“Lobbies backed by bureaucrats working to sabotage RTI”

Aruna Roy on proposed changes

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Danish Raza | March 21, 2011




Aruna Roy, a Magsaysay award winner former bureaucrat, was closely involved in the drafting of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. As a member of the UPA's National Advisory Council (NAC), among other things, she has been conveying to the government the views of civil society on the proposed changes in the transparency act. On the sidelines of 3rd national convention of National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, held in Shillong during March 10-12, Roy spoke with Danish Raza on the RTI act, food security bill and other issues.

The government is considering changes in the RTI by introducing some rules. One of the draft rules says that the content of the RTI application should not exceed 250 words. The NAC working group on accountability and transparency, which you are a member of, opposed this proposal. What is the response from the government?
We were never OK with the 250 words limit and pushed for a limit of 1, 000 words. Even the oped articles in the newspapers have around 1,200 words and the writer finds it very difficult to put everything across in so many words. After long negotiations, now we have reached a consensus that the RTI application will be filed within the 500 words limit, plus any number of annexures. So, it is 500 words for the content of the application, plus unlimited pages of annexures.

What do you think of the proposed rule that every RTI application should be restricted to only on one subject matter?
We are totally against the subject matter limit. It creates a lot of confusion. The matter is still under consideration. 

Another draft rule says that in case of an RTI applicant’s death, his or her application cannot be followed up by anyone else. You criticised this draft rule saying it would encourage some to murder RTI activists. Has the government considered your views?
Yes, the government has accepted our demand. This rule will go.

There is a perception that five years after the advent of RTI, the government has learnt what transparency can do to the regime and, hence, is trying to sabotage the law. Your view?

We have been maintaining that DoPT [department of personnel and training] is not the right department/ministry to implement the RTI act because it [DoPT] takes care of the interests of the civil servants. The bureaucrats are wary of this act and find one means or the other to block information. It will be wrong to say that the government is stepping back on the act. There are lobbies, especially those backed by the bureaucrats, that are working to sabotage the act.

For civil servants and babus, transparency is vulnerability and not power. This attitude has to change. The government has to switch from the culture of secrecy to that of transparency. This shift is extremely difficult, but has to happen if we want to change the governance scenario.

How strong are the government’s attempts to block information? Can you give an example you came across during your career in administration?
When I was a serving IAS officer, I once went to the block development officer (BDO) of Beed district to obtain the list of the BPL (below poverty line) citizens. She gave me the list saying that she was doing it just because I was a woman and she asked me to return the list by next morning. This is what I witnessed as an IAS officer, what would be the case of an ordinary citizen?

There is a view that the prime minister and the UPA chairperson have different views on the act. While Manmohan Singh favours amendments, Sonia Gandhi is against any change. He also favoured the exemption of the office of the chief justice of India from the act. How do you see this? 
We have to acknowledge the fact that Mrs Gandhi played a very important role in making this act happen. When she talks about the act, she talks as a people’s representative. She has been involved in the act from the very beginning and has opposed every move to amend it. Manmohan Singh is for the interests of civil servants. He is not bothered about what changes the act can bring to the governance scenario.

There have been about a dozen killings of RTI applicants. As someone involved in drafting the act, did you anticipate that people would get killed for seeking information?
While drafting the act, we imagined that there would be hindrances and that the government would try to withhold information, but we never imagined that people would be killed because of using the RTI act. Recently, Niyamat Ansari , an NREGA worker, was killed. What was his fault? What did he ask? He had simply demanded the details of NREGA spending in his district. Mangal Ram, a dalit from Barmer district in Rajasthsan, was beaten up and all his limbs were broken because he also asked similar information. Asking these questions has become a threat to our system.

Is the act serving its purpose?
I had good friend in late Lakshmi Chandra Jain, former ambassador of India to South Africa. He was a Gandhian. When we were working on the act, he told me, “Aruna, this is a fantastic idea, but it would not see the light of the day in my lifetime. Your grandchildren may see it passed.”  In the last nine years, we got the act passed and have information flowing from all the government departments in the country.

For civil servants and babus, transparency is vulnerability and not power. This attitude has to change. The government has to switch from the culture of secrecy to that of transparency. This shift is extremely difficult, but has to happen if we want to change the governance scenario.

Talking about the food security bill, Jean Dreze is apparently unhappy with the National Advisory Council proposal of covering 90 percent people in rural India and 50 percent in urban India under the proposed law. Wasn’t the aim of the bill to provide universal coverage?
Individual differences will always be there. We always wanted universalisatiion regarding the food security act, but it could not happen. At the end, we had to reach on a consensus instead of letting the bill hanging in fire.

Do you agree with Dreze’s view that the NAC draft of the food bill provides five guarantees and does not ensure food security?
Jean is right when he says that. In its present form, it is not a food security act, but food guarantee act.

Is the NAC going to look into the Lokpall bill?
The working group has got a green signal from the NAC to look into the Lokpal bill.

NAC has also asked the government to allow it to review the whistleblower bill. How do you find the current draft of the bill?
It is a terrible bill in the present form and needs review. We will to look into it.
 

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