskar Prabhu, Convenor, Mahiti Adhikar Manch and Maharashtra RTI Council said, “In a meeting with Gaikwad on June 8 and 11 we shared with him how Shailesh Gandhi as the Central Information Commissioner has been expeditiously disposing off appeal cases and issuing orders in most of the cases within five minutes after the appeal hearing. Gaikwad assured us that he would visit New Delhi to develop a better understanding of the process so that he could implement it in Maharashtra. He agreed to have best practices in place to reduce the pendency of appeals and complaints. Hence, we believe that at least he is willing to work and bring changes in the system.” According to media reports, around 30,000 cases are pending before the State Information Commission.
Prabhu also believes that Gaikwad will be able to deliver as the CIC of Maharashtra because, “He is aware of various laws and their proceedings. He will be able to network with all departments concerned and effectively implement the rules. He has also assured us that he will increase the level of awareness about the RTI Act amongst Public Information Officers (PIO).”
The other side
In a telephonic interview, Ratnakar Gaikwad, Maharashtra's CIC claimed that the allegations made by the RTI activists are baseless. Gaikwad said, "It is an attempt to malign me. Those opposing my appointment have resorted to nitpicking. First they said that I had deliberately kept the post of CIC in the state vacant for 10 months. Now, one must realise that there are so many posts within the government that are vacant. Why are they not bothered about those? Secondly, they have pointed put that I will be inefficient as a CIC of the state because of my association with the Mantralaya and MMRDA. This is an absolutely ridiculous argument. As a CIC of the state, my duty will be to oversee that the RTI Act is implemented all over the state. It is more than just presiding over matters related to the MMRDA or Mantralaya. Moreover, there is an appellate authority and the CIC Mumbai. They are the ones who will deal with appeals first. As far as my involvement with Adarsh is concerned, activists have said that I have ignored objections raised by Western Naval Commanding-in-Chief about national security issues, gone ahead and issued an OC for Adarsh. I would like to clarify that security in a civilian area does not come under the Naval body. It comes under the Commissioner of Police. In fact, I have said the same to the Naval body too. I can't hold the OC of a building, which is ready, because some agency insists on seeing the list of occupants of the building. But later we withdrew the OC. This was when the State Government told the MMRDA that the Ministry of Environment had an objection about the building. If the State Government directs us, then we will have to abide by it.”
w Maharashtra Chief Information Commissioner is the head of Maharashtra State Information Commission, which hears second appeals of RTI against the State Government. w Firstly, as chief, in his administrative capacity, he oversees the overall health of the Commission through budget and manpower allocations. w Secondly, he has a supervisory and advisory role to push for better compliance with RTI's section 4 (suo-moto disclosures) and proper appointment of Public Information Officers, first appellate authorities etc. by all public authorities of the State Government, from village panchayats, municipal wards and State-run organisations like BEST and MMRDA, right up to the top levels of Mantralaya such as CS's office and CM's Office. w Finally, in his direct capacity as an Information Commissioner, he hears second appeals arising from RTI applications against MMRDA, Mantralaya, CM's Office, and passes orders.