Right to Information – Master key to good governance

Is the Right to Information Act going to be a whitewash?

Posted by rtiact2005 on August 9, 2006

Is the Right to Information Act going to be a whitewash?

2006-08-07 19:02   Source : Moneycontrol.com

The Cabinet wants to amend the Right to Information, RTI, Act that was intoduced last year (2005) by the UPA government itself. At that time, it had been seen as a step in the right direction and rightly so. But now with talks of amendment in the air, is the Act going to be just a diluted version of the original? Right now, file and cabinet notings are to be exempted from the information being made available and this is contrary to the the ruling made by the Information Commission, this January.

Predictably, this has caused quite a stir. Chief Information Commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah says that the Commission’s job is to interpret the law the way it’s meant to be and if the “government felt that file notings should have been exempt, it is their prerorgative to move a motion in Parliament and the Parliament being the representative of the people has a right to make a judgment on that.”

While he takes a neutral stand on this issue, former member of the National Advisory Council, Aruna Roy is anything but that. She has written in The Indian Express that “this move is nothing short of subterfuge against the Act.” She backs this up and told CNBC-TV18 and explains, “If you’ve ever seen an official government file – it has two sides to it – one side what they call ‘papers under consideration’ and the left side of the file, which is the decision-making trail.”

“Now, those papers are useless, unless you know what kind of decisions were taken on those papers and want to know how those decisions were taken. And unless, you know that, as a citizen of this country, I would never be able to vote anyone into power or out of power. I would never be able to criticise anything and I won’t be allowed to make an informed choice.So, what the government has done is that it has taken away from me information it gave me, which was vital to my growth as a good citizen, using democracy and democratic institutions.”

Former Home Secretary, Madhav Godbole has also commented on this issue and written a letter to the President, in which he says, “Making the notings on a file open to the public can be the single most effective check on rampant corruption, both at the administrative and political levels.” This sentiment is echoed by Director of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, Maya Daruwala. She says, “I entirely agree with Mr Godbole and coming from him, it’s even more important because he was a high government functionary and my belief is that revealing file notings is a sword and a shiled for the honest bureaucrat because the file notings indicate where the file has been and whether the process has been followed, whether discretions have been properly used and whether criteria has been used.”

Another thing is that, what’s not to be revealed is already clearly laid down in Section 8 of the Act and file notings was not something that was exempted, so as Habibullah says, “what ramifications it would have, is for lawmakers to consider and not for the commissioner to consider.”

This Act was crystal clear until the Department of Personnel’s website put up a note saying that the file notings will not be made available under the RTI Act, and that’s when this issue snowballed into something bigger. Daruwala says, it isn’t ambiguity but disobedience to the law that has started this controversy.

Roy feels the reason the government does not want to give people access to cabinet notings is to shield the corrupt bureaucrats or politicians, so people will never get to know about the big scams happening right under their noses. She says, “It could also be that the policies they are going to favour may not be people-friendly. They could favour a certain class or a certain group of people, it could be anything.”

Daruwala adds, “What is the consistent political ideology, viewpoint, content of a political representative. Does he flip flop? Is he in the pay of somebody? Is he influenced by certain ideology and has he been consistent. Do we have a rules-based society or do we have a patronage network. These are the things that are revealed by file notings and cabinet papers.”

“Now, you want to protect the deliberative process of the Cabinet because you are concerned about candour. Now, if your candour is such that it’s abusive of your position, then surely you shouldn’t have the right. Under the present law, you still have Cabinet notings which are protected until the process is over. After that, reveal the papers – what’s the problem?”

As a result of this amendment being brought in, Roy says she’s disillusioned with the political intent and blames the bureaucracy who never wanted to give this power to the people in the first place. On his part, Habibullah says, that most of the people who use the Act are bureaucrats and he feels that trust should be placed in the people, who have been appointed as custodians of the Act, to watch out for citizens’ interest.

For more on the Right to Information Act: http://persmin.nic.in/RTI/WelcomeRTI.htm


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