Much ado about noting
Posted by rtiact2005 on July 28, 2006
Much ado about noting
Posted online: Friday, July 28, 2006 at 0000 hrs
In what would make screenplay writers of the BBC tele-serial Yes Minister (or Yes Prime Minister, in this case) envious, the government of India has scripted a magnificent episode as it went about this file notings business. It started with announcements in winter ‘allowing file notings to be accessed by the public’. Subsequently this monsoon it was seen to be disallowing it, and then on Thursday, it again attempted to get back some of its credibility on this by announcing that the cabinet had actually ’eased the access to notings’ in the latest decision taken before Parliament kicked off this week.
The tragedy — or the hilarity — of it all is that all of the government’s statements since December 1, 2005 on this notings business have been accurate, only, not in plain English, but babu-speak. It all began on December 1, 2005 with the Prime Minister’s office saying that the PM had issued “instructions” to the department of personnel and training to allow those file notings which relate to social and developmental plans to be public, ie to come under the RTI Act. Even then, the PM did add the expected caveats on restricting those notings that came under matters that were not to be covered under the RTI Act. Hosannas were received from civil society, activists and others whom the UPA has been very keen to please. The final attack on the steel frame had been mounted, it was thought.
But just as civil society and a hundred NGOs were partying and rubbing their hands in glee the babus in Lutyen’s North Block had different ideas. They kept their hands firmly on files, notings and all. They reasoned that the PM’s instructions actually meant an amending of the rules of the RTI Act, and that was not possible. After all, how could the sacrosanct RTI be fiddled about by mere bureaucrats? It had to ‘go to the people’; the act needed to be amended to clarify that certain notings would now be public. So began the attempts at making a cabinet note, and as the scriptwriters of Yes Prime Minister would testify, that would take at least eight months, would it not? So by the third week of July, that is, exactly seven months and three weeks after the top man in government had “instructed” the babus to do so, they finally had a note in place that was then approved by the cabinet.
The amendment proposed was exactly what the Doctor had ordered in December. It excluded certain areas (which the RTI Act itself tucks away in Section 8) and said access to notings would be on those matters which had social and developmental implications. But perhaps rattled by the number of queries under the RTI, and a hint that during the Gujarat riots, the correspondence between the then PM Vajpayee and the then President Narayanan could be on live TV, the way the government chose to phrase the decision that day was to say that the right to access notings was being restricted! But given the nature of the beast — civil society, lawyers, leading Gandhians, one and all who cared about free flow of information were up in arms. The cabinet barely eight months after the PM’s landmark ruling was taking away their rights.
Press conferences were held, and the government was strongly denounced for taking away the ‘soul’ and all that was right from the Right to Know. But when former member of the NAC the astute Aruna Roy pointed out that the DoPT website was very strange, “as they kept maintaining that the access to file notings was never there at all,” one had some discussions with bureaucrats on the absurdity of the time gone by, how on earth does it take eight months to convert a publicly stated PM directive into policy? Questions like these met with tedious attempts to explain the intricacies of law, notification, and finally the difficulties in the preparation of the Cabinet Note. This is the price of consultation required in a modern-day government in a democracy. How could we have taken the RTI Act and simply changed the rules sans the consultative process?
I forgot to add the bit about the two-pager the PMO put out to ‘explain’ all this on Thursday after some Gandhi-topi clad activists threatened to return their Padma Bhushans in protest against the government ‘stifling’ the Right to Know. The latest note from the PMO was obviously another example of fine bureaucratic noting, with one national daily headlining its story, ‘Crippled RTI still good’ and another, ‘PMO Sugarcoats bitter RTI pill’ — the exact opposite of what was the PMO’s intention. Perhaps bureaucratic notes should not be revealed at all, in public interest. At least for public peace of mind.