Right to Information – Master key to good governance

The Babu Curtain

Posted by rtiact2005 on July 31, 2006

The Babu Curtain
– By Dilip Cherian

Once Parliament downs shutters after the Monsoon Session, expect a more heady defence of the new RTI Act. The babus are likely to trot out a big political honcho to do the talking on their behalf. Any guesses who it will be? The DKB sweepstakes are open!

But the big bugbear with babus is that they are being accused of diluting the Act, when they truly believe that no significant dilution has taken place. At the top of the pyramid, the big babus insist that the little dilution is only to ensure that the officials can continue to put their view in without any fear. Clearly, this is an issue that is still on the boil.

When the Right to Information Act was passed last year, it seemed as though the battle for transparency and accountability in government dealings was won and the right for citizens to know the inner workings of the powers that be, had become a reality. The RTI Act was seen as a key to counter draconian laws like the Official Secrets Act of 1923, which gave unrestrained authority to bureaucrats to conceal and cover up uncomfortable and unpalatable details of government work. The RTI Act has laws that allow citizens to demand information from the government in the form of documents, records, samples, and orders from the government pertaining to any government department, or project, and understand how taxpayers’ money is being spent.

However, scarcely months after enacting the people-friendly Act, babus have made certain that it is rendered useless. The Cabinet, presided over by the PM, amended the Act, restricting access to file notings, unless the project refers to developmental and social issues. This is a significant step backward for enthusiasts of the law. Traces of corruption, after all, can be detected only by studying the record-making process, who takes what decisions and why. Restricting access to vital information such as notings, makes some critics proclaim the RTI Act somewhat toothless.

It was not expected that the government would seem to backtrack on its decision to provide the public transparency and accountability in dealings so soon after passing the law. The RTI Act itself was praised and described as one of the most radical pieces of legislation by the chief information commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah.

However, he was quick to point out that the Act should not be used to humiliate the government. So what kind of humiliation is the commissioner talking about? The purpose of the Act is to bring key information regarding government deals to public notice. If the information reveals details that cause palpitations to the babus or their political masters, for whatever reason, should the public turn a blind eye?

With this basic tenet out of force, the Act is of little or no use to the common man. The PMO has, incidentally, rubbished criticism of the amendment by claiming it is based on incorrect and incomplete information.

The key to the entire matter now lies with who decides what constitutes developmental and social issues. If a matter involves corruption within the Army (think back to the coffin scam), or regarding other scams that do not come under the umbrella of “developmental and social issues,” those notings and details may still not be made available to the people. Critics believe that this is a serious drawback in the effectiveness of the Act. The babus, for their part, are hardly bothered since they do not agree with any ruling that deals a blow to their coffers. At the forefront of the protest against the amendment, a former IAS officer of 1968 UP cadre, Aruna Roy claims that the RTI Act amendment is a shield for corrupt bureaucrats. Even as the activists fighting for the Act gear up for battle, determined not to let the amendment be passed in Parliament, the babus are relaxed, their predicament is over, at least for the moment.


3 Responses to “The Babu Curtain”

  1. S.K.Kapur said

    See the fate of “Office of profit episode” , Delhi demolishans of unauthosied structures stopped by an Act of parliament and now this RTI Act, NBA and many more
    Remember “What is foul is fair and what is fair is foul!”
    So fiqr not

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