Will RTI changes be Manmohan's historic betrayal?

If proposed amendments to the RTI Act, inspired by a stubborn plan from the PMO, go through, it will be a reversal of a new dawn of democracy

kapil

Kapil Bajaj | May 4, 2010



By continuing with his plan to amend the RTI Act, 2005, riding roughshod over public sentiment, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is not only seeking to emasculate India’s most pro-people legislation ever enacted, but is also shamelessly going back on his word.

“Any amendments to the RTI Act would be considered only after completing consultation with all the stakeholders and without diluting the spirit of the Act,” Singh wrote to UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi on December 24th, 2009.
Yet an April 30th 2010 reply by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) to an information request admits, for the first time, that as many as 11 sections of the RTI Act have been deemed to require amendments – a measure that will not just dilute but kill the spirit of the RTI Act.

Manmohan Singh’s use of the phrase “all the stakeholders” sounds risible unless his government has plans to conduct a nationwide referendum. Isn’t each one of India’s billion-plus citizens a stakeholder in this?
Most of the items in DoPT’s list of proposals for amending the RTI Act look and feel like poison pill for the legislation that has just about begun to infuse a degree of transparency in India’s largely secretive and corrupt systems of governmental decision making.

“Amendment to Section 7 so as to avoid frivolous or vexatious requests” is dangerous, to put it bluntly, considering that for the corrupt government machinery the entire RTI Act is vexatious because its use is a direct threat to the abuse of power and office.
By the way, who will decide the ‘frivolity’ and ‘vexatiousness’ of an information request?
The public authorities or information commissioners, whose performance so far, according to a nationwide study conducted by a Delhi-based NGO, has ensured that no more than 27 per cent of the information seekers, who survive the torturous appeal process, are finally able to get the information they requested?

“Amendment to Section 8 so as to slightly modify the provision about disclosure of Cabinet papers, to ensure smooth functioning of the government and to take care of the sensitivity of the office of the CJI” is equally dangerous and regressive.
Section 8 already exempts Cabinet papers with the proviso that material about the decisions already taken can be made public. What more exemptions does the government want?
Keep in mind that this is a government whose one minister has had to resign recently on charges of abuse of office and another faces charges of corruption in a multi-crore scam in allocation of a vital public resource.

“Taking care of the sensitivity of the office of the chief justice of India (CJI)” seems like an attack on a very basic principle of democracy that all public offices, including judiciary’s, are ultimately answerable to the citizens.
In any case, who’s deciding the degree of “sensitivity” of CJI’s office?
The CJI himself, as is well known after Justice KG Balakrishnan’s letter, dated September 19, 2009, to the PM was made public.
The very proposal seems to confer the CJI with an extra-constitutional power to seek to subvert the will of the people as expressed through the Parliament – again at a time when public trust in higher judiciary has been shaken by several allegations of corruption and skullduggery.
The inner workings of the judiciary, as opposed to its public function of administration of justice – don’t forget – is one of the most secretive and least understood areas of governance.
And what prevents other bearers of constitutional and statutory offices from deciding on the “sensitiveness” of their own offices and writing a letter to our very complaisant Prime Minister?

“Amendment to Section 24 so as to incorporate a partial exemption of organization possessing sensitive information” seems to have been predicated on the same amorphous and open-ended “sensitivity” theory that is designed to unravel the entire RTI law.

“Amendment to Section 19 so as to incorporate a provision for constitution of benches of the commission” seems to have come straight from a self-important babu who has chosen to ignore the current status of the implementation of the RTI Act.
Making rules to the effect that some or all second appeals or complaints can be heard only by benches of commissioners and not a single commissioner will further damage the already poor capacity of the commissions to dispose of cases within a reasonable timeframe.
Anyone who’s any understanding of the RTI implementation knows well that one of the biggest threats to RTI law is the growing backlog of cases at information commissions. This backlog is already eroding citizen trust in RTI and adding to their frustration.
Instead of proposing a multi-fold increase in the posts of information commissioners and encouraging them to speed up their rates of disposal, the government seems more concerned about forming benches.

We believe that Manmohan Singh has two paths open to him.
Either to go down in history as the Prime Minister whose regime brought about the dawn of a new era in democratic governance through a single legislative measure.
Or to go down in history as the Prime Minister who committed the most egregious betrayal of the people by reversing a legislative measure that pulled India back into the era where power plays havoc with democracy.

 

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