Cultivating secrecy around the new farm laws

Cultivating secrecy around the new farm laws

Sarkari Secrets

Venkatesh Nayak

“…negila hidida kaiyyaadhaaradi/doregalu darpadolaalidaru/negila baladolu veeraru meredaru/shilpigalesedaru kavigalu baredaru/uluva yogiya nodalli…”

 

These lines from India’s poet-laureate Kuvempu’s paean to the nameless farmer, from whose labours every civilisation -- ancient, medieval and modern -- has drawn sustenance, ring true on Delhi’s Tikri-Singhu borders today. The ruling elite, with its arrogance bolstered by shrill cheerleaders in the intelligentsia and mass media, is dubbing the protesting farmers ignoramuses. They, apparently, do not know what is best for them. They had better read the text of the three farm laws (whose gazette notifications are available only in English), listen to sermons from the ivory towers, and enter the Neverland of prosperity which the latest brand of agrarian reforms will, professedly, usher in the future. No other information from government files about the whys and the wherefores of these farm laws will be disclosed, despite the 15-year-old RTI Act being in force.

In October 2020, well after the government had steamrolled the three farm bills through Parliament, without a modicum of pre-legislative consultation, this author sought copies of Cabinet Notes, details of inter-ministerial consultations, file notings and representations received, related to the three Ordinances which they replaced. That RTI application was transferred to multiple departments within the Agriculture Ministry. One Public Information Officer (PIO) sent a reply rejecting access to all this information about the law which apparently seeks to “liberate” farmers from the tentacles of APMC mandis and middlemen and “empower” them to sell their crops to anybody, anywhere. The reason given was that the Act in question is currently under challenge in various courts and therefore the matter sub judice!

The PIO did exactly what the Supreme Court had frowned upon in 2015 while deciding a matter relating to bad loans that were piling up in public sector banks. The court lamented: PIOs often prevent the general public from getting their hands on rightful information they are entitled to, under the guise of invoking one exemption to RTI or the other.

The Agriculture Ministry’s PIO misused the exemption listed in Section 8(1)(b) of the RTI Act. It applies only to cases where there is an express order from a court to not disclose certain information or if disclosure may result in contempt of court. While rushing through his decision, he ignored the fact that the information sought was about an Ordinance which was repealed by the corresponding Act. An appeal filed with the ministry remains undecided even though the time limit lapsed several weeks ago. Two other PIOs are also sitting silent on the request for similar information about the Ordinances relating to contract farming and the removal of stock limits on essential commodities.

The rest of the world is envious of our RTI Act for many reasons, one of them being its emphasis on proactive disclosure of Cabinet papers. In the United Kingdom, Cabinet papers are disclosed only after two decades have lapsed. In several others, these documents are not accessible even under their RTI laws. Under our RTI law, the bar on disclosure applies only until such time as the Cabinet gives its approval and the matter is complete or over.

In June 2012, Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi had directed the Department of Atomic Energy to make relevant Cabinet papers public within a week of any bill being tabled in Parliament. Cabinet papers were indeed accessible under RTI during the UPA government and the initial years of the Modi regime. In 2015, this author could obtain the Cabinet Note supporting the amendments proposed to the Whistleblowers Protection Act without having to knock on the CIC’s door. However, in more recent years, Cabinet papers, even in completed matters, have become sarkari secrets -- illegitimately insulated from public scrutiny. The CIC’s directive has not become common practice.

The regime of openness in government envisioned by our RTI Act goes much beyond the dashboard-type transparency being practised in recent years. When citizens have access to the record of official deliberations, they will be able to debate the pros and cons of the government’s decisions and actions in a more informed manner.

To withhold information on the one hand and calumniate protesting farmers on the other, is simply not cricket. Democratic processes must be conducted more even-handedly than the present government has shown itself to be capable of.