An act disabling an Act – ARUNA ROY
Posted by rtiact2005 on July 22, 2006
An act disabling an Act
Posted online: Saturday, July 22, 2006 at 0000 hrs
If the people of this country wanted to know what it would mean to have a right to information law amended as per the reported cabinet decision, questions about how this decision came about would provide enough of an answer. How did this come about? “Secret” Who suggested it? “Secret” When was it suggested? “Secret” Who opposed it? Who supported it? What were the reasons? Was any one consulted? What was their opinion? Secret! Secret! Secret! Secret! The term used might not be ‘secret’ but ‘‘the information you have sought is barred from disclosure’’ or some other better camouflaged euphemism. The people of this country will continue to be served with policies conceived secretly, implemented without warning, and with potentially far reaching consequences on their lives.
And because no one will ever know “who did it” – the guilty will get away.
All through the debate about the contents of the Right To Information Act, the greatest weapon the babus had and used to fight it was to make secret moves, while hiding behind the garb of bureaucratic privilege. The supporters of secrecy cannot argue in an open public domain. That is why we have now been presented with a decision that will protect them in perpetuity.
At least two of the proposed amendments will permanently shield the bureaucracy from accountability, the disinfectant power of transparency and allow them to function in an arbitrary manner. They will also shield the corrupt and deal a body blow to the efforts of people to fight corruption and the arbitrary exercise of power. Both these amendments relate essentially to the process of decision-making. The first one is to make file notings a category of information that can be concealed. In one stroke the bureaucracy will have managed to disable the Right To Information Act as far as its own functioning is concerned. The second relates to barring access to cabinet notes even after the decision making process is complete — putting the decision-making process of cabinet decisions into a permanent black hole.
For the Indian citizen, it is the process of decision-making that is of crucial importance. The Right To Information Act has been widely welcomed by almost everyone except the hidden beneficiaries of secrecy. It is being used, and has begun to breathe fresh air into our democratic participation. There have already been unique citizens campaigns for implementation. Those who are threatened by this have waged a relentless battle behind the scenes to reverse the flow of power to the ordinary citizen. This is a battle concerning democratic power to the people and ethics in governance.
The amendments will change the Act so that the decision can be revealed, the process of decision-making cannot. From the slum dweller who automatically knows of the decision to demolish his home and livelihood when the bulldozer arrives at his doorstep, to the contractor who will seal his contract and approvals with the payment of his bribe the final decision is only the consequence of the fairness of the decision-making process.
It is not just the records of a ration shop, or the muster rolls on a work site that people across the country are asking for. It is also the policies that lead to foodgrain stocks being made available, or the manner in which tax-payers’ money is being spent that matters. There are decisions being made related to health and medicines, water and power, agricultural policy and genetic engineering and governance itself, that have the potential to impact not just the lives of millions of people but even generations of Indians. We may be on opposite sides of the fence but do we not all have the right to know what the possible consequences of a particular decision could be before being faced with a fait accompli.
How many Indians, for instance, are aware of the details of field trials being conducted on genetically modified foods in India? This is no longer food that will be consumed by cattle but brinjal and other foods that will be directly consumed by humans. The change in the genetic pool has the potential to change plant, animal, and human life forever. In fact, it is time that some of the holy cows were also analysed. Transparency in the armed forces and many Defence Ministry matters including arms contracts will lead to stronger, better equipped, and more accountable armed forces.
Whatever the ideological positions or arguments about privatization might be, a full presentation of facts and vigorous public debate can only lead to better decisions. Even the issue of access to answer sheets of examinations, and interview boards reportedly raised by the UPSC needs to be revisited. Marks themselves are a transparency measure. There is no reason why we cannot try and use transparency to improve the fairness of the selection and grading system. Even as this is being written the Central Information Commission is hearing an appeal related to the disclosure of what the President of India wrote to the Prime Minister during the Gujarat carnage. Would it not make for a better democracy if we knew of the concerns of the President of India during one of our darkest moments?
Finally, even if there were any areas that were found to have caused undue concern and put fundamental principles at stake, they could easily have been dealt with by the existing exemptions under Section 8 of the Act, or by adding a particular kind of information to Section 8. Barring file notings is not barring a kind of information — it is barring information itself. And this move is nothing short of subterfuge against the Act.
It is generally accepted that the best protection against the excesses of freedom are more and better quality freedoms. We must learn from that postulate and realize that the only solution to the problems of transparency is more and better quality information. The right to information in its current form is a result of popular struggle. It seemed as if the primary battle was to now concentrate on implementation. It now seems as if we will have to return to the battle for a decent right to information law. The powers that be can be sure that they will face a relentless battle and this time the people will be stronger than before.
(The article was written with Nikhil Dey)