By Syed Nazakat
There aren’t a lot of bureaucrats who have helped solve an old puzzle in society. But then, not a lot of bureaucratic are Wajahat Habibullah. As India’s first chief information commissioner, he brings one of the bureaucratic community’s most versatile minds to bear on some of India’s most complex questions – how to encourage free flow of information and change the power balance in favour of the people. “When someone learns to use RTI, he almost becomes addicted to it,” says Wajahat Habibullah, sitting in his airy second-floor office above the clogged arteries of the South Delhi explaining why it is important to create more awareness about RTI. ““It will bring democracy to its rightful owners — the people of India.”
The Right to Information Act was passed four years ago, and Wajahat was asked to implement it. Today, it allows citizens to inspect government records, take copies and question the authorities for a fee of Rs 10. “RTI is a magic wand. For the first time, the common man has an effective tool to fight bribery and bureaucratic apathy,” he says. “It has worked particularly well for routine tasks, such as getting passports and pensions, which previously took months or years.”
RTI has not been popular with bureaucrats, who often ignore requests for information. The CIC is pondering granting of appeals which would allow people the right to access the sources of funds of anyone seeking public office.
As the son of Major General E. Habibullah, who set up the National Defence Academy in Khadakwasla in Maharashtra, Wajahat acquired an understanding of the Army’s ethos. That, as he says, made him down-to-earth. He is proud that his paternal grandmother, the Urdu writer Inam Fatima Habibullah, was the first to give up the burqa in Lucknow during the 1930s. Wajahat, who is a product of St Stephen’s College, Delhi, grew up reading Anton Chekhov and Fyodor Dostoyevsky. But he considers Leo Tolstoy the giant of Russian literature.
Wajahat is a peacemaker, writer and a horse rider. At 64, he loves riding on the President’s Estate in Delhi. “Horse riding is our family tradition,” he says, pointing to a picture of two horse riders on the wall. “That is my father with Nehruji.”
Wajahat is said to be the most respected voice in the bureaucratic circles. He was a close aide of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, and the Gandhi family likes his unadorned manner. While bureaucrats cherish their postings in power centres, Wajahat cherishes his posting in Lakshadweep. “I see Lakshadweep as a golden posting. I got a chance [as Lakshadweep administrator] to reorient the local administration,” he says. He brought solar energy to the islands, and today it is one of the main sources of energy there. He also promoted greater public participation in governance by setting up elected island councils. “I did very normal things,” Wajahat says modestly. “We made sure that once a project is cleared deadlines need to be met.”
Wajahat is New Delhi’s expert on Kashmir affairs. The IAS officer served in Jammu and Kashmir for many years and, during the troublesome 90s, he was seen as the only human face of the Indian state. He was divisional commissioner of Srinagar during the hostage crisis of Hazratbal shrine. When the armed forces were about to flush out the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front militants from the shrine, Wajahat stepped in and established contact with the insurgents. And what followed was a peaceful surrender of over two dozen heavily armed terrorists. During this period, he met with a near-fatal car accident in Kashmir.
“If we had failed to take militants out it would have been disastrous keeping in view the faith Kashmiri people have in the shrine. It would have been Kashmir’s Blue Star,” says Wajahat. He continues to guide the Centre on Kashmir. When Prime Minister Manmohan Singh initiated the Kashmir peace process in 2006, Wajahat was specially invited to the state. There are reports that J&K Chief Minister Omar Abdullah might use his services after he retires next year. “I’ve not heard anything from the government yet,” he says. “But I love to serve Kashmir. After all, the place is close to my heart.”
The Week Magazine, August 16, 2009
“Prime Minister has a vision for Kashmir”
Top bureaucrat and New Delh’s expert on Kashmir, Wajahat Habibullah is moving Kashmir to take the charge of the Chief Information Commissioner of the state. The Central RTI Act, which came into force in 2005, extends to all parts of India except Jammu and Kashmir due to its special constitutional status. Now the RTI, as Wajahat Habibullah says, Act would bring transparency and accountability in the public life in J&K. A day before leaving for Kashmir Wajahat Habibullah spoke to THE WEEK about RTI, working group and the PM’s peace initiative on Kashmir.
Q. Your appointment as the chief information commission is the only major recommendation of the Working Groups implemented by the government. How do you see it?
A. It is a big responsibility. I sincerely hope and believe that the other recommendations will be implemented.
Q. Are you satisfied with the progress of the Working Groups?
A. I’m optimistic about the prime minister’s initiative on Kashmir. He has a vision for Kashmir. He has shown a great deal of personal interest to win peace in Kashmir. However, I will say that the timely implementation of the working group recommendations has failed.
Q. The Prime Minister has appreciated your proposal on Kashmir? What is the crux of your proposal?
A. It is based on the concept of the local governance. Both India and Pakistan should promote local self-government in their part of Kashmir through maximum participation of the populace involved. The model envisages that gram sabha (halqa majlis) would accord prior approval to plans, programmes and budgets prepared by the village panchayats (halqa panchayat) and certify the utilisation of funds. All these proposals should only be put into action after they have been placed before elected assemblies or authorised representatives (read Hurriyat) of the people in Jammu & Kashmir. The same model can be put into action in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir by Islamabad.
Q. Is it not similar to the People’s Democratic Party’s self-rule proposal?
A. Yes, in some ways it comes closer to PDP’s self rule.
Q. Will it fulfil the local aspirations?
A. Tell me what do the people of J&K want. They say we want Azadi. What is Azadi: it is the freedom to live one’s own life with dignity. I think you need to empower people at the local level and give them freedom to exercise their democratic rights. The problem arises when you curtail that freedom