Right to Information – Master key to good governance

Right to `no`

Posted by rtiact2005 on August 10, 2006

Right to `no`
Business Standard / New Delhi August 10, 2006
The test of a law is when it comes to the difficult cases. The test of the Right to Information Act is not when someone asks for the file notings on a minor municipal matter, but when someone seeks information on a political hot potato, such as the Bofors pay-offs of 1986. Over the last two decades, the scale of the pay-offs has been matched by the amount of newsprint and Parliament time that has been devoted to the scandal and the subsequent cover-up. Governments have both fallen as well as been elected on the strength of this controversy. But the case has now dragged on for so long that a certain sense of Bofors fatigue has also, inevitably, set in.
Still, it is worth noting the government’s response when the BJP MP, Arun Jaitley, sought information (under the RTI Act) on why the government had allowed the UK authorities to defreeze the bank accounts of the Italian businessman, Ottavio Quattrochhi, a friend of the Gandhis and one of those alleged to be involved. The CBI turned down his request, as did the Internal Appellate Authority within the CBI. Mr Jaitley then turned for help to the Central Information Commission. In one case, relating to the correspondence between the CBI and the UK authorities, the reply Mr Jaitley got was that “a large number of files relating to this case are housed in two large rooms in safe cupboards. Any attempt to compile voluminous information will disproportionately divert public resources”! He was further told that the matter was pending adjudication in various courts—but when the High Court ruled against the CBI, it did not appeal, so the case is closed and there is therefore no question of the information prejudicing further action that the government may wish to take.
This points to the fundamental flaw with the Prime Minister’s decision to amend the RTI Act and limit access to only selective file notings, specifically those relating to “development and social issues”. While it is true that the government has been besieged with RTI requests for information pertaining to officials’ transfers and postings, and some change in the law was therefore necessary, a near-blanket ban on file notings makes little sense. The RTI is most useful in matters that have given rise to controversy, and where there have been differences in opinion. Bofors therefore is a good case that makes the point clear. Since the RTI has not yet been amended and stands in its original form, Mr Jaitley would be well advised to press on with the issue and go in appeal to the courts.

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