RTI amendments: A retrograde step

The UPA government’s move to amend sections of the Right to Information Act (RTI) negates the very purpose for which the Act has been passed. One of the proposed amendments is to give immunity to the office of the Chief Justice of India from any queries under the Act. The RTI Act was passed in 2005 to cover all the departments except defence, atomic energy and all those dealing with the country’s security.
That the CJI is also a public authority and therefore comes under the jurisdiction of the Act has been found unpalatable by the supreme court, within five years of its passing.
The RTI Act has been considered a progressive and meaningful legislation as it brought in transition from an opaque system of governance to a transparent system: from one of ‘confidentiality is the rule and disclosure an exception’ to ‘transparency is the norm and secrecy an exception.’ This undid the culture of secrecy that was the hallmark of government functioning for over six decades.

Frivolous and vexatious
The UPA government also wishes to bring an amendment which allows rejection of request for information which is considered ‘frivolous and vexatious.’ This merits serious concern as it makes non-compliance easier. Information can be withheld or refused whimsically based on this exemption. The proposed amendment favours the information provider who would be only too happy to reject many of the requests on flimsy grounds. For the RTI Act to manifest its benefits, information should be viewed from both the information seeker and the providers’ angle.
The amendment would demean the interests of the information seeker. The spirit of this citizen-centric legislation which brought in a paradigm shift in the citizen-government relationship is being dampened.

How does one categorise information either as frivolous or vexatious is a question that begs an answer especially in view of the fact that access to quality information, in the way and form in which it is needed, is often in dearth.

Even the budget data of local self-governments that are public documents are not easily available and when available, it is full of errors as seen by the study of Centre for Budget and Policy Studies, Bangalore. Many zeroes are added to the budget figures, the closing balance at the end of the financial year does not tally with the opening balance of the next financial year. All this and more, reflects the low importance given to managing information. That budget information can be used as a tool that can hold governments accountable is lost because of this attitude.

The RTI law is applicable to governments at all levels, Union, state and local. Demanding the resolution of the council meetings of the urban local bodies in a few cases in Karnataka has been found to be a good measure of holding elected representatives accountable. The civil society can verify if the promises made by the councillors is fulfiled by asking for the resolutions passed at the meetings.

The UPA government is proposing to bring cabinet decisions within the ambit of exemptions; this would not only remove an important area from public scrutiny but encourage the other tiers of the government to take cover under such an exemption.
What seems to be lost sight of is the fact that RTI would, by itself, build informed citizenry. But then, this can happen only if it is allowed to settle down and strengthened. Without information, people cannot adequately exercise their rights or make choices. Information is an important ingredient of democracy effective. The opening lines of the Right to Information Act, 2005, states that democracy requires an informed citizenry and transparency of information which are vital to its functioning and also to contain corruption and to hold governments and their instrumentalities accountable to the governed.

It is precisely for this reason that the Right to Information movement originated in a remote village in Rajasthan. The movement began as a demand for labour that rightfully belonged to the poor as designed by the food for works programme of the government of India, it led to ‘Jan Sunwais’(public hearing) which exposed corruption among officials and demand for information by the Mazdoor Kisan Sakthi Sangatan. This resulted in the national campaign for the people’s right to information and subsequently to the passing of the RTI Act.

South-east Asian countries like Indonesia, which consistently rank high amongst the most corrupt nations, are struggling to place their Freedom for Information Act and are looking up to India for learning. Hopefully they don’t learn from the retreat theory that India seems to follow.

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