Right to Information – Master key to good governance

Something to hide

Posted by rtiact2005 on August 6, 2006

Something to hide

By Nityanand Jayaraman


Public interest groups have made it clear that they intend to defeat the government’s proposal to exempt file notings from the ambit of the Right to Information Act


Less than two weeks after the government announced a cabinet decision to exempt ‘file notings’ from the ambit of the Right to Information Act it passed 10 months ago, public interest groups in India and US-based NRIs have made it clear that they mean to defeat the proposed amendment.

In one week, more than 3,500 people have signed an electronic petition against the amendment. Veteran Gandhian and social reformer Anna Hazare has said he will return his Padma Bhushan award in protest to the President on August 9, the anniversary of the Quit India day. The Association for India’s Development (AID), an organisation with a prominent presence in the US, has said it will mobilise entrepreneurs, alumni and NRIs to flood the PMO with phones and faxes. They have also said that they will hold demonstrations outside Indian embassies if the government doesn’t back down on the amendment. Industry lobbies such as PHDCCI too have condemned the amendment saying that this “censorship will render Right to Information meaningless”. And Arvind Kejriwal, winner of the Magsaysay Award for 2006, says, “It is sad that while the entire world recognises India’s Right to Information Act as important, the government is trying to kill the Act.” Kejriwal, a former bureaucrat, runs a Delhi-based NGO Parivartan which has successfully used the Act to help people fight for their fundamental rights.

It is difficult to find voices openly supportive of the amendment, especially given the lack of specific information regarding the proposed amendment. Retired bureaucrat and currently Tamil Nadu’s Chief Information Commissioner S Ramakrishnan, for instance, says, “The exemption may reduce transparency, but the positive aspect is that it will also reduce resistance amongst bureaucrats. To that extent, the exemption may strengthen the Act.”

File notings, which are at the heart of the controversy, are comments made on green pages that are inserted in every “current file” containing official correspondence such as minutes of meetings, or orders. When a file is put up to an officer, she writes her comments or decision on the green pages called ‘note file’ and forwards it along with the ‘current file’ to the next officer, who does the same. “Any officer who takes arbitrary or illegal decisions, or who sits on the file for too long will be exposed through file notings. By exempting file notings, the government is only protecting corrupt and dishonest officials,” says Kejriwal.

Announcing the decision, the government said the amendment was made to “remove ambiguities and strengthen the Act.” However, Anna Hazare says that “the exemption actually takes the soul out of the Act. If we are truly free and living in a democracy, we need to know what decisions were taken, and how and why they were taken.”

Already, the Central Information Commission has ruled several times that under the Act, the word ‘file’ means both the note file and the current file. “The note file is key to understanding the rationale behind a decision,” says A K Venkatsubramaniam, a former civil servant and founder of Chennai-based NGO Catalyst Trust. “Often the government gives only one-line orders. A petitioner will never understand why the order was made unless he sees the file notings.” According to the retired bureaucrat, keeping file notings in the public domain will “inculcate a lot of responsibility and protect civil servants.”

According to informed sources, bureaucrats who stand to lose the most if decision-making were to become transparent have been the principal source of pressure to amend the Act. “The UPA government had the political will to introduce the Act. But this political will seems to have succumbed to bureaucratic pressure,” says Kejriwal. But don’t paint bureaucrats with one brush, he cautions. “The honest bureaucrats actually welcome the law. Many officials have said that their life has become easier, because they can tell politicians ‘If you want something, give it to us in writing; otherwise, we’ll be blamed when people learn about it through RTI.'”

In mid-2005, a sensational expose by Parivartan nailed the World Bank’s interference in the bidding process of the capital’s water utility, Delhi Jal Board. Parivartan found that the World Bank had rigged the tender process to ensure that PriceWaterhouseCoopers secured the consultancy contract for a project to revamp the utility. According to Parivartan, the consultancy was to facilitate the privatisation of the water utility. File notings revealed how the Bank had strong-armed the utility to bring up PriceWaterhouse’s bid from the tenth position, forced cancellation of bidding processes and changed selection criteria to favour the consultant. As an upshot of this and other revelations, the privatisation contract was cancelled.

Ironically, the cabinet decision came even as a massive nationwide Right to Information campaign was in progress. Between July 1 and 15, in virtually all states and union territories of India, and between July 10 and 25 in Tamil Nadu, voluntary collectives, trade unions and public interest organisations organised awareness drives and RTI consultation camps in about 150 locations around the country. More than 20,000 applications were filed. In Tamil Nadu alone, more than 70 organisations came together to train over 2,500 persons in using and helping others use the RTI Act. Organisers of the Tamil Nadu Right to Information Campaign claim that through direct pamphleteering and media campaigns, nearly a million people in the state have been informed about the Act.

“Wherever the Act has been used, there are good results,” says Hazare. “People are slowly beginning to experience freedom. Common people are able to see justice; government functioning is becoming more transparent, and corruption is decreasing.”

The accountability forced by the Right to Information Act, as revealed by nine months of experience, has facilitated many a rickshaw-driver to get his long-pending ration card, or a widow to get her pension. Many say the Act is good for the image of an emergent India, and that efforts to emasculate the Act would tell people that transparency and accountability are mere catch-phrases.

“I think most people in the United States do not know much about India other than the Taj Mahal, IIT, call centres and software engineers. But those who know a bit more are a little wary about the arbitrary manner in which the government functions in India,” says Sudarshan Suresh, a Silicon Valley-based software professional and volunteer with Association for India’s Development. Suresh says this move will discourage entrepreneurs whose primary reservation against moving to India is corruption and lack of accountability.

While industry groups may have joined the fight to save the Act, the legislation itself is a direct result of a pitched and protracted battle begun in the early-1990s by indigent landless labourers in Rajasthan. When the rural poor in Rajasthan questioned why they failed to get minimum wages even after a day’s work at the drought relief camps, they were told that they had not worked, and that the proof of this lay in the records. When they asked to see the records, they were denied on grounds that this was an official secret. This triggered a massive campaign that spread across the country and resulted in the enactment of the first Right to Information laws in several states.

Organisations working among the poor now realise that access to records and information facilitates the fulfillment of basic rights such as minimum wages, ration entitlements, appropriate healthcare, and better treatment at the hands of the police. That is in line with the Indian Supreme Court’s repeated assertions that the constitutionally guaranteed rights to life and freedom of expression are meaningless without the Right to Information.

The proposed amendment is to be introduced in parliament during the ongoing monsoon session. It will have to pass through the two houses of parliament and secure presidential assent before it becomes law. If what people’s organisations claim about their plans to mobilise public opinion against the amendment is true, the UPA government has just bought itself a whole lot of unpopularity.

(Nityanand Jayaraman is an independent journalist and researcher who writes on human rights and the environment)

InfoChange News & Features, August 2006



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