Crumbling edifice of secrecy, apathy, corruption...

Crumbling edifice of secrecy, apathy, corruption...

It would have remained just a dream for 35-year old Sanjit Kumar Chandra of Jharkhand’s Dhanbad district to become a judge in civil court, had the Right to Information (RTI) Act not been in place today.

He had done well in the recruitment test conducted by the Jharkhand Public Service Commission (JPSC) for the post of Civil Judge in 2008. To his dismay, his name did not figure in the list of successful candidates when the final results were announced in 2010.

Confident of his performance in the test, Chandra filed an application with the JPSC demanding it show his answer sheets under RTI Act. He later got one certified copy of his answer sheets from the Commission only to discover that there were discrepancies in the calculation of the scores obtained by him. He brought this to the notice of the Jharkhand High Court, which ordered for his recruitment in January this year. “Whatever I am going to become, it’s all because of the RTI Act,” Chandra told Deccan herald. Though the Jharkhand government is yet to notify his first posting, he is confident of getting it anytime.

Chandra is not the only one who could make the system work by the judicious use of the RTI Act. The landmark legislation, enacted by Parliament at the initiative of Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government in 2005, is helping thousands of people across the country in realising their dues every day. “Undoubtedly, the law has heralded a new era of transparency and accountability in the functioning of the public authorities, leading to the beginning of the much desired process of deepening of participatory democracy,” said Radhakanta Tripathy, a supreme court lawyer and an RTI activist. 

The transparency law continues to stand tall, fulfilling its promises made to the people of the country.  If not so, how a series of scams including irregularities in the allocations of 2G spectrum and the Commonwealth Games (CWG) could have been brought to the fore? The Adarsh Housing Society scam in Mumbai and various cases of corruption in other parts of the country would never have come out in to the open. “RTI Act has done wonders in exposing scandals and irregularities refining the system,” Subhash Chandra Agrawal, a Delhi - based  RTI activist, said.

The growing public appreciation to the path-breaking legislation went to such an extent that even the higher judiciary had to bow before it. The then Chief Justice of India K G Balakrishnan and 20 other judges of the Supreme Court made their assets public in November 2009. This came two months after the Delhi High Court held that the office of the CJI came under the RTI Act and disclosure of assets of the apex court judges could be made public.

The mounting pressure from the civil society made the bureaucrats and ministers also follow suit. They too were forced to disclose their assets and liabilities. With the passage of time, however, the efficacy and impact of the transparency law began making UPA managers uncomfortable as the ruling coalition was the first to face its might with unearthing of a series of scams during its regime.

Since 2006, the UPA government made several attempts to dilute the legislation. The government had to withdraw a controversial proposal to amend the RTI Act to restrict disclosure of “file notings” only to social and developmental issues under the transparency law in January, 2012. The Cabinet had even approved the amendments in 2006 but government could not take it to Parliament because of stiff opposition from civil society and RTI activists.

The government’s intent behind bringing amendments was apparent as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while addressing a convention organised by the Central Information Commission in 2012, had called for maintaining a “fine balance” between the RTI Act and the Right to Privacy. He had also said the citizens’ right to know should “definitely be circumscribed” if disclosure of information encroaches upon someone’s personal privacy.

Congress president and the UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, who spearheaded and supported this landmark legislation throughout the course of its formulation and passage in Parliament in 2005, also apparently supported the proposed amendments as no major step is taken by the government without her clearance.

Recently, all the political parties came together to oppose a ruling by the Central Information Commission (CIC) which held that Congress, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Communist Party of India (CPI), Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M), Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) and Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) come within the ambit of the RTI  Act. The CIC had held these parties public authorities as they were “substantially” financed by the central government.

The government brought an amendment Bill in Parliament to overrule the CIC judgement, despite stiff opposition. The Bill had to be referred to a Parliamentary standing committee amid pressure from the activists including RTI pioneer Aruna Roy, also a former member of the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council.

Though the Act has helped in increasing transparency in the functioning of the government and public authority, many RTI activists feel that its provisions were also being misused by some people with ulterior motives.

To make the law more effective, public information officers need to be sensitised as many of them unnecessarily harass applicants by refusing to part with the information on some or other pretext, suggests S K Virmani, RTI activist based in Faridabad. Many others are of the opinion that the ambit of the Act should be further widened by bringing in it the private sector, the non-government organisations and the corporates.

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