File of the matter
Posted by rtiact2005 on September 12, 2006
File of the matter
By O P KEJARIWAL
The dust has settled, but may rise again. The government announced that it would not bring in Parliament the Bill for proposed amendments to the RTI Act, 2005. But the assurance was only for the monsoon session. The public agitation was, however, for setting aside the very idea of amendments.
Since the threat to force these amendments into law remains, it is necessary to understand their implications. They revolve around four basic elements: Nondisclosure of file notings, except in social and developmental issues; non-disclosure of identity of individuals who put down file notings; non-disclosure of information pertaining to any examination conducted by any public authority; and nondisclosure of ministerial decisions till the matter is complete or over.
If these amendments are carried, they could render the Act limp and infructuous. Although there are four amendments proposed, the basic one relates to file notings.
In all government offices, any issue which comes up for a decision starts with a file on the subject. This file has two parts: On the left, you have the note-sheets on which officers dealing with the issue at various levels record their opinions. On the right, you have correspondence and other papers relating to the subject. Very often, the notings on the left refer to papers on the right, which would be termed as p.u.c. (paper under consideration) .
Let us suppose a flyover was to be built in a certain area. A file would be created on the subject. The officer concerned would put up the proposal which would pass through different levels till it received the final approval, say, the minister of the department concerned.
Finally, the tender would be floated, the quotations received, evaluated and the proposal put up for awarding the contract. The amount of the contract together with the party (in this case, the contractor) would have to be finalised. This would be the stage when pressures would be exercised, kickbacks determined, bribes taken. Notings on the file would reflect all these. If those at the helm of affairs want to award the contract to a certain party, either for monetary considerations or on account of family connections or friendly relationships, they would exercise their influence and ask their subordinates to put up the cost, among other things.
The proposal then would again pass through three, four or even more levels of officials. Then, although a number of officials would put down notings influenced by their superiors, there would be one or two officers in the set-up who are upright and would record their opinions on the file to the effect that the decision being taken was wrong and not in the public interest. This officer would then be overruled by his senior (in most cases he would also be reprimanded verbally) and the contract awarded to the party being favoured by the powers that be.
Take another example: A poor person applies for a ration card. His application would result in opening of a file. The officials concerned would sit on the file till the poor person greased their palms. With the introduction of the RTI Act, one could demand scrutiny of the file which would reveal names of officers delaying the case. With the opening up of the files for public scrutiny, people are getting their ration cards, passports, and electricity connections quickly, without paying bribes.
Anything to do with the government process begins and ends with file notings. File notings reveal nuances of an issue: The element of corruption involved, who has exercised what kind of pressure and on whom, which officials have caved in, and who are the honest and upright officials (few indeed nowadays) who have opposed pressure.
If the proposed amendments were to go through, we would be thrown back to an age of darkness after experiencing a very short phase of hope. By taking out file notings from public scrutiny, the government obviously wants to put a lid on corruption.
The government will be in no position to take credit for introducing openness, transparency and accountability in public life, if it pursues these amendments. In a list of most corrupt countries of the world, our position is quite high. RTI gives us a chance to bring down our ranking in this respect. Let us not throw it away.
The writer is commissioner, Central Information Commission .