“What does ‘freedom’ mean to you?”
“Today, it only means that man has the freedom to starve, to go naked, to die of hunger, or go uneducated.”
At 20, as an IIT student and one of the subjects of SNS Sastry’s iconic documentary I Am 20 (1967), this was Shailesh Gandhi’s firm belief. After all, a newly independent India — struggling with a devastating drought, among the biggest devaluations of Indian currency at the time, two wars at her borders, and an increased reliance on foreign aid for military and agricultural needs — had a long way to go to attain that elusive ‘freedom’.
Decades later, at an event, a faculty member asked him, “Shailesh, you used to say there are many things wrong with society. What is your feeling now?”
“My first reaction was to point out that nothing had changed even now,” recalls Gandhi (75) in conversation with The Better India. “But then a thought crossed my mind.”
“At 20, when I said things were not right, it was implied we would do better. When I answered this query, I was about 50. Was I also not ‘society’, then?”
In fact, a look at Gandhi’s email signature tells you that he is a man acutely aware of his role as an Indian citizen. Mera desh mahan nahi hai, it reads, par yeh dosh mera hai (My country is not great, but that fault is mine).
His quest to make India mahan in the truest sense would push him to sell off his business in his mid-50s to become, as he calls it, “a citizen empowered by RTI”.
Shailesh Gandhi, who calls himself “a citizen empowered by RTI” (Photo: Shailesh Gandhi)
Today, Gandhi is among India’s leading voices for the right to information and was instrumental in the establishment of the RTI Act, 2005 as the convenor of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information Act (NCPRI).
He was also elected as a Central Information Commissioner (CIC) for four years and is credited with closing the highest number of appeals — 20,000 cases in a record three years and nine months. Most of these cases were decided in less than 90 days.
Over his career, he has received IIT’s Distinguished Alumnus Award, alongside the Nani Palkhivala Civil Liberties Award and the M R Pai Memorial Award.
“Success does not come easy, no matter which field you are in,” he once told Rediff. “I was one of those lucky few with a good education, a satisfactory career, and a happy family life. ‘It is high time I gave something back to society’, I told myself…and that is how this started.”
‘A big gain for democracy’
While Gandhi pursued civil engineering at IIT Bombay, his original dream was to be a lawyer, he recalls.
“Engineering was just expected of me,” he says. “When I was in school, I was keen on becoming a lawyer. But my family was full of engineers and doctors, and they couldn’t think of anyone who was making a decent living in law at the time.”
When asked if he recalls a profound moment that shaped his vision as a student, he says no. “It was all a slow process,” he says. “In fact, only that conversation with my faculty all those years later woke me out of my slumber.”
When Gandhi finished IIT, he thought he would start doing something “socially relevant” within 10 years. “But then I started my business, got married, had a child…and that idea was placed on the back burner for a bit.”
For two decades as a first-generation entrepreneur, Gandhi managed his business well. At its peak, it grew to a strength of about 500 employees. “One of my firm convictions was providing employment. My employees were equal stakeholders in the company. When I finally sold the business in 2003, it was seen as something negative, that I was deviating from my path.”
Gandhi was one of the subjects of SNS Sastry’s documentary I Am 20, released in 1967. (Photo: Films Division, YouTube)
Around the same time, Gandhi attended a meeting at author and business journalist Sucheta Dalal’s home.
“She brought together people actively engaged in social development. At the meeting, Yogesh Pratap Singh [an IPS officer who left policing to take up law and activism] was also present. He said someone had asked about political interference in police transfers, and one gentleman mentioned that there’s a new RTI Act in Maharashtra. He said if you file a query under that, you should get a response.”
Around August 2003, Maharashtra enacted a revised state Right to Information Act after year-long campaigning by activist Anna Hazare. Two years later, this would act as the base document for the nationwide Act.
“I got a copy of the law and its rules and filed my first RTI application, seeking names of political leaders who had asked for police transfers, which is illegal. They blocked and rejected my application, but I started believing that such information was a big gain for democracy. So I started pursuing it, ‘evangelising’, giving talks, coming out with booklets…right to information became my passion,” Gandhi says.
A brief history of RTI
The Supreme Court recognised the ‘right to information’ as a constitutionally protected fundamental right and from 1997 onwards, state governments began enacting legislation to implement this. In 2002, the Centre passed the Freedom of Information Act. However, activists deemed the law as “deficient”.
A 2004 report proposing amendments to the law, released by London-based Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, stated, “Although Presidential Assent was provided…more than 18 months later, the Act has still not come into force…Its limited scope… breadth of exemptions, the failure to include a public interest override of exemptions, the absence of an effective independent appeals mechanism, and the failure to include public education and monitoring provisions….need to be remedied as a priority if the Act is to effectively serve its purpose.”
Meanwhile, the NCPRI was formed in 1996. It grew out of the work of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan to demand minimum wages for workers and was established by several activist organisations. The campaign was led by union organiser and activist Aruna Roy.
Shortly after Gandhi began studying the right to information, he happened to meet Roy, who invited him to join NCPRI. “As members of NCPRI, we negotiated with the government and National Advisory Council to get rightful provisions in the new Act,” he explains.
Activist Aruna Roy was instrumental in leading the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information Act (NCPRI). She invited Gandhi to join. (Photo: Flickr)
“We wanted to recognise the principle of democracy that the people own the government, and that all expenditure is, in fact, citizens’ money. We campaigned that there should be limited exemptions and pushed for an override — Section 22, which states that notwithstanding inconsistencies, a citizen’s right to information can override any law,” Gandhi says.
NCPRI, while campaigning with individual state governments for RTI, also held several workshops to engage citizens and spread awareness of the law. The Right to Information Act was finally passed in 2005 and came to fruition in October that year.
Needless to say, the enactment of the law was monumental.
What is RTI?
Derived from Article 19 of the Constitution of India, which upholds freedom of expression, it mandates that citizens can get information on government actions and decisions within 30 days. “Information” can include records, documents, memos, emails, opinions, advice, press releases, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material, and more.
The Act aims to cover the whole of India — the judiciary, bodies or institutions established by the Parliament, legislature, NGOs, political parties, etc. The Central Information Commission was constituted to receive and look into RTI complaints, order inquiries if needed, and act as a civil court.
In 2009, Gandhi became the only RTI activist to be chosen as a Central Information Commissioner. The following year, he was the first to set up a digital paperless office of the commission to avoid piling up paperwork and reduce the time taken to process applications. As CIC, he gave many landmark judgments, including the Public Health Foundation of India’s (PHFI) inclusion in the purview of the RTI Act.
“I believe that all justice systems must be time-bound,” he notes. “When I became a commissioner, the CIC was taking six months to a year to dispose of cases. I made a public announcement that within six months of joining, I will ensure that most cases will be disposed of in 90 days.”
“I sent a letter to the PM that I need more staff members to cope with the number of pending cases. I was ignored. So I hired interns and paid them from my salary,” he recalls.
A backlog in cases is among the major obstacles in a citizen’s right to information. A report by Firstpost states that as of 30 June 2021, over 2.55 lakh appeals and complaints were pending in 26 information commissions.
“It was all in the public record that I would pay my new employees myself,” he says. “I received a lot of opposition, but I am entitled to do what I want with my salary. That is how I was able to dispose of 20,000 cases in 90 days.”
Throughout his career, Gandhi has organised thousands of workshops across India to train citizens and government officials alike on how to effectively use RTI. “I explain the details of the law to build an understanding,” he explains. “The only basic principle to understand is that all information belongs to the citizen.”
‘If you’re seeking information, you’re seeking what belongs to you.’
A receipt for payment of a fee for collecting information under RTI act. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Gandhi believes that India’s RTI Act is among the best in the world. “For the first few years, it was very effective. The exemptions, while very few, were very well defined. But now, some of these clauses have been mangled by unacceptable misinterpretations of the law. This was not expected. I think most people in power dislike the RTI. Everyone likes transparency for others, not themselves.”
Today, the bureaucratic system is heavily burdened by lakhs of pending cases, as well as the unwillingness of authorities to respond to citizens’ queries. Moreover, there is a severe lack of awareness of the Act, particular in rural areas. The participation of women in the RTI process is only at a national average of 8%, and there exists a massive rural-urban divide — only 14 per cent of RTI applicants are from rural areas.
In recent years several RTI appeals have been rejected on grounds of “protecting the sovereignty and integrity of India”. Another concerning problem is the increasing number of attacks on RTI activists — more than 100 activists have been killed since 2011, and hundreds more continue to face physical aggression for their work.
“The only basic principle to understand is that all information belongs to the citizen,” says Gandhi. (Photo: Shailesh Gandhi)
“The Act is not where it used to be. Look at Gujarat, which recently banned 10 people from ever filing an RTI. You have courts saying ‘RTI should not be allowed to damage the peace, harmony, and integrity of India’. This is not a statement to be used for people availing of their fundamental rights.”
“In 1947, we attained swaraj, we became a democracy…but unless we respect each individual, we are a sham democracy. Upholding the individual’s dignity and human right to live freely makes us a better nation,” he opines.
Looking back at the trajectory of his career, Gandhi realises that his most triumphant moment is yet to come. His work is not done, he says. “I don’t know if that moment will come, because I’ll always look forward to the next thing. When the RTI Act came, I thought ‘This is it’. But now I see that there’s a lot left to be done.”
Presently, Gandhi is working to issue appropriate orders regarding the Transfers, Charters & Delays Act [Maharashtra, 2006]. Alongside this, he is working towards the delivery of timebound justice. “If any of these happen, it would perhaps be a profound moment for me.”
“When I was in IIT I was quite an idealist. I guess I still am, to an extent,” he notes.
Shailesh Gandhi and Satyamev Jayate collaborated to provide detailed explanations, scope, and points for the usage of India’s Right to Information Act. You can view those details here.
Edited by Yoshita Rao