Right to Information – Master key to good governance

Loss of a right

Posted by rtiact2005 on August 18, 2006

Loss of a right


We could lose our right to information, thanks to the proposed
amendment to the Right to Information (RTI) Act. About 9,000 pages
obtained under the RTI Act regarding a World Bank-funded water
privatisation project in Delhi revealed that it was severely flawed.

It created a public uproar and the government put the project on hold.
Now, one will not be able to obtain such information. The amendments
are not just about file notings.

They seek to completely exclude people from the decision-making
process. Information would be available as a fait accompli, with witch
hunting remaining as the only possibility. One cannot participate in
governance in telling one’s municipality how and where to spend money.

Even after a decision is taken, one would only have access to limited
information. Substantive file notings will be provided only in the
case of social and developmental projects.

Some people believe that file notings will not affect information
sought by a common citizen. This is wrong. Almost all information is
connected to file notings.

Nannu, a daily wage labourer, was denied a ration card for many
months. He got his card within a week when he filed an application
under RTI Act. He sought to know the progress made on his application
and names of officials responsible for delay.

Thousands of people like Nannu have been able to overcome bureaucratic
harassment and demands for bribe by using the Act in this manner. They
got their ration cards, passports, tax refunds, widow pension, old-age
pension and farmer compensation.

Now this information will not be available, because it is contained
in file notings. Ration cards, tax refunds, passports, pension do not
come under social or developmental projects.

We got a glimpse of the new information regime last week when one
gentleman went to file an application with the Railways under the RTI
Act to know the action taken on his complaint filed about a year back.

The PIO verbally informed him that this information would not be
provided to him as it was contained in file notings, and the
government was in the process of excluding file notings.

So, now one cannot seek the status of one’s complaint. The government
says that officers will not be able to put their honest opinion on
files, if they knew that their notings would become public. That is
absurd. Disclosure of file notings has strengthened their hands.

Some district magistrates in UP told me that they were able to turn
down politicians who ask for illegal favours, saying that they would
be in trouble if someone were to see their file notings. Fear of
transparency and public scrutiny has reduced the number of people
putting pressure on officers.

A senior IAS officer from Punjab told me how he resisted pressure from
a political party to spend public money for party activities. He was
victimised no end for his resistance.

He wished that if the RTI Act had been around at that time, public
disclosure of all his notings could have prevented his victimisation.

The proposed amendments will only strengthen the corrupt. Last week,
the Officers’ Association of Bhilai Steel Plant appealed to the prime
minister not to amend the RTI Act and take away the only tool in the
hands of honest officers. Who is the prime minister trying to protect?

The government also wants to keep all information related to personnel
out of the purview of the RTI Act. Transfers, postings, appointments,
promotions and deputations are a thriving industry in the government.

Posts are auctioned. One has to pay money to get a ‘wet’ area. The
amendments seek to keep all these areas out of public scrutiny.

One accepts that information concerning security of the country,
ongoing investigations, and private information needs to be excluded.
But such areas are already excluded from disclosure in the existing Act.

The amendments are being introduced furtively. MPs do not even have a
copy of the amendment Bill, though it is listed for consideration and
passing this week. There has been no debate.

Everyone, including all government servants, will benefit from
transparency in governance. Roads, health, education, transfers,
postings, housing everything will improve. All of us, within and
outside the government, should oppose these amendments.

The writer is a Magsaysay award winner.

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