Right to Information – Master key to good governance

No secret notings in a democracy

Posted by rtiact2005 on August 9, 2006

No secret notings in a democracy

The proposed amendment to the Right to Information Act will cripple the historic legislation that has got the government machinery on its toes. The move must be decisively opposed


By Suchi Pande

File notings have been a point of controversy ever since the Act was passed. The recent decision to weaken the Act makes a mockery of the democratic process that got this legislation passed by the Parliament

Of course it was too good to be true. Having passed one of the most progressive legislations in the world to promote transparency and accountability — the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005 — the UPA government was well on its way to realising one of the most visionary projects in the National Common Minimum Programme (NCMP). However, the recent decision of the cabinet to amend the RTI Act is a shocking disappointment to citizens across the country. This completely retrograde step seeks to curtail the fundamental right to information.

The proposed amendment will cripple an historic legislation even as it is evolving into a powerful tool to target corruption and mismanagement in governance. It will also destroy the expectations of many Indians who have just begun to use the RTI. As was seen in a recent anti-bribery campaign using the RTI, these hopeful citizens span the country in both cities and villages.

The issue of “file notings” — notes that detail the reason bureaucratic decisions are made — has been a point of controversy ever since the legislation was passed. To a bureaucracy that thrived on secrecy, the RTI was the final blow; the system was compelled to recognise that the time for secrets was ending. The controversy over “file notings” was settled by a decision of the Central Information Commission (CIC) on January 31, 2006 in the case of Satyapal vs. TCIL (ICPB/a1/2006). The CIC held that no file would be complete without file notings, which constitute an integral part of any file. However, the cabinet amendments perpetuate the myth that an effective bureaucracy requires secrecy. It is a way of ensuring arbitrary decision-making, by obscuring attribution of responsibility. A government which came to power with a mandate to empower the common man is now robbing him of that promise and hope.

If the legislature did not intend to disclose file notings, they would have been explicitly exempted in the Act, itself. On the contrary, an elaborate process of deliberation and public consultation was undertaken between the parliamentary introduction of the Act and its passage on May 12, 2005. A parliamentary committee was constituted which meticulously consulted concerned citizens and groups to address important deficiencies in the draft Act. The Act was then returned to Parliament and passed by both Houses. The recent decision to weaken the Act makes a mockery of the democratic process that got this legislation passed by the Parliament.

The cabinet proposal would allow file notings in the cases limited to social and development works. This begs the question: why does the government feel the need to differentiate between social, developmental, and all other projects? Aren’t all projects funded by taxpayers? Aren’t all projects formulated to benefit us — the citizens? Section 8 of the RTI Act already provides for sufficient safeguards to protect legitimate military, industrial, and personal secrets. In Delhi, the RTI was used to bring to light an ill-conceived policy decision which mobilised citizens across the city to question its implementation. File notings were essential for citizens to expose the corrupt collusion between the Delhi Jal Board (DJB), an international multilateral organisation, and an mnc, exposing gross incompetence in the process. The file notings then accessed not only revealed the shortcomings of a critical infrastructure project but also highlighted instances of honest officers within the DJB standing up to arbitrary outside control and corrupt influences.

The proposed amendment will only conceal more projects like the Delhi water sector reforms from public scrutiny. Further, it will reverse the progress that citizens have made using the RTI to address issues of bureaucratic secrecy, laziness, corruption and careless policy making in this country. The proposed dilution of the RTI Act, 2005 is unacceptable and must be decisively opposed.

The writer is with kabir,
a communication initiative on the RTI

Aug 05 , 2006


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