Right to Information – Master key to good governance

How to kill a baby

Posted by rtiact2005 on August 4, 2006

How to kill a baby

8/4/2006 12:03:07 AM
– By Amit Bhaduri

The RTI Act is like a small baby that must be allowed to grow to its full potential, and not killed or deformed, says Amit Bhaduri

Information is a strategic variable in all negotiations. Those who have it enjoy a decisive advantage over those who do not have it in determining the outcome, not merely in business deals, but in all matters of governance. So, who should determine the outcome in terms of the quality of governance – the bureaucracy, a handful of Cabinet ministers or the population at large at the receiving end of bad governance? The Right to Information (RIT) Act of 2005 gave an unequivocal answer: the power of information should belong to the people. And yet, within less than a year, this government is having cold feet about its consequences. A Prime Minister, high on rhetoric and low on action, declares, “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.” At the same time he heads a Cabinet which decides to introduce two amendments which would effectively kill this Act. This Act is like a small baby that must be allowed to grow to its full potential, and not killed or deformed at this young age.

The Amendments proposed are: 1) All file notings should be exempted except for social and development projects. 2) No Cabinet paper would be disclosed even after a decision has been taken. Earlier Cabinet papers were open to inspection after a decision was made, but no longer. For instance, secretary level appointments are made by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet. These will now be out of the reach of this Act, paving the way for unchecked nepotism and corruption at the highest level of bureaucratic appointments. It is also pathetic pretending that allowing inspection only of file notings on social and development projects would in any way make the development issues more transparent. To start with, who defines what are development and social projects? Not only public expenditures under different heads are interconnected; even more importantly, crooked decisions taken at higher levels even before allocation is made for projects related to development can never come to light unless the relevant file notings can be accessed. Let a few examples suffice to demonstrate the importance of file notings of which we have direct experience.

The voluntary organisation Parivartan was able to stop the water management privatisation scheme in Delhi, only when it could access the relevant files with notings to show up the ugly happenings that led to this scheme through a consultancy contract from Delhi government to Price Waterhouse Coopers (PWC). File notings obtained under Delhi Right to Information Act revealed that PWC did not even qualify in the preliminary round, and was at 10th position. File notings also revealed how the World Bank twisted the arm of the Delhi government in exchange of a very small grant of about Rs 10 crores (compared to the annual budget of some Rs 700 crores of Delhi Jal Board) to cancel bids, force rebidding, change selection criteria etc., until PWC got the contract. Apparently, we were told, these are the conditions of World Bank loans. The Bank is certainly not accountable to us, but the Delhi government is, and the Delhi Right to Information made that happen. The file notings also revealed how some honest officers protested with courage against all odds. In the course of our examination we also came across the file notings which showed that Pawan Ahluwalia, son of Montek Singh Ahluwalia, was appointed as a consultant by Delhi Jal Board without any advertisement or interview.

When jhuggi dwellers of the150 jhuggis razed in Mayur Vihar approached DDA for alternate land for resettlement, they were told that no land was available, until file notings revealed that 700 plots of land had actually been developed by DDA in Kondli for resettling them. One can only speculate that DDA officials had planned to turn them away and sell these plots clandestinely through the land mafia network in Delhi. Without file notings it would have been impossible to fight for the rights of these homeless people.

There are also projects of great national importance, partly because of the amount of public money involved, where file notings would be crucial to unravel the whole story of the decision making process. One such issue is Enron, now a defunct name, but not a few years back. Towards the end of 2000, public outrage over high cost of electricity from Dabhol Power Company forced the state government of Maharashtra to appoint a committee which categorically stated “consistent and broad failure of governance” at all political and administrative levels. At the time of the first deal with Enron, Dr Manmohan Singh was the minister of finance, and the current finance minister, Mr P. Chidambaram, was the main legal counsel of Enron Corporation. The current deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, Mr Montek Singh Ahluwalia was then the finance secretary, and is on record as having played an unusually enthusiastic role in removing the objections raised by the Central Electricity Authority, and hastening the deal. Finally, there is Mr Sharad Pawar, who was then the chief minister of Maharashtra, agreeing to the disastrous power purchase agreement between Dabhol Power Corporation and Maharashtra State Electricity Board. The plot thickens when we hear that the same dramatis personae are involved in salvaging Dabhol, by spending an incredible amount of public money. It is said to be the most expensive second-hand power plant ever! The government can maintain a deafening silence for the time being, but only a full fledged Right to Information Act can clear up misgivings. It should be good for all concerned if there is nothing to hide.

From the simplest ration card and passport for ordinary citizens to projects involving massive finance like Dabhol, the citizens of this country have the right to know. This is the only way to improve the quality of democratic functioning. Those who are for improving the quality of Indian democracy, whether in or out of government, cutting across all political parties, should have nothing to fear from this Act.

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