Govt out to bottle people's genie?

Govt out to bottle people's genie?

Tinkering with RTI Act: Experts and activists sense a bid to scuttle the legislation

Govt out to bottle people's genie?

The Right to Information Act, the many scams unearthed using the landmark legislation, murderous attack on its activists and proposed amendments to the RTI Act have all been making news over the last couple of years and more so in recent weeks.

The recent remarks of M Veerappa Moily as Union law minister and his successor Salman Khurshid, capped by a statement by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on October 14, seeking a review of the transparency law, have rankled the RTI activists no end. It is not without reason though. Let's take a peek at the changing stands of the two ministers and the PM:

* PM in 2006:  “One year of RTI Act is the consummation of a process initiated with the adoption of our Constitution. The RTI took India closer to fulfilling Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of real Swaraj."
* PM in 2011: “Even as we recognise and celebrate the efficacy and the effectiveness of the RTI Act, we must take a critical look at it. There are concerns that need to be discussed and addressed honestly... The RTI  should not adversely affect the deliberative processes in the government. We must also take a critical look at the exemption clauses in the RTI Act to determine whether they serve the larger good and whether a change is needed in them.”
* Moily in 2006 Administrative Reforms Commission report: “Files and notings per se are not confidential and should not be inaccessible to the public unless exempt under Section 8 of the RTI Act."
* Moily in 2011: "There is need for a national debate on the scope of the RTI as it transgresses into the independent functioning of the government…Transparency, yes, but it cannot scuttle the independence of individuals and ministries expressing difference of opinion… But, RTI obtains some extracts of such exchange of views and attribute motives to them. If this continues, no officer or minister will discuss anything. Even the judiciary should appreciate it. Time has come to re-visit the issue of (making public) file notes and discussions.”
* Khurshid in 2011: “There is need for a relook at RTI. Its misuse is affecting institutional efficacy and efficiency, with even the bureaucracy becoming reluctant to record its opinion. A balance has to be maintained between transparency and accountability and institutional efficiency.”

Does this represent the changing face of the UPA with regard to the RTI, which it has been proudly touting for the last six years as one of its game changer legislations? If the above oscillating stands are any indicator, it surely does.

What are the compulsions behind the Congress-led government taking a relook at the RTI Act? True, the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) proposed amendments to the Act in 2009, which was put to public debate. While some provisions were outright opposed by the activists and experts, they suggested some changes to the draft amendments, as was also done by the National Advisory Council (NAC) led by Sonia Gandhi. However, comments made by the two ministers have been widely received with anger and dismay by the activists, who see it as an attempt to dilute the milestone legislation.

Government nervous
Obviously, the unending stream of scams have made a rattled government and some of its ministers to start demanding changes to the Act. Said RTI pioneer and NAC member Aruna Roy: “The truth is that RTI has opened a million cans of worms. It has put the fear of God in the government. The RTI has brought in transfer of power on an unimaginable scale and no government wants that.” Information obtained through RTI became fodder for unearthing major scams in the country, be it the Adarsh housing society scandal in Mumbai, the Commonwealth Games fraud or the 2G spectrum scam.

The latest in the series of RTI exposes is the role of Home minister P Chidambaram in the 2G spectrum allocation scam during his tenure as finance minister. The documents that petitioner Subramanian Swamy submitted to the Supreme Court charging that Chidambaram was as much involved as then Telecom minister A Raja – now in jail – were all obtained through RTI. Pranab Mukherjee, who succeeded Chidambaram in North Block office and whose finance ministry office memorandum indicated that Chidambaram could have prevented the scam, referred to the issue saying that the document was ironically obtained through RTI, a law brought in by the UPA government.

The mood in the government goes directly contrary to the stand taken by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. In her letter to the PM in 2010 (obtained, ironically, through RTI by activist S C Agarwal), she said, “It is important that we adhere strictly to the Act’s original aims and refrain from accepting or introducing changes in the legislation or the way it is implemented that would dilute its purpose. There is no need for changes or amendments”.

Changes proposed
Some of the amendments suggested by the DoPT include: limiting RTI applications only to one subject and 250 words (Karnataka has changed this to one subject and 150 words); levying a higher charge; abating of the proceedings before the Information Commission if an appellant dies; exempting the office of the Chief Justice of India from the RTI Act; prohibiting applications which could be deemed to be “frivolous or vexatious”; amendment to Section 8 of the Act (relating to exemptions) to “slightly modify the provision about disclosure of Cabinet papers to ensure smooth functioning of the Government”; forming two-commissioner benches instead of one etc.

While some of these proposals have been opposed by the activists who have given their suggestions to the DoPT, the Central Information Commission went one step ahead by stating that it was not necessary for information seekers to limit RTI applications ''to only one subject matter''.

The August 2011 order was issued by Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi, who has been critical of the proposed amendments. According to an RTI note made public by Gandhi, at a recent conference of Information Commissioners attended by 60 of them, all but two were opposed to the idea of tinkering with the historic legislation.

Amendments or no change, RTI has become an important tool for the public to break into the bureaucratic fortress. According to Minister of State for Personnel V Narayanasamy, the government received 6.05 lakh RTI applications in the last six years and 90 per cent were disposed of.

The rejection of the requested information has shown a consistently decreasing trend, from 7.2% in 2007-08 to 6.4% in 2009-10 and 5.2% in 2010-11. Between April 2006 and August 2010, the Central Information Commission, the RTI Act's apex body, disposed of 54,853 cases. That's an average of 1,035 cases a month. Between 2005 and 2007, about four lakh RTI applications were filed from rural India. About 30% of the rural RTI applicants were from the economically weaker sections and 65% were from above-poverty-line cardholders.

No surprises that after having brought in the pathbreaking legislation, the government wants to impose curbs on it!

Changes proposed to RTI Act
* Limiting RTI applications only to one subject and 250 words (one subject proposal rejected by CIC)
* Levying a higher charge for RTI application
* Abating of the proceedings before the Information Commission if appellant dies
* Exempting the office of the Chief Justice of India from the RTI Act.
* Prohibiting applications deemed “frivolous or vexatious”
* Amendment to Section 8 (relating to exemptions) to “slightly modify the provision about disclosure of Cabinet papers to ensure smooth functioning of the Government”
* Forming two-commissioner benches instead of one

* As many as 6.05 lakh RTI applications in the last six years and 90 pc of them disposed of
* Rejections decrease from 7.2 pc in 2007-08 to 6.4 pc in 2009-10 and 5.2 pc in 2010-11.
* Between April 2006 and August 2010, the Central Information Commission disposed of 54,853 cases – an average of 1,035 cases a month
* Between 2005 and 2007, four lakh RTI applications were filed from rural India
Source: Government and studies by RTI organisations.

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