And you thought Modi is messiah against corruption!

File photo for representation.

Three days ago, the Union Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology uploaded two important documents on its website. The first is a report containing the findings of a committee of experts headed by former Supreme Court Justice BN Srikrishna on an elaborate mechanism for protecting the privacy of citizens. The second is a draft Bill that the same committee has proposed for protecting personal data of individuals, which, among other things, seeks an amendment to the Right to Information (RTI) Act. This is the second attempt in less than six months to tinker with a law that has been a game-changer. Millions of citizens have used the RTI Act, 2005, for more than a decade to demand transparency and accountability in the functioning of public authorities.

The Justice Srikrishna Committee’s justification for seeking to amend the RTI Act is unconvincing. The draft Personal Data Protection Bill, 2018, seeks to prohibit the disclosure of information that would identify an individual if it will cause him or her harm. “Harm” as defined by the draft Bill includes “loss of reputation”. If this proposed amendment were to be made law, it would become next to impossible to discover the names of public officials who are responsible for corruption, wrongdoing and human rights violations as they could take shelter under the “harm” clause. Strangely, the committee has ignored the practice adopted in advanced countries which exempt information about the performance of official functions and duties by public servants from the requirements of privacy protection, especially those which may reveal wrongdoing. This is a déjà vu moment for all votaries of RTI who successfully resisted the previous UPA government’s move to amend the RTI Act in 2006, less than a year after it became law. That proposal also sought to accord anonymity to officials who penned their opinion and advice on files on all matters of governance.

Ironically, the committee report and the draft Bill on data protection are uploaded under the “What’s New” section of the ministry’s website. In fact, there is little that is new about it when one looks at the developments over the last four years. Despite coming to power on the electoral plank of truly transparent and corruption-free governance, several measures initiated by the Narendra Modi government can only be described as welching on that deal with the citizenry.

Take the other Bill to amend the RTI Act that is waiting to be tabled in Parliament. The government wants the power to determine both the tenure and the salaries of Information Commissioners (IC) at the central and the state levels at its whim and fancy.

Currently, the law has fixed for ICs a single five-year term and a salary equal to that of the members of the Election Commission of India (ECI). Thanks to the intervention of the ICs, official documents revealing scores of cases of both petty and large-scale corruption have been unearthed by concerned citizens using the RTI Act despite initial refusal by public authorities to release the documents. The amendment proposal seeks to destroy the very legislative scheme of the RTI Act that ensures autonomy for the ICs, thereby reducing their effectiveness in realising the legislative vision, namely, the containment of corruption.

An eyewash

The government’s justification that statutory authorities like the ICs cannot be equated with the ECI, a constitutional authority, is an eyewash. In June last year, the government made rules to upgrade the salaries of the chairpersons and members of 17 statutory tribunals and adjudicating authorities to the remuneration level of the Supreme Court and High Court Judges who are constitutional authorities and on par with the ECI authorities. Clearly, the proposed RTI amendment Bill is a move calculated to prevent ICs from enforcing the regime of transparency on matters that government officials would like to keep secret.

Photocopies of official documents supplied under the RTI Act cost only Rs 2 per page, but the citizenry has been paying a much heavier price for transparency since 2005. More than 70 citizens have been murdered in their “Quest for Transparency,” a highlight on the current website of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). More than 350 others have been brutally assaulted – some more than once – or threatened or harassed for seeking information about the manner in which funds were spent for socio-economic development. This is only the tip of the iceberg as many stories of assault and harassment do not get media attention.

Despite this gory phenomenon, which is unparalleled anywhere in the world, the government is pressing Parliament to amend the law enacted in 2014 to protect such whistle-blowers. Their immunity from prosecution under the Official Secrets Act is sought to be taken away. Further, the government is seeking to prevent even the registration and enquiry of whistle-blower complaints if they relate to any of the matters exempted under the RTI Act. Strange are the plans of the establishment in a country whose national motto is satyam eva jayate (truth alone shall triumph).

 

So, when transparency and accountability mechanisms take such body blows, one is reminded of Marcellus’s remark: “Something is rotten in the State of Denmark”, that sets the tone for Shakespeare’s famous tragedy.As a guard of the fort, Marcellus has no further role to play in the plot, which revolves around the shenanigans of the royal family.

But a Horatio-like reply: “Heaven will direct it”, would be a disaster for a democracy. Every voter-taxpayer citizen has a role to play. The first step is to question this dismal state of affairs and then to
take action for repair. There is no better time than now. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” as Dylan Thomas would say.

(The writer is with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi)

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And you thought Modi is messiah against corruption!

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