Rare government records pertaining to events leading to abolition of privileges of erstwhile rulers of Indian states appear to be missing from the National Archives here. Senior BJP leader Jaswant Singh came to know about this through an RTI application in which he had sought information on these records. The National Archives said that the documents could not be traced and they were looking for it.
Singh, represented through his Secretary Raghvendra Singh, moved his request before Home Ministry on January 17 this year. He sought an inspection of documents, including cabinet papers and notings that preceded the abolition of "privileges and privy purses" of rulers of then Indian states.
What followed thereafter was a eight-month-long hiatus wherein the records were searched in the Ministry's record office, which finally took a stand that documents and files have been transferred to the National Archives.
The Archives, after its efforts to trace out the records, could only manage to find only two amongst a total of 10 files sought by Singh, who required those documents for research and study.
NAI, however, said its efforts were on to trace out the remaining documents.
A complaint was thereafter preferred before the Central Information Commission seeking appropriate directions.
While the Ministry did not approach its Appellate Authority in relation to his RTI plea, Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah allowed his appeal on grounds that despite Singh's repeated requests, no documents could be provided to him.
Habibullah has directed the National Archives to make "renewed efforts" to look out for the files that have by far remained untraced. The documents would have to be opened to Singh, for inspection, within 20 days.
Rare govt records missing at National Archives- Politics/Nation-News-The Economic Times
As reported by Shyamlal Yadav in India Today on indiatoday.digital.in on 19 June 2008:
India Today - The most widely read newsweekly in South Asia
In the third week of May at a function to release the ‘Report to the People 2008’ on the UPA Government’s completion of the fourth year in office, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh waxed eloquent about the achievements of his regime while laying special emphasis on its record in open government.
“The UPA Government has set a new standard for accountability and transparency in governance,” he announced.
The prime minister was only partially right since it was the UPA Government that had enacted the Right to Information (RTI) Act, which gave ordinary citizens the right to seek both information and accountability from their leaders.
However, it is the actual implementation of open governance that remains a closely-guarded secret.
On November 6, 2007, India Today invoked the RTI, seeking information from the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) whether Union ministers had filed details of their assets and liabilities.
This followed reports that the prime minister was miffed after his ministers repeatedly ignored reminders from the Cabinet Secretariat to file these details.
The ministers who showed utter disdain for the cabinet secretary’s reminders were from the Congress as well as from its alliance partners.
Manmohan Singh (right) with senior colleagues
The practice of asking all Union ministers to file details of assets and tax returns with the PMO every year was initiated by Atal Bihari Vajpayee after he took over as prime minister in 1999. Though the move met with initial resistance, especially from the BJP’s alliance partners, eventually most ministers fell in line.
A system was also put in place to ensure that the process was adhered to.
On taking the oath of office, every minister is handed a copy of the code of conduct. It says, among other things, that ministers should disclose to the PMO details of their assets, liabilities and business interests along with those of their family members.
Manmohan, in the best interests of transparency, kept up the tradition.
This magazine’s efforts to gather information of the ministers’ assets, liabilities and tax returns made it amply evident that most of the UPA ministers have scant regard for the prime minister’s lofty ideals.
Our RTI application, sent to both the PMO and the Cabinet Secretariat, asked these specific questions: “Whether the prime minister has asked his cabinet/state ministers to file the details of their assets and liabilities annually; the exact date of such advice; reminders sent to the defaulters and the names of ministers who expressed their inability to file such details.”
That is when we discovered that the openness which Manmohan talked about is mostly a farce and the bureaucrats and politicians were doing what they were best at—passing the buck.
On November 19, 2007, 10 days after the RTI application was filed, the PMO responded saying that the “Cabinet Secretariat dealt with the matter and you are advised to contact the Central public information officer, Cabinet Secretariat, for further information in the matter.”
Buck - passing
“You are advised to contact the CPIO, Cabinet Secretariat for further information in the matter.”
Response from PMO dated November 19, 2007
“The information asked for pertains to the PMO and the Cabinet Secretariat is not directly connected with the subject matter.”
Response from Cab Sec dated November 26, 2007
“The matter is under consideration and information will be sent to you in due course.”
Response from Cab Sec on December 24, 2007
Shockingly enough, a week later, the secretariat responded to the initial application stating that the “information asked for pertains to the Prime Minister’s Office and the Cabinet Secretariat is not directly concerned with the subject matter.
This secretariat… has transferred your request to the Prime Minister’s Office, South Block… for appropriate action.”
The two offices are situated just a stone’s throw from each other. But for any one trying to do business with either, they couldn’t be further apart.
The replies that were received from each office were sent to the other following which the secretariat wrote on December 24 that “the matter is under consideration of the competent authority and the information/reply will be sent to you in due course.”
Nothing happened for nearly two months. On February 1, we sent a reminder to the secretariat requesting it to forward the information as soon as possible. A copy of this letter was endorsed to the appellate authority as well. A second reminder was sent on March 7.
When that too went unanswered, a third reminder was sent asking if there was a “stipulated time frame to reply to such requests”.
Nearly four months had elapsed, though under the RTI Act it is mandatory to reply to queries within a month.
The next door to be knocked on was that of the Central Information Commission (CIC), which oversees the implementation of the RTI Act.
On March 17, this magazine wrote to the CIC saying that both the PMO and the Cabinet Secretariat have been indulging in buck-passing and not replying to repeated queries raised under the RTI.
“Such an attitude will defeat the very purpose of the RTI Act. When high offices like the PMO and the Cabinet Secretariat show such an approach, it can only be deduced how the lower-level offices will deal with requests to RTI applications,” we wrote to the CIC.
There is no reply forthcoming from the CIC either, which gives the feeling that it would be foolish to expect the queries to be answered during the tenure of this government.
The prime minister’s brave words about the declaration of assets by ministers is just words and nothing else.
The Representation of the People Act was amended in 2004 to make it compulsory for all legislators to declare their assets and liabilities within 90 days of being elected. Strangely, there is no such provision for ministers.
That ministers treat with contempt directives from the PMO—issued via the Cabinet Secretariat seeking annual declaration of assets—is indicative of the sheer helplessness of the PMO in a coalition setup where every partner, even a minor one, is a major bully.
If this is the actual level of transparency at the highest levels where leaders are expected to be more accountable, the less said the better about politics and those who practise it at the lower levels.