Reverse exemption

The Union cabinet’s recent decision to exclude the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) from the purview of the Right to Information (RTI) Act is wrong and, as widely suspected, ill-motivated. The CBI has been trying to secure such an exemption for long for wrong reasons.

The cabinet has acted according to the wishes of the investigative agency and notified its decision. The notification has attracted strong criticism and opposition and the Madras high court, on a petition by an RTI activist, has told the government to explain the reasons for its decision.  The government’s rationale for its decision does not stand scrutiny. It has sought to club the CBI together with the National Investigative Agency (NIA) and the national Intelligence grid to justify its decision. But the CBI is an investigative agency and not an intelligence body which may have sensitive information concerning national security at its disposal. So the decision to equate the CBI with other agencies is clearly not right.

The  agency has argued that it is investigating extremely sensitive and important cases having inter-state and international ramifications and so its activities should not be subject to public scrutiny. But it is precisely because it  undertakes investigation of important cases that the public should have access to its working.

Requests under the RTI Act cannot be entertained in cases where the investigation is going on but there is no reason to deny information on matters which are already settled or closed. Another argument of the agency that disclosure of file notings and other bits of information available on files may not be in public interest and may actually damage it is also not acceptable. The argument has been rejected in the case of more sensitive and important offices and no damage to public interest has come to light.

The CBI mainly investigates cases of corruption and crime across states or those involving influential persons. Since there is a public perception that it shields those who are in power, it is necessary that its working should be transparent  and open to public scrutiny. If the police, income tax and other investigating agencies come under the purview of the RTI why should the CBI be an exemption?

It should also be noted that apart form RTI activists, former CBI chiefs have also opposed the government’s decision. The CBI is the government’s handmaiden and the only reason for the exemption could be the fear of exposure.

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