'Expect sweeping changes in Official Secrets Act'

Mao Zedong once described Communism as purgative for a stagnant society. In our times, RTI can justly be described as a purgative for the secrecy-induced stagnant governance of developing countries, such as ours.

The RTI experience in India, even in the short period of eight years, has been quite phenomenal, not just for what RTI has succeeded in achieving, but more for exposing how secrecy had become a pervasive theme of all matters government. Civil Servants marked even ordinary documents as “confidential”, “secret” or “top secret”, sure that they would be seldom called upon to explain why they did so.

The officers and the political functionaries in the senior echelons of the government encouraged a secrecy-oriented approach, which frequently extracted a heavy cost in terms of efficiency, accountability and even morale. It hid from public view bureaucratic sloth, corruption, nepotism and red-tapism, and enabled them to flourish uninterrupted. The costs to the State were never properly assessed and largely went unnoticed.  Revolution in the minds and the approaches of the civil servants was long overdue. RTI appears to have engendered just that.

But more than anything else, RTI has helped address a major weakness in modern democracy, especially in the developing world. By helping break down the wall of secrecy that separated the governed from the government, RTI reduced the “mistrust’ in their relationship. It is paradoxical, but true, that modern day state systems, while paying lip service to the sovereignty of the people, went to great lengths to actually exclude the people from the decision-making apparatus. Governmental secrecy was bureaucracy’s tool of choice, whose endemic use helped shroud the governments’ decision-making in an enduring mystery, which made these processes opaque and inaccessible to the average citizen.

He was handed down the outcomes of the processes, which he neither  contributed to nor understood. The net upshot of this was an atmosphere of mistrust between the government and the governed, causing perceptible, and empirically proven, decline in the quality of governance.

It is a pity that in India its value is not well understood, which partly explains the rulers’ lackadaisical attitude towards RTI and its trust-promoting potential. While unfailing, but tongue-in-cheek, references were made to the people being the masters, much that the masters ought to have known was withheld from them.

Indian bureaucracies worshipped at the altar of secrecy and abhorred transparency. The Secretariat Business Rules routinely proclaimed that every paper held in the Secretariat was confidential . In other words, secrecy was the rule and transparency an exception. For the common man, any contact with the government was, mostly, an unpleasant – even traumatic – experience, which demonstrated to him, time and again, his helplessness against a system which intimidated and alienated him.

The advent of RTI began to change all that in somewhat dramatic style. For the first time in the history of India, people got the right to question the authorities directly and receive information in a finite time frame, which the civil servant was enjoined to provide. The experience was as much new to the people as it was to the government and its sprawling bureaucracies. But the interesting aspect of this reaction was that both the people and the bureaucrats began to change. This change is still underway and gaining strength. The RTI law has been hugely empowering for the people of India and liberating for the hide-bound bureaucracy.

Inevitably, RTI will profoundly impact the way the people of this country are governed. In the days to come, one can expect sweeping changes in the Official Secrets Act. There may be some insidious efforts to sneak in provisions in the statutes to retain some measure of secrecy to comfort the bureaucracies, but sooner than later, the sheer weight of the people’s power will change India in ways we cannot even imagine.

The strength of reformative statutes lies surely in its own power to drive the change it initiates, but if this change is to be sustained, it is important to create a conducive atmosphere. In other words, it would be wrong to treat RTI as a stand alone law for all matters relating to transparency in government.

The values of transparency will need to be incorporated into the relevant statutes and rules of business and practices of the secretariat and field offices, all instrumentalities of government. Prof Amartya Sen advocates what he calls “transparency guarantees”, as key to improved governance where rulers are interested in and seek to enhance public welfare, through improved governance. The RTI Act itself shows the way by listing out, in its Section 4, the measures state should take to promote transparency in all its functions, so much so that the citizen may not even require to use the RTI Act. 

And, that is the destination of RTI – to raise transparency to a level  which renders the use of RTI unnecessary. RTI succeeds when it ‘withers away’.

(The author, a retired IAS officer, was the Chief Information Commissioner, Central Information Commission, New Delhi )

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