This round to the RTI
Posted by rtiact2005 on August 25, 2006
This round to the RTI
In what constitutes a significant victory for the people of India, the Government has been forced to withdraw the illiberal amendments to the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005 that it had decided to table in the current session of Parliament. Ever since it became law, the RTI Act has proved to be a progressive instrument of democracy, empowering citizens to obtain official documents (such as ration cards, electricity bills, and passports) with ease, and to have access to government records without having to pay bribes or use undue influence. Pre-RTI, secrecy often shrouded corruption, and the arbitrary exercise of power by administrators and bureaucrats could not be countered in an informed way. There is the apocryphal story of a former Union Minister who would write “not approved” on lucrative files and add the letter “e” to convert it to “note approved,” after the consideration demanded had been paid. Information is power; and this power suddenly made available to the people sent shivers through the bureaucracy and the political establishment. Now decisions made by the government could be tracked, investigated, and challenged. `File notings’ are comments and notes made on files and reveal the reasons behind decisions great and small. They are often the most interesting parts of official files. They can say much about the straightforwardness, the integrity, and the efficiency of a government. The right to information in a democratic framework certainly implies that citizens should be aware of the reasons behind crucial decisions. From January 2006, thanks to a landmark ruling by the Central Information Commission, file notings have been accessed round the country in a veritable festival of democracy. Unsurprisingly, the establishment struck back sooner than later. In a move initiated at the very top and supported by a chamber orchestra of establishment interests, amendments were approved by the Cabinet to steal `file notings’ (except those relating to social and development issues) and other key empowering features away from the purview of the Act.
The United Progressive Alliance Government had reckoned without the groundswell of opposition its illiberal move would provoke. Rejecting the idea that disclosure of file notings can be abused, social activist and Magsaysay award winner Aruna Roy says: “You can only blackmail those who have something to hide.” Section 8 of the RTI Act already has a comprehensive list of exemptions relating to issues of national security, privacy, certain judicial matters, and other sensitive information that might endanger lives and affect the larger public interest. In the face of nationwide protest by human rights activists, lawyers, retired judges, students, intellectuals, retired civil servants, and ordinary citizens and confronted with political opposition ranging from the Left to the BJP, the Government has decided not to go ahead with the retrograde tentative draft Bill and has instead called for a discussion with all stakeholders. In addition to denying access to the dreaded file notings, the amendments seek to stop disclosure of material on decisions in process; to remove access to “material” on the basis of which Cabinet decisions are taken; to withdraw access to the identities of those who have recorded notings and opinions specifically on development and social matters; and to exempt all information related to “a process of any examination” conducted by a public authority or “assessments or evaluation” for the purpose of official postings, transfers, and promotions. It must be understood that the Government’s retreat on the RTI amendments is for the time being. It is vital for the citizens of India to be prepared to stage uncompromising resistance against the UPA Government’s move to enfeeble one of the world’s most progressive right to information laws.