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A fight against transparency?
Call it a lack of good faith or perhaps a misdirected agenda, but a landmark legislation that the UPA has been considerably responsible for, is under attack for obvious reasons. As the RTI Act completes six years, how does the entire story look in retrospect and what’s the future that we wish to shape for it.
Issue Date - 10/11/2011
If you happened to listen to the political masters of the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government as the Anna movement gripped the whole country, one of the most common grounds for the defence cited to prove the government’s commitment to curb corruption was that the people should remember that it was this government that gave India the landmark Right To Information (RTI) legislation. Jump to the present and even that immensely credible logic seems to lose some & shine.

On a day when the government should have ideally been celebrating the growing impact of RTI in improving governance, it’s fighting a turf war. Addressing the Convention of Information Commissioners on the occasion of the RTI completing six years of enactment, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh shot down another self goal. “Even as we recognise and celebrate the efficacy and the effectiveness of the Right to Information Act, we must take a critical look at it. There are concerns that need to be discussed and addressed honestly,” he said, adding that the RTI was now being more extensively and effectively used to bring into public gaze many areas of the work of public authorities ‘which would otherwise remain hidden from public gaze’. He also said that the power and usefulness of the act were being felt more today than ever before.

But the PM’s remarks that day could not be mistaken for encouragement and have in fact added more ambiguity in the minds of citizens as well as public authorities. On one hand, the PM lauded the RTI for bringing irregularities into public gaze which otherwise would not have happened. On the other, he created a small opening for dilutions to the same. “RTI is a powerful tool. We wish to make it a more effective instrument for ensuring transparency and accountability in administration... the RTI should not impede the working of governance,” he said.

As discouraging as this may sound, demands to potentially dilute the provisions of the RTI existed even before it became a legislation. In July 2006, soon after being passed in Parliament, the government had decided that the RTI Act was not something worth handling. The cabinet secretariat had already passed amendments that they wanted to introduce in Parliament. However, the civil society began demonstrating and the government had to backtrack. At that time, three more exemption clauses were to be added to the existing list of 10. File notings was one of the exemptions. In the definition of information, the government said that file notings was not information and the role of the commission was to be made recommendatory. Again in 2009, there was a similar call by none other than the President in her first address to the parliament. The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) took it forward but as pressure mounted, the government again backtracked. Civil society activists will readily point out how tough it has been to keep the provisions of the RTI Act intact in letter and spirit since the very beginning.

In a way, the PM’s statements should not come as a shock. After all, it is the RTI that has left the Congress on slippery track on more occasions than one. The most recent addition to this list was a note prepared by the Finance Ministry in March this year that faulted Home Minister P. Chidambaram for not exercising his complete powers as Finance Minister in 2008 to enforce an auction of valuable spectrum. The absence of that auction is said to be one of the major catalysts of the telecom scam, believed to be India’s largest swindle till date. Chidambaram was even asked to resign by the Opposition on the basis of the Finance ministry’s note. After a week-long political storm, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee ‘clarified’ that different ministries had contributed to the note and that he did not agree with all its inferences. However, his other colleagues who have been advocating for a weaker RTI with the reasoning that RTI hampers the ‘deliberative process’ of the government have found support with the PM. Soon after the PM’s statements calling for a critical look into the Act, Corporate Affairs minister Veerappa Moily said that certain ‘inbuilt weaknesses’ in the RTI Act need to be addressed and that the bureaucracy should know how to meet the challenges posed by it – such as ‘how to write in a file’. He reiterated that there was no intention to amend the Act. Law Minister Salman Khurshid was more diplomatic in his praise for RTI and said that there was no plan to revisit its provisions to his knowledge.

As reassuring that these assurances might seem, things have already started moving in the background. In a fresh development, the government is learnt to have framed new guidelines for addressing RTI applications. As per reliable sources, all RTI replies prepared by junior officers will now have to be vetted by a senior officer, preferably of the Joint Secretary rank, before they are sent to the applicant. Among the changes considered, sources say that RTI replies will have to be brief and will not be allowed to reveal much.


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