Right to Information – Master key to good governance


Posted by rtiact2005 on July 29, 2006


URGENT Action Item: Please sign the petition and forward it to your friends, family, batch-mates from school/college urging them to sign and voice their opinions.

You want to do more than just sign the petition? Write back we are planning to launch a US-wide campaign, along with our grassroots partners in India. We are in dire need of more people to plan and co-ordinate the actions.

What is Right to Information (RTI): Right to Information (RTI) is implicitly a part of fundamental rights under Article 19(1) of the Constitution of India, which says that every citizen has freedom of speech and _expression. As early as in 1976, the Supreme Court said in the case of Raj Narain vs State of UP that India is a democracy, where people are the masters. Therefore, the masters have a right to know how the governments, meant to serve them, are functioning.

Moreover, the right to information is at the core of the human rights system because it enables citizens to more meaningfully exercise their rights, assess when their rights are at risk and determine who is responsible for any violations ( CHRI website)

However no attempt was made by the governments to enact and implement a regime for accessing information till grassroots campaigns were launched by the civil society – most notably, the movement in the early 1990s in Rajasthan  by Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS), demanding access to villages accounts and transparency in administration, brought RTI into national focus.

After years of campaigning, the national government yielded, passing this long-overdue landmark Act on 12th October, 2005. The RTI Act lays down the process in which information can be accessed from government sources.

So what is this recent hullabaloo? The Indian Cabinet decided to approve an amendment to the RTI Act which will restrict access to “file-notings” under the RTI Law

But what exactly are FILE NOTINGS and Why are they IMPORTANT: That sacred creature, the government file, usually has two halves: on the right side is the correspondence and materials. This could be someone’s grievance, a project proposal, a tender, a concept for a policy, anything the government needs to consider. On the left is the closely held note sheet, which records how the proposition was examined. The advice given in the notings has to be strictly in accordance with laws, rules, norms, and orders. The concerned officer puts down views, advice and recommendations. The file then goes up the line to the decision-making authority. On the way the hierarchy adds more notes, putting their signatures against their views. With all advice in hand a justifiable decision must be made.

Cumulatively, the note sheet reflects the mind of government, bares the intention of an individual officer and whether his advice and consent were grounded on established rules. File notings, then, are X-rays of government functioning. They are proof of fair play and reason , or dishonesty, bias, and negligence. They are the shield that most honest bureaucrats wish they had and the sword that dishonest ones fear. It is only by allowing thorough public scrutiny of the evidence of how the government works at every level that corruption can be fought. File notings fall squarely within the definition of ‘information’ in the Act. The nature of file notings is inevitably that of advice/opinion, and these are explicitly covered. To twist the definition to exclude file notings would be to destroy the Act’s legislative intent. Yet that is what is being sought. Despite clear enunciation that file notings fall within the Act, the Department of Personal and Training’s website, says that “information means any material in any form including records, documents…but does not include file notings”.

Read the complete article “Information law: dead on arrival?” by Maja Daruwala, that first appeared in from the Indian Express, October 1, 2005. Maja Daruwala is Director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative.

And here are excerpts from Aruna Roy’s Article (a must-read) in Indian Express: An Act Disabling an ACT

… 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.

The amendments will change the Act so that the decision can be revealed, the process of decision-making cannot. 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 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.

Read the full article here

Why is this petition so relevant? Notes and Examples from Arvind Kejriwal of Parivartan

Cabinet’s decision to amend RTI Act is the last ditch attempt by corrupt bureaucrats to save their empire. What is disturbing is that the political masters, who prevailed upon them when RTI Act was passed, seem to be succumbing to them.

Cabinet decided that file notings, other than for social and developmental projects, would not be disclosed now.

What are file notings and why are they so important?

Every file has two portions. The right portion contains correspondence, minutes of meetings and orders. The left part is green pages. This is called file noting portion. When a file is put up to an officer, he writes his comments or decision on the green pages and forwards it to the next officer. The next officer similarly writes his/her comments on the green pages. Therefore, green pages are a record of the entire decision making process -which officer said what. File notings would expose if any officer wrote anything illegitimate or if he sat on the file for long. The Government would be protecting corrupt and dishonest officials, if file notings were taken out of RTI Act.

Let me give some examples.

1) Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC) got a consultancy contract from Delhi Government. File notings obtained under Delhi Right to Information Act revealed that PWC was at 10th position. In fact, it did not even qualify in the preliminary round. File notings revealed how World Bank pressurized Delhi Government to bring up PWC, cancel bids, do rebidding, change selection criteria etc till such time as PWC got the contract. File notings also revealed how some honest officers protested but their protests were not accepted.

2) 150 jhuggis were razed in Mayur Vihar. DDA said no land was available to resettle them. File notings revealed that 700 plots of land had actually been developed by DDA in Kondli for resettling them. Perhaps, DDA officials wanted to sell these plots clandestinely in association with land sharks.

3) File notings are important even in very routine matters. Suppose you applied for a ration card or a passport and the babu expects a bribe. Under RTI, as soon as you ask for the action taken in your case and names of officials responsible for delay, they immediately do your job. You won’t be able to ask for this information any longer as it is contained in file notings. 20,000 applications filed by people across the country in the recently concluded “Drive Against Bribes” campaign will become void with this amendment.

Government says that it is important to exempt file notings from disclosure because this is preventing officers from giving honest opinions. This is an absurd defense. Many honest bureaucrats have admitted in private that RTI has made it much easier for them to say no to illegitimate pressures. Besides, nine state governments already had RTI Acts for more than seven years before the Central Act was passed. File notings were being disclosed under all these laws. No bureaucrat in any of these states felt threatened the way bureaucrats in Central Government seem to be feeling.

Mr O P Kejariwal, Member Central Information Commission, recently said that “Information, minus file notings, amounts to taking the life out of the RTI Act”.

It is also proposed to take Cabinet papers out of RTI Act. So far, cabinet papers were available for scrutiny after Cabinet had taken a decision on any matter. Now they will never be available.

What is contained in Cabinet papers and why are they so important?

Let me explain through an example.

All Secretary level appointments are done by Appointments Committee of Cabinet. Information obtained recently under RTI Act revealed that the IAS officers sitting at the top have been manipulating these appointments all these years. Law says that specific suitability of an officer for a particular post would be evaluated before appointing him. In the last fifty years, the Government has not even laid down the eligibility criteria for any Secretary level post i.e. what qualification and experience should an incumbent have for each Secretary level post. A person posted as telecom secretary may not know anything about telecom. Another posted as revenue secretary may not have any idea of finance. A number of IAS officers would lose their jobs if cabinet papers started becoming public.

At almost the same time when cabinet was approving such retrograde amendments, PM was making a speech on how RTI could improve governance. He said “This Act, by promoting transparency, can be a vital instrument for cutting down corruption and ensuring that goals set for improved public service delivery can be met.” It is not clear how would transparency be promoted by exempting file notings and cabinet papers? How would service delivery improve if Government tries to protect the identity of corrupt officials? Perhaps PM does not mean what he says?

Government earned admiration of millions of people by enacting this RTI Act. But its subsequent actions raise doubts about its intentions. Appointment of bureaucrats as Information Commissioners, shabby treatment of Information Commissions and now the proposal to kill this Act makes one wonder whether Government’s original act of passing this law was a smart posturing. Let us hope better sense prevails upon the Government and it does not lose all the credit it earned earlier.

Some Informational Links:



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    Perth Railway Station Akira The Don Saltillo, MS OCCC Royal Air Force (Germany) The turner prize P.J. Hill Jacobsen epoxidation Ruth Conniff Giada De Laurentiis

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