A big step backwards
Posted by rtiact2005 on July 26, 2006
A big step backwards
In a decidedly retrograde move that borders on the outrageous, the Union Cabinet has decided to bring in amendments to the Right to Information Act (RTI) 2005 that will curtail public scrutiny of file notings by restricting access to them. This will effectively remove from the citizen’s purview information on how decisions are made in government offices and departments. This reneging on a right hard fought and won will detract substantially from transparency in government functioning and strike at the roots of a valuable law. Ever since it came into force last year, the effectiveness of a serious law on the right to information has been amply demonstrated by ordinary citizens using it to assert their basic rights and to bring corrupt officials to justice. The recent media-supported campaign by people’s organisations to popularise the RTI with the slogan “Don’t pay bribes, use the RTI instead” saw a dramatic surge in the application of the new law, which included inquiries into the process of decision-making. As it is, the Right to Information Act carries an exemption clause, Section 8, under which file notings on a broad list of subjects are excluded from public purview. These include notings relating to national security, foreign relations, matters deemed private by court orders or sub judice, trade secrets, information affecting the safety of an individual as well as ongoing deliberations of Ministers. Not content with these exclusions from the ambit of transparency, the Government now seeks to exempt all notings except perhaps those relating to social and development issues from the purview of the Act.
This move will effectively place beyond people’s reach the reasons why most decisions are taken. For instance, the rationale behind transfers, appointments, and other selection processes in government will be shielded from public view. The bureaucratic resistance to the disclosure of such facts, on the ground that it will `put pressure’ on official decisions, has long been apparent. The proposed change is a blow for the rule of arbitrariness and secrecy in governance. The Government is trying to legalise concealment of some of its members’ questionable actions from the very citizens who voted it to office, choosing to ascribe higher value to the protection of establishment interests. The scope for using the law to prevent and proceed against corruption will be greatly weakened. As citizens’ rights campaigner and Magasasay Award winner Aruna Roy points out, the proposed amendment to the law will amount to “giving with one hand and taking away with the other.” “The Right to Information Act,” the National Common Minimum Programme of the United Progressive Alliance Government adopted in May 2004 promised, “will be made more progressive, participatory, and meaningful.” Now that the law shows signs of developing into a real tool of empowerment for the citizens of India, a shameful attempt is being made to turn the clock back.