Friday, November 04, 2005

Regulators with real powers

Siddharth Narrain's interview of Wajahat Habibullah, the chief of the Central Information Commission, appeared in the Hindu today. He says all the right things, and after reading the interview, I get the impression that he is calm and steady.

If he is indeed what he seems, it is good for all of us. I know a lot of people are not 100 % happy with the Right to Information Act. ToI gave it only a grudging approval in its editorial, and many people from the entire political spectrum are upset with something or the other in it. But, right now, it is the only thing we have got, and we have to make the best use of it.

As I said, my first impression about Habibullah after reading the interview is positive. More importantly, his measured response is something that I really like. He is likely to provide a stable leadership to the CIC, that will allow it to find its feet, and grow in stature and legitimacy.

This is important, because we have had a whole bunch of people who took their regulatory powers so seriously that they stepped on the toes of some powerful people. Seshan, the first Chief of our Election Commission with real powers, scared our politicians so much that they went right back to the Parliament to dilute our election laws, and changed EC to a body with three commissioners. Vittal, the first Chief of the Vigilance Commission, also did some irresponsible things, such as posting pictures and other details of those under investigation on the CVC website; I am sure many bureaucrats would like a toothless CVC, but our politicians, thankfully, haven't changed the law -- yet. Another person, for whom I have very high regard, is Justice Sodhi, the first Chairman of our telecom regulator, TRAI. He didn't do anything wrong; he just took his powers a little too seriously (and he was entirely right to do it), and introduced some big bang reforms in telecom. The entrenched interests in our Department of Telecommunications ensured that the TRAI legislation was amended to dilute its powers. This also had a cascading effect on later legislation to set up regulators for other fields. The most notable is the regulatory body of power, which is so powerless that it is laughable.

Back to Habibullah. He says there is enough flexibility in the Act, and let us hope he will use it -- slowly, without appearing to rock the boat -- for the people's benefit. His prior background in the Panchayati Raj ministry too should help. Please do read his interview to know what he thinks about the RTI act. Let me highlight here something else that I found interesting.

[Question] Do you feel that appointing persons who have already been in the government as Information Commissioners, despite the RTI Act providing for others to be appointed, is inappropriate? Won't the appointment of ex-bureaucrats lead to a conflict of interest?

[Habibullah's answer] I know there has been criticism from certain sections with regard to the composition of the both the Central Information Commission and the State Information Commissions. Within the bureaucracy or those having served in government, it is made up of individuals. To preclude a certain branch from exercising a responsibility under this law is a trifle unfair. A blanket criticism of this nature is not justified in my view.

Of course I have done the highlighting. Just compare this sentence with what Sri Sri Ravishankar once said about celebrities -- like Vijay Mallya -- hanging around him: "We don’t excommunicate somebody just because they are rich and famous."