Shivanand Dwivedi, a resident of village Kaytha in Madhya Pradesh, would never have imagined that his right to information (RTI) application requesting information on the affidavit of candidates contesting panchayat elections would be the trigger for a landmark order by the tenacious information commissioner Rahul Singh.
Not only did he address Mr Dwivedi’s second appeal under Section 19 of the RTI Act but the information commissioner also conducted an inquiry under Section 18 to discover that, despite gazette notifications by the state election commission to upload information in the public domain of affidavits of candidates on the district web page and on the election commission’s website, all the district administrations of the state as well as the state election commission had failed to do so.
His probe also revealed that the gazette notification of the state election commission also mandates displaying candidates’ affidavits on the notice board at the returning officer’s office.
Mr Singh, with the bold stroke of his order, has directed the secretary of the state election commission to upload the affidavits of panchayat elections candidates on the state election commission’s website whenever local panchayat elections take place in future.
He has also directed the collector of Rewa and all other collectors of Madhya Pradesh to do the same. Hailing the order, former central information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi tweeted “This is a landmark order which recognises and implements democracy and citizens’ right to information to the village level. My salute to Rahul Singh for this fantastic order.”
Mr Singh, when contacted by Moneylife, stated, “There are around 23,176 panchayats including janpad (village blocks) panchayats and district panchayats. In all there would be 2,31,760 elected representatives. During elections, four to five lakh people file for nominations. I had discussed informally with other bureaucrats and office colleagues regarding transparency for the benefit of the citizens who would be voting but they were not that encouraging. They were shying away from the sheer numbers it would target.”
However, states Mr Singh, citing the reason why he gave this order, “An informed citizen or voter is the life-line of our democracy. Democracy cannot survive without having free and fair elections and informed voters. Information related to credentials and affidavits of candidates of Panchayat elections is also a fundamental right of voters under Article 19(1) (a). The Panchayati Raj system, which ensures participatory democracy, would reduce to a farce if we allow any hindrance in the free flow of information related to antecedents of candidates in panchayat elections.”
Regarding the uploading of such information, observes Mr Singh in his order, “Voters should be aware of the credentials of their candidates, their criminal records if any, assets and liabilities and educational qualifications and it should be made available suo motu on websites under section 4 of RTI so that the public, without resorting to RTI, can access all information, to be able to make an informed decision during the polls.”
He also observes, “The election commission of India, in furtherance of the judgment of Union of India versus Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR), was positively obligated to display affidavits of the prospective candidates on a public platform. It has been doing so by posting affidavits of candidates contesting elections for the Parliament and the state assemblies on their website. Therefore, an application of this judgment would also compel the state election commission of Madhya Pradesh too, to publish the candidate’s affidavit on their websites as they have similar powers and hence, similar obligations.”
“Furthermore, it must be noted that the state election commission has an obligation to post the affidavits of candidates on a public platform. Authority for this fact that derived from the judgment of the Supreme Court from Kishansing Tomar versus Municipal Corporation of Ahmedabad AIR 2007, SC 269 where, the court said the following “in the domain of elections to the Panchayats and the municipal bodies under the Part IX and Part IX A for the conduct of the elections to these bodies, the state election commission enjoys the same status as the election commission of India and that the powers of the state election commission are no less than those of the election commission of India in their respected allotted domains.”
In this RTI application Mr Dwivedi was denied information by the public information officer (PIO) stating that the affidavits of the panchayat poll candidates are under sealed cover but Singh busted that lie and has directed PIOs of the Rewa district as well the PIOs across the state to provide information of affidavit or abstract sheet within 30 days as per Section 7 of the RTI act in case any RTI is filed seeking such information.
It is so heartening to see an information commissioner keeping up the sanctity of the RTI Act. Could we have more such information commissioners with a spine, please?
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.