RTI: No-dilution decision triggers some elation

Activists welcome decision to withdraw proposed amendments to RTI Act but hawk-eyed on what’s coming next

jasleen

Jasleen Kaur | November 5, 2012



The RTI Act is still safe from dilution, as the cabinet on Thursday withdrew a set of amendments it had proposed to the Act. UPA chairperson and National Advisory Council chief Sonia Gandhi’s strong opposition to the amendments is said to be a major factor behind the withdrawal.

The amendments, proposed and passed by the cabinet in 2006 but hanging fire since, sought to restrict disclosure of “file notings” only to social and development issues in response to queries under the RTI Act. It was seen as an effort to dilute the transparency law.

While the Act already exempts ongoing cabinet decisions from the purview of RTI, the amendments also barred queries on executive decisions till the process is completed. Also, amendment proposed exemption to disclosure of examination papers and selection to the Union Public Service Commission.

The amendments were never brought to parliament due to public protest. Minister of state for personnel V Narayanasamy has accepted that the decision was taken in response to representations by civil society activists, NGOs and information commissioners.

The cabinet’s decision has come as a relief to the RTI fraternity, which was worried after Prime minister Manmohan Singh cautioned that the RTI Act cannot be used to violate privacy of an individual, and a recent judgment of the supreme court mandating the appointment of judges to the information commission.

While the RTI fraternity welcomed the government’s decision to junk the proposed amendments, some eyebrows are being raised over what will come next.

Nikhil Dey, member, National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, called it a “welcome step” and an “important victory”, specifying that this proves even a determined government has to eventually give in to public pressure.

“Ninety percent of RTI Act would have died had disclosure of file notings been restricted, as file notes are at the heart of the Act,” Dey said. “Similarly, (information on) examination papers and selection process is one big area where lack of transparency pervades, and that would have been washed away as well.

“The amendments also barred queries on executive decisions till the process is completed. That, too, would have restricted the Act,” he added.

But Dey said if the UPA is really serious about governance, it should pass the Lokpal Bill.

All Eyes on Future
Former information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi, however, is not willing to call the decision a major development, stressing that prime minister Manmohan Singh had already assured earlier that the UPA will not push for the amendments.

But anxious over the next development, Gandhi said, “The prime minister spoke about several issues at the RTI convention, and the supreme court gave four rulings over the last one year, which happened to restrict the Act. So what really has now prompted the government to announce this (decision to junk the proposed amendments)? My worry is what will follow next — the ideal situation would be for the government to issue a statement that the Act will not be amended at all.”

Vikram Sinha, an RTI user who also runs an RTI study centre in Bangalore, meanwhile dubbed it a move to please the activists. “Why is it being publicised and given so much importance?” he asked. Calling the decision a political gambit, he said, “The government now wants to show that RTI was the UPA’s brainchild, and all efforts are being made to save it from getting diluting.”

Calling withdrawal of the amendments a good step amid contrarian statements coming from the PM, among others, Pradip Pradhan, state convener of Odisha Soochna Adhikar Abhijan said, “The (proposed) amendments were arbitrary in nature. Every citizen has the right to know what is happening, and that involves the right to access files notings as well. But some judgments of the apex court and statements by the prime minister are actually diluting the Act. This at least is a step to save it.”

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