Right to Information – Master key to good governance

File notings

Posted by rtiact2005 on August 20, 2006

File notings
Centre shouldn’t tinker with RTI Act
by Maja Daruwala and Venkatesh Nayak


The Right to Information (RTI) Act, passed by Parliament last year, is new and finding its ground. Both educated and unlettered people around the country are struggling to make it a reality. Their efforts have begun to stem corruption and arbitrariness in decision-making. It is only natural that shock and dismay pervade the countryside as the Union Government seeks to restrictively amend the RTI Act in a way that will remove file notings away from public scrutiny.

The proposed amendments will end up snatching away people’s right to know in what circumstances, through what process and under whose advice their legislators and civil servants reach decisions, big and small. Fearing that the inconvenienced bureaucracy has forced the political leadership into compromise, citizens groups have launched widespread protests against the move to defang the Act.

On July 26, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a rebuttal, clarifying that “the Union Cabinet had approved an amendment that specifically provides that file notings of all plans, schemes and programmes of the government that relate to development and social issues shall be disclosed.” But why clarify what was never in doubt? File notings relating to development and social issues’ were not excluded from the Act under any of the exemptions to disclosure that broadly relate to national security, commercial competition, and personal privacy. Nor was it mentioned as an exception to the definition of ‘information’.

The confusion regarding the status of file notings was a conscious creation of the Department of Personnel and Training (DOPT). Its website in its Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about the Act insisted that file notings were not in fact part of the definition of ‘information’.

The Central Information Commission (CIC) has clarified in at least two decisions that file notings clearly fall within the purview of the definition of the terms ‘information’ and ‘record’; it has recently issued a show-cause notice to the DOPT for refusing to take its own interpretation off the website.

Given the cumulative history of government spin around file notings, there is now strong suspicion at this unexplained desire to clarify the law.

The value of a law lies in its precision. By seemingly ‘gifting’ special classes of information as being available to the public, the amendment will remove from public view all other classes of file notings where they do not specifically relate to development and social issues. At the very least all file notings will become disputed territory.

Once again officials will have enormously increased discretionary powers to deny citizens access to almost every opinion recorded on file on any matter. Where access may be given in a limited number of cases, authors of file notings will enjoy anonymity. Once again, we will not have moved an inch from being a rent seeking and patronage based government to a rule-based government where every action of a public official has to be in conformity with established norms and procedures.

International best practices point to transparency in the deliberations within public bodies. In the US, citizens are provided access to records of opinions expressed by officials in relation to a policy formulated or action that has been taken. In Albania, Germany, Israel, South Africa, Turkey, Uganda and several other countries with functional information access laws, file notings have not been given a blanket exemption. When the government aspires to have the most modern of military equipment to protect the people, the best of medical, transport and communications facilities and the most advanced IT systems, why should it lower the standards of transparency and accountability?

Two more amendments are reported to be waiting in the wings. The first relates to disclosure of materials on the basis of which Cabinet decisions are taken. At present, these can be disclosed after a Cabinet decision has been made. But the proposed amendments will deny access to these materials. This assumes significance as every voting-taxpaying citizen has a right to know what materials form the basis of the Cabinet decisions at the Centre and in the states.

The other proposed amendment relates to the recruitment and examination processes adopted by various public agencies. This has been prompted by fears that the RTI Act may be used to ask about question papers before the examinations have been held or identify members of interview boards with a view to influencing their opinion. Again, there is no need for any amendment as the Act already adequately protects any information that might hurt the competitive position of a third party and can be applied to information disclosure that may prejudicially affect the outcomes of examinations and recruitment procedures.

In reality, the proposed amendment seems aimed at avoiding access to evaluated answer scripts of candidates appearing in such examinations and challenges to the appointment process. Many of our better academic institutions already give candidates the opportunity to see answer scripts and be satisfied that the evaluation has been fairly arrived at. This reduces the possibility of subjectivity in the evaluation process. What could be a better disinfectant for a country drowning in corruption, nepotism, influence peddling and abuse of process than the sunshine of disclosure under the Right to Information Act — especially where appointments and recruitment are concerned?

Amending the RTI Act at the very early stages of its implementation to suit the convenience of elements who would like to hide their negligence and wrongdoings sets a precedent that emboldened governments at the Centre and in the states may soon follow. They will be encouraged to tear up more of the Act again and again whenever they find some provision inconvenient.

True, the price of freedom is eternal vigilance but even being vigilant requires information. Old habits die hard. The government has not, at the time of writing this article, publicised the full text of the proposed amendments nor encouraged a public debate around the issue. In the face of so much unequal power, what choice do people have but resort to democratically voiced protest?

We, therefore, urge the citizens to step in and put an end to this exercise of clipping away the wings of the RTI Act that is fast gaining recognition around the world as one of the best information access laws put in place ever. n

The writers are associated with the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi

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