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dr.s.malhotra

Critical review of RTI Act needs to be undertaken: Manmohan

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Sajib Nandi

Right to Information Act: Are there grounds to review it?

 

As reported by www.moneycontrol.com on October 19, 2011:

http://www.moneycontrol.com/news/current-affairs/right-to-information-act-are-there-grounds-to-review-it_602036.html

 

What exactly is the government’s position on the Right to Information (RTI) Act? Are there grounds for reviewing or even amending it or are such sentiments borne out of frustration and perhaps even revenge.

CNBC-TV18’s Karan Thapar gets answers to these critical questions with the former chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah, a founder member of the national campaign for people’s right to information, Shekhar Singh, Congress general secretary and working committee member Madhusudan Mistry and a prominent RTI user Subhash Chandra Agarwal.

 

Below is an edited transcript of their interview. Watch the accompanying videos for more.

 

Q: The Prime Minister has called for a critical look at the RTI Act but just days later law minister Salman Khurshid said there is no proposal to relook the Act. Are they contradicting each other and have they worse still created confusion?

Mistry: I don’t think so. The PM has aired his views about operationalising and the administration is now finding it difficult. So he must have referred to it. What I go through the newspaper, I am quite surprised that there are so many apprehensions about not touching the RTI Act at all. Once you make a law, you will have to allow sometime to see how it goes and how it is operationalised

 

 

Q: What about this confusion between what Salman Khurshid has said and what the PM has said? Are they contradicting each other?

Mistry: I don’t think so. It may be that Salman Khurshid may not have an idea or that the PM has said there may not be a formal proposal to do it when he may have referred it whatever he may be finding it. That’s what it is. I don’t think it is contradictory to each other.

 

Q: Shortly after the PM made his comment, you went on record to say that the government is demoralising people and creating confusion. Has Salman Khurshid clarified matters or has he actually made the matter worse?

Singh: Well he has not made the matter worse but the point is that to say that he might not be aware of what the PM said.

 

Q: To be fair, Salman Khurshid didn’t say that, that was Mr Mistry’s interpretation?

Singh: Yes, it is strange because if you have a law minister who doesn’t even read the newspapers then I am afraid we have a problem.

 

Q: So now you are more demoralised than what you were previously?

Singh: I am more confused than I was previously. The point is what the PM says gets across to us the thinking inside the government. If the PM is thinking that way then it’s demoralising, it’s confusing but it’s alarming.

 

Q: Salman Khurshid has said and I quote, ‘Even if the Act causes inconvenience, we will bear that inconvenience.’ If important ministers like Veerappa Moily and Pranab Mukherjee have criticized the Act and that Salman Khurshid in the past has done so himself, do you believe that forbearance or do you think it’s deceptive or misleading?

Habibullah: I would certainly urge Shekhar Singh not to be demoralised at all. These are statements coming out. The Act has lasted six years. It does need to be reviewed from time to time. Simply because you ask for a review does not necessarily mean that you disapprove the Act. It can also be construed to mean how to make the Act work better. Now the point that there are contradictory statements etc, I would agree that there is probably not a palpable proposal at present on the table.

 

Q: Is this thinking aloud?

Habibullah: There is thinking. The RTI law is such that it encourages that.

 

Q: Does this mean that you except the forbearance and Salman Khurshid’s remarks and you don’t think it’s deceptive?

Habibullah: I don’t think there is any need for forbearance. There is a need to discuss and see how you can improve the implementation of the law.

 

Q: On the other hand, Anna Hazare has gone on record to say the RTI Act is being misused and I quote him saying ‘Some people have made it their business; they are demanding information they don’t need.’ Doesn’t that suggest that beyond people in government, there is a constituency outside as well that thinks there is a need to take a critical look?

Agarwal: No, there is no need to at least amend the Act. Review is always necessary and there are incidences of blackmailing also. I know some unauthorized builders who are being targeted by some blackmailers. They file RTI petitions to snatch money from them but I talked with some prominent RTI activists and then the information commissioner who said that the blackmailers are blackmailing those who are already indulged in some unauthorized and illegal activities.

 

Q: The blackmailers are simply doing the right thing to other people and this is justified?

Agarwal: This is also not fair.

 

Q: You are saying there is no need to amend but you are pointing out a misuse. How do you correct the misuse without amending?

Agarwal: No, misuse is very rare. Such incidents are very rare.

 

Q: Grit your teeth and live with it?

Agarwal: Yes, we have to sort out these things practically, not by amending the Act.

 

Q: The PM says the RTI’s power to make file notings public is impeding free discussion in public. He says because they know their notings could be made available through an RTI application, bureaucrats are being cautious and politically correct rather than transparent and honest. Is that really the case?

Mistry: It may be perhaps working as a deterrent to put forth their views straight forward. For example, I was in a Standing Committee where there was a proposal to make public hearing available through camera and to people through channels. At present, all members expressed their view; they don’t take the party line. Once you see to it that the proceeding is made public, all the members simply stick to the party line and that will really be quite detrimental.

It’s the same view here. There are some people who are very straight forward in giving their views and will have difficulty because they never know how this is being used. I am pretty sure that may be the case.

 

Q: Aruna Roy said that transparency will help honest bureaucrats because they will have the confidence that when their notings are made available, they will in fact vindicate the stands they have taken?

Habibullah: Of course and that is the feedback that I have got from many bureaucrats while I was Chief information commissioner. That is also the stand taken by one of the most veteran of our bureaucrats Dr PC Alexander when he spoke on this subject in the key note address in the second convention of the Central Information Commission.

In this case, the PM’s statement was made as part of an inaugural function. That is a subject on which he was inviting discussion during the conference because in a conference, you make a key note speech, earmark certain issues which you would like to discuss. Now this is the issue which has been discussed.

 

Watch the accompanying videos for more...

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karira

An article by Aniruddha Barua in policymic.com on 21 Oct 2011:

http://www.policymic.com/articles/2050/india-s-right-to-information-act-under-threat

 

India's Right To Information Act Under Threat

 

In 2005, India’s government, led by the Congress Party, passed the long overdue Right to Information Act. Today, the act is an invaluable tool that grants every citizen of India timely responses to queries relating to any public body. It has been used an impressive 600,000 times, and an equally impressive 90% of the applications have been disposed of. Over 400,000 of these applications have been from rural India, with over 35% coming from Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) of society. It is clear that the act has empowered millions of previously marginalized and muted citizens.

 

Disturbingly, but unsurprisingly, certain elements in the political establishment now want to reduce the scope of the act.

 

It is a well accepted fact that corruption in India is endemic. It is prevalent from the lowest echelons of officialdom (with traffic police known to accept the equivalent of a $1 bribe to overlook a speeding violation), to the highest (one of the raging political controversies today involves politicians granting of telecom licenses at billions of dollars below their market values). While the former fosters a general atmosphere of petty lawlessness, the latter implies a monumental loss to the exchequer, funds that should have been used for public purposes. Over the last year however, the RTI Act has aided the uncovering of a large number of political and economic scams and frauds, with judicial proceedings being initiated against high-ranking political dignitaries. If these cases can be taken to their legal conclusions and the guilty brought to book, it would signify a promising new era for a country that has struggled under the weight of bureaucratic and financial irregularities.

 

The arguments for limiting the scope of the act range from the barely logical (the selection of national sportsmen should be exempt from RTI on the grounds that full disclosure may foster bad blood between competitors for a particular spot) to the diabolical (exemption of the National Nuclear Safety Authority). Further, some of the suggested limitations are downright ludicrous; for example, it is unclear why RTI Applications should be restricted to 150 or 250 words. Presumably parliament now functions via Twitter.

 

The RTI Act was a landmark legislation for India and has helped create the image of a modernizing democratic country. Curtailing it now, in addition to safeguarding those who have abused the lack of accountability that existed previously, would be cowardly and calamitous.

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karira

Second Opinion by Jug Suraiya in The Times of India on 20 Oct 2011:

http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/opinion/edit-page/The-no-of-things/articleshow/10404705.cms

 

The no of things

 

By law, all packaged foods must have a list of their ingredients marked on them. As consumers, we have a right to know what we are putting into our bodies. Similarly, many modern restaurants have what is known as an optic kitchen which allows patrons to see what goes into what they are about to eat, how hygienic or otherwise are the conditions in which they are being made. Optic kitchens are a guarantee of transparency, quite literally, in catering establishments.

 

The biggest catering establishment in the country, in a manner of speaking, is the sarkar. It cooks up all the diverse policies and rules and regulations which sustain us in our day-to-day lives and affect our physical, social and economic well-being. Is a particular sarkari decision or course of action a recipe for progress or for disaster? We, who elect the sarkar into office, have the right to know what goes into whatever it is that is being dished out to us. This is what the Right to Information Act is, or ought to be, all about. It is the sarkar's version of the transparent optic kitchen.

 

It was in acknowledgement of this basic democratic right that UPA-I brought in the Right to Information Act which would enable common citizens to find out what it was that the sarkar was up to - or down to - and the hows and whys relating to the various issues in question. Why was it that a particular road remained potholed and unnavigable though several crores of rupees had reportedly been spent on its supposed repairs? How was it that a particular sarkari project was delayed by several years and at huge cost overruns? Who was responsible, and what could be done to redress the situation? We had a right to know. And UPA-I conceded that right.

 

Now, beleaguered by a series of scams and exposes involving its members and its allies, UPA-II seems to be backtracking on, or at least side-stepping, its earlier commitment to the RTI Act. The PM has said that "certain grey areas" of the legislation had to be relooked at as there were "concerns that (they) could discourage honest, well-meaning public servants" from doing their jobs. The director general of the Standing Conference of Public Enterprises (SCOPE), U D Choubey, has reportedly gone a step further by saying that the RTI Act was hurting India's economy by as much as a 2% loss of GDP by causing delays in administrative procedures. It would appear that, to many elements in the sarkar, transparency is a hindrance to efficiency.

 

Activist Aruna Roy - who as a former IAS officer knows about the workings of government from first-hand experience - has challenged this assertion, saying that the bureaucracy had been inefficient and corrupt long before the advent of the RTI Act which, if anything, would help to make the sarkar more accountable to the people. But this is exactly what all too many representatives of the sarkar - from politicians to bureaucrats to members of the judiciary - do not want.

 

Knowledge is power. That is the neo-brahminical credo of the sarkar, which wants to keep knowledge, and with it the power, exclusively to itself. If people have a share in knowledge they have a share in power, which means that much less power in the hands of the sarkar. If knowledge is power, the opposite of knowledge, ignorance, is servitude. Instead of being there to be of service to the people, the sarkar has ensured that the people are of service to it, and it wants to maintain this status quo. You and i might want to be in the know of things. The sarkar will do its damnedest to see that we remain in the no of things; no as in no-ledge instead of knowledge. Our ignorance is the sarkar's bliss.

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Sajib Nandi

An Alibi Called Secrecy

'Why has RTI become a problem for PM Manmohan in UPA 2'

 

As reported by indiatoday.intoday.in on October 21, 2011:

http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/india-today-editorial-director-m-j-akbar-on-right-to-information-manmohan-singh-upa-2/1/157054.html

 

Secrecy in government can be both dangerous and essential. The difference lies in the cause: secrecy is criminal when it veils misdeeds, and honourable when it protects the national interest. Unfortunately, only politicians in office can make that call. Their primary impetus does not drive them towards transparency. They are far more adept at justifying self-interest with some rant about national duty. Patriotism used to be the last resort of the scoundrel; these days it is generally a first preference.

 

The debate on the Right to Information (RTI) is caught in this warp. Governments argue that in certain circumstances they are duty-bound to shade the truth, or even lie. We understand that. We also understand when that privilege is exploited. Every nation permits flexibility in the lie-line during times of war, for instance; but even in the fog of high patriotism we condone the evasions of a warrior but punish the falsehoods of a warmonger. The scars of George Bush and Tony Blair, who lied to drag their countries into war with Iraq, will not heal in their lifetime.

 

Dr Manmohan Singh's Government is not engaged in any war, except with itself; but fractious civil war tends to encourage the temptation of censorship. It has quite deliberately started a public debate on RTI, albeit with the usual feints and side-trips into blind alleys, aimed at amendments which will curb access to documents. Privately, this administration is convinced that RTI has degenerated into a licentious free-for-all.

 

If we want to understand why, then the correct question to ask is 'why now?'

 

Dr Singh did not inherit RTI. He can claim parentage of this legislation. He placed it among his more noteworthy achievements during the campaign for the 2009 general election, and doubtless won at least a few additional votes. During his first term, Dr Singh was perfectly content with RTI. Why has it become a problem two years into the second term? RTI procedures have not become any more liberal, although activists have become sharper and more sophisticated, blocking loopholes before they can be used to escape disclosure. The difference between the RTI triumphalism during UPA 1 and RTI nervousness during UPA 2 is fairly simple. Before 2009 Dr Singh felt he had nothing to hide. That confidence has melted with the disclosure of malfeasance by his ministers on an industrial scale. A series of self-inflicted wounds has shredded credibility, with RTI inflicting most of the injury. Corruption is the source of these wounds, making them gangrenous. The nationwide symbols of corruption are the Commonwealth Games and 2G spectrum sales. In both cases files obtained through RTI not only broke the story wide open but also sabotaged the possibility of any cover-up.

 

When governments seek to set the record straight, a question must follow: who set the record crooked? Before RTI it was far easier to blame media for distortion. But when media has in its possession a true copy of original files, then the whistle of the blower sounds more authentic than the convoluted explanations of a minister. Our parliamentary system has a nuanced approach to lies: any minister caught lying to the House is expected to resign, but a minister who can avoid the truth is considered clever and competent. RTI leaves ministers bereft of such protection.

 

Dr Singh's Government is showing all the symptoms of "secondtermitis", a wasting disease that can turn fatal. Most governments thrive after election; it is rather more difficult to survive re-election. Even the great Jawaharlal Nehru began to wobble after re-election in 1957. The peace pedestal on which he had constructed his international persona began to crumble on the China front by 1959 and collapsed during the 1962 war. At first glance Mrs Indira Gandhi's case seems an exception, for nothing could go wrong at the beginning of her second term in 1971. But by 1973, nothing could go right. Her third term, between 1980 and 1984, drifted on the acrid smoke of mistakes and violence, ending in the tragedy of her martyrdom.

 

Governments which are re-elected atrophy in the squeeze between high expectations and complacent delivery. They also begin to believe the illusion that opposition is dead. Nothing dies in a democracy.

 

Public life has more than one meaning in a democracy; it is not only about the management of public affairs, but also public in its process. The shelter of privacy is accorded to only a few subjects, notably defence. In other areas of governance, secrecy is an alibi, not a solution, and alibis do not even buy you much time at the contemporary exchange rate. Dr Singh no longer has a government to gain by whittling RTI, but he still has a reputation to lose.

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karira

From the Bangalore Mirror on 21 Oct 2011:

http://epaper.timesofindia.com/Daily/skins/MIRRORNEW/navigator.asp?Daily=BGMIR&showST=true&login=default&pub=MM&AW=1319170274125

 

No, Prime Minister...

 

The UPA government, which claims credit for the RTI Act, now sees it as a monster and wants to kill it

 

Every day, as the usual suspects from the government troop across television screens and dispense sound bites, there’s a sense of déjà vu. The feeling grows stronger; and now we know where we’ve seen and read this, where our political masters (and mistresses) are getting this from: they’re watching reruns of Yes, Prime Minister.

 

A favourite homily from a UPA panjandrum with a particularly smug mug is to say something like this: “Let me remind you that it was the UPA that gave the country the RTI Act”.

There’s a small problem with this fascinating statement. It’s a lie. No government ‘gives’ laws to people. Laws are made by legislatures which have both government and opposition. Parliamentarians are only the representatives of citizens; it is we, the citizens, the people who have delegated to legislatures the authority to frame statutes, for us. That’s a fundamental postulate of our democracy, one that the UPA’s talking heads seem to forget. Passing a law is never a matter of benevolence or charity.

 

An even greater lie is the government’s suggestion that it conceived of this law all on its own. The government had very little choice in the matter. By the time the RTI Act was passed in 2005, the campaign for it, already several years old, was unstoppable. The Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatna (under Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey and Shankar Singh) pressed for something very like it in the early 1990s. Others rallied to the cause: Manubhai Shah of the Consumer Education and Research Council (CERC) in Ahmedabad put out an early draft in 1993; three years later, the Press Council (under Justice PB Sawant, a former judge of the Bombay High Court and the Supreme Court) proposed another model. The National Campaign on People’s Right to Information had the RTI as its principal agenda. Tamil Nadu came through with its act in 1997 — eight years before the UPA’s act of socalled magnanimity — and others followed, including Rajasthan and Karnataka in 2000, Delhi a year later and Maharashtra in 2002. The Maharashtra act was largely the doing of Anna Hazare. The RTI Act’s immediate precursor was the Freedom of Information Act 2002, and this was replaced by the 2005 RTI Act largely due to the efforts of activists. The RTI Act may not be a law of Manu, but it is also not a law of Manmohan.

 

It crystallises a right that has always existed in all citizens, one that courts recognised long before the act was passed; and it torpedoes that most vicious and undemocratic of laws, the Official Secrets Act. In less than six years, it has transformed the way the country functions, altered the face of our democracy and dramatically expanded the role of the judiciary in public affairs. Without the RTI Act, much of what the Supreme Court is considering in the telecom licensing scams would never have come to light. From the smallest local authority to the highest reaches of government, the RTI Act is the tightest rein on errant governments.

 

Today, the same government that claims credit for the RTI Act now sees it as Frankenstein’s monster, and wants to kill it. The UPA’s party members claim that it is affecting the “working” of the government. This is rank nonsense. Only a government that operates on deception and corruption fears disclosure. The criticism says more about the critic than the criticised.

 

The Act says that an applicant does not need to give reasons for seeking information; and this is at it should be. This is a variant of the legal concept of burden of proof, and it underlies most freedom of information statutes: it is not for the applicant to show why he needs the information, but for the person from whom it is sought to show, with reasons, why it should not be disclosed.

 

By a coincidence that is so happy for the UPA that it cannot be coincidence, on 2 September a Shiv Sena MP from Shirdi, Mr Bhausaheb Wakchaure, introduced a private member’s bill that does nothing less than strike at the heart of the RTI Act. Mr Wakchaure proposes an inversion (and perversion) of the RTI Act: his amendment requires an applicant to give reasons, and allows the person from whom information is sought to withhold it if he feels the reasons are inadequate.

 

The bill is monstrous. It must be thrown out. It is nothing but a passport to greater corruption; and it can only be palatable to a government that believes it has the right to rule but no duty to govern.

 

The RTI Act is not a law of PM Dr Manmohan Singh. It is a law of the people.

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karira

As reported by PTI in zeenews.india.com on 23 Oct 2011:

http://zeenews.india.com/news/nation/fear-among-officials-on-rti-deshmukh_737985.html

 

Fear among officials on RTI: Deshmukh

 

New Delhi: In the midst of a debate over dilution of the RTI Act, Union minister Vilasrao Deshmukh feels that liberal access to government files has put fear among officials on giving their views, an issue which has to be addressed.

 

"RTI has expanded the scope. Nothing is secret anymore. Cabinet decisions and opinions expressed by officials are also accessed using this Act," the Union Minister for Science and Technology and Earth Sciences told a news agency here.

 

He said the liberal use of RTI has put fears in officials on freely expressing their views on any issue.

 

"This has led to officials being apprehensive on noting their opinion on the file. A joint secretary has the right to overrule the views of an under-secretary. But now even a joint secretary thinks ten times before making a file noting," Deshmukh said.

 

An official fears about his decision being questioned and he being called to give an explanation, he said.

 

"These difficulties faced by the administration have to be given a thought," said the two-time chief minister of Maharashtra.

 

He said Information Commissioners have been appointed for implementation of the RTI Act and there was no reason for hiding any information.

 

"Getting information about the final decision is proper. But the decision-making process and who said what in the process...if this is also made known then nobody would give his views. Everybody fears this. This may have led to the debate on dilution of RTI," he said.

 

It was during Deshmukh's tenure as Maharashtra chief minister RTI Act was enacted in the state in 2002. The Maharashtra RTI Act was considered as the base document for the RTI Act passed by Parliament in 2005.

 

Incidentally, RTI was made into a law in Maharashtra after a hunger strike by social activist Anna Hazare in early 2000.

 

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's call at a conference of Information Commission for a critical look at the RTI Act triggered a debate with the BJP and a section of the civil society criticising the remark.

 

Singh had later clarified that he had never called for dilution of the Act.

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karira

An article by B S Raghavan in thehindubusinessline.com on 25 Oct 2011:

http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/columns/b-s-raghavan/article2568185.ece

 

Stop meddling with RTI

 

BL25RTI_818172f.jpg

 

October 24, 2011:

Is the Right to Information (RTI) Act in trouble? It may well be, finding that the Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, himself has begun to take potshots at it. We will come to that later.

 

The point is that ever since it came into force in 2005, the top echelons of the three branches of Government have been advancing a variety of largely specious excuses to wriggle out of its purview. And no wonder.

 

The RTI flies directly in the face of the secretive mindset of the governing class which has raised firewalls around it in the form of the Official Secrets Act, oaths of secrecy and public servants' conduct rules, and the like, to make sure that the vagaries in the discharge of its functions do not become public knowledge.

 

Transparency and accountability are all right on paper, but are strictly for the birds, in its view, when it comes to exercising its power and authority.

 

It is, therefore, understandable that it should do whatever it can to keep the Act at bay.

 

But should the Prime Minister be pandering to its escapist ploys, even seeming, at times, to be actually siding with agencies unwilling to submit to its regimen?

 

EXCLUSIONS

 

For instance, as of now, the Central Bureau of Investigation, the National Intelligence Grid, the Intelligence Bureau, the Research and Analysis Wing, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, the Aviation Research Centre, the Narcotics Control Bureau and all the Central paramilitary forces have been allowed to escape the citizens' scrutiny (except for information on allegations of corruption and human rights violations) by being included in the Second Schedule to the RTI Act.

 

It is not that the Government's lukewarm attitude towards the RTI Act is of recent origin.

 

ABSENCE OF COMMITMENT

 

As far back as in 2008, one of the Central Information Commissioners, Mr Sailesh Gandhi, had written to the Prime Minister on the absence of the needed commitment on the part of the Government towards the people's right to information, as was evident from the Information Commissions at the Centre and in the States being left adrift without adequate staff or resources.

 

He had also pointed out how this “neglect” had caused a serious setback to RTI and rendered its delivery system dysfunctional.

 

Despite the passage of three years, he tells me, he does not have even an acknowledgment to his letter. He is in exalted company. The question is: Are the vast bureaucracy of the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) and the huge expenditure incurred on it meant just to ignore important communications on vital matters?

 

In the last two years, vested interests within and outside the Government have let loose a reign of terror against RTI activists, who are doing the best they can to expose the networks of corruption, fraud and plunder of public funds.

 

Beginning from January 2010, twelve RTI activists (six in Maharashtra, two in Gujarat and one each in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh) have been killed, besides many others facing threats to their lives.

 

The Prime Minister's observations at the conference of Information Commissioners on October 13 have to be viewed in this setting.

 

He was right about the power and the effectiveness of the RTI Act being felt more fully now than ever before; it is doubtful, though, whether it has made his Ministers and their minions uniformly happy. He also promised to bring legislation for the protection of whistleblowers, but then, what if this also goes the way of all his other promises made in the past on similar momentous issues?

 

PM'S OBSERVATIONS

 

Let's leave that aside. What is significant is that Dr Singh devoted the core part of the address to some features of the RTI Act which, in his view, needed a “critical look”, as they created the “undesirable” situation of public authorities being “flooded' with “vexatious demands” for information having no bearing on public interest.

 

Further, he felt that they affected the deliberative processes in government because of which “honest, well-meaning public servants” were discouraged from giving full expression to their views.

 

Also, according to him, such views coming under public scrutiny in an isolated manner in response to RTI led to a distorted or incomplete understanding of the final decisions.

 

He even seemed inclined to restrict access to information by adding to the exemptions from disclosure provided in the Act.

 

None of the grounds mentioned by Dr Singh justifies any kind of “critical look” at the RTI Act.

 

PROPER WAY

 

In a country in which, for centuries, the citizens have been in the dark about the rationale of the processes of governance and the manner of arriving at decisions, there is bound to be an initial “flooding” of public offices with queries under RTI. The proper way of countering this is for public authorities to earn the trust and confidence of the people by being prompt and forthcoming in furnishing the information asked for.

 

There is no reason why the RTI Act should make “honest, well-meaning public servants” shy of expressing their views so long as their reasoning is clear and the advice given is manifestly justified.

 

People are not fools not to be able to make out the sense and purport of official notings.

 

The Government can easily guard against a “distorted and incomplete” understanding of decisions by voluntarily making the entire picture available to the citizen seeking information, as has been envisaged in the Act itself.

 

As regards exemptions from disclosure, any more additions will only discredit the UPA Government; if anything, it needs to narrow down the catch-all ambit of the existing ones and make them more precise and specific.

 

MENTAL BLOCK

 

All in all, the Prime Minister and the Government should not create uncertainties by coming out with statements suggestive of a mental block in respect of the RTI Act.

 

If worked in the intended spirit, it can be the harbinger of a participative democracy, taking account of the will and consent of the people. Just leave it alone,

 

PM, sir, even if you do not want to beef it up further.

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Op-Ed debate in Business Standard on 26 Oct 2011:

http://business-standard.com/india/news/should-official-concernsrti-be-addressed/453643/

 

SHOULD OFFICIAL CONCERNS ON RTI BE ADDRESSED?

 

Efficient implementation of the Act would make the point moot but what are bureaucrats afraid of ?

 

article.jpg

 

102611_01.jpg

Wajahat Habibullah

Former Chief Information Commissioner

 

Since programmes to advance the public’s understanding were not organised, the government can hardly blame the public for misuse

 

As the Right to Information (RTI) Act celebrates its sixth year, there has been much heated discussion, often emotional, on the benefits that it has brought and the challenges with which it has confronted the bureaucracy. This debate came to a head with the prime minister’s inaugural address to the Annual Convention of the Central Information Commission on October 14.

 

It is accepted in all circles that the essence of government in a democracy must be transparency with every organ of the government – executive, judiciary and legislature – being answerable to the citizen. India’s RTI Act, 2005, therefore, asserts that democracy requires an informed citizenry and transparency of information, which are vital to its functioning and also to contain corruption and hold governments and their instrumentalities accountable to the governed.

 

This law places a responsibility on all sections of the national fabric and not the bureaucracy alone. This brings into context the PM’s call, on October 14, to all participants in the process to flag the challenges that the government and the citizenry face in applying the law. What must follow, then, is enforcement of the obligation so clearly enunciated in Section 4 (1) of the Act.

 

“Every public authority shall — (a) maintain all its records duly catalogued and indexed in a manner and form which facilitates the right to information under this Act and ensure that all records that are appropriate to be computerized are, within a reasonable time and subject to availability of resources, computerized and connected through a network all over the country on different systems so that access to such records is facilitated” (emphasis added).

 

The RTI includes the right to inspect works, documents, records, take notes, extracts or certified copies of documents or records, take certified samples of material, obtain information in form of printouts, diskettes, floppies, tapes, video cassettes or in any other electronic mode or through printouts. It does not extend to information not held in material form. Moreover, a host of information is exempt from disclosure under Section 8 of the Act. But most exempt information is, at any rate, to be released after 20 years, with some exceptions, although it is also provided that the information that cannot be denied to Parliament or a State Legislature, shall not be denied to any person.

 

The Act indeed places a host of responsibilities on public authorities who were required to appoint Public Information Officers (PIOs)/assistant PIOs within 100 days of enactment and to begin maintaining, cataloguing, and indexing, computerising and networking records in accordance with Section 4(1) (a). If this has not happened to the extent required, the government, which appoints Central Public Information Officers that are at present officers at relatively junior level, has only itself to blame.

 

These authorities were further to publish, within 120 days of enactment, a whole set of information and update it every year. This was to include publishing suo moto all relevant facts while formulating important policies or announcing the decisions that affect the public, and also providing reasons for its administrative or quasi judicial decisions to all affected people.

 

Effective dissemination of information by this means would ensure that applications for information and any appeals that might follow would be only for access to esoteric information.

 

Authorities were made primarily responsible for raising awareness, educating and training, not only to officials but to the members of the public. For this, every department was expected to develop and organise educational programmes to advance the understanding of the public, particularly the disadvantaged, to exercise right to information. Not having done so, the government can hardly blame the public for misuse.

 

The government has indeed developed a scheme for e-governance. It is agreed that for the success of this initiative, RTI is essential. Here there has been progress, but only at the level of the central government.

 

Key to the effective functioning of the Act is the Gram Panchayat, which can prove the repository for scheme information, citizen surveys, fiscal information and so on. But this will happen only with the devolution of functions, funds and functionaries. This body can then become the service provider for a host of services, working to keep the citizenry informed, with citizens as a group (gram sabhas) and citizens as individuals.

 

102611_02.jpg

C J Karira

Global moderator on RTI India.org

 

It is the government’s job to train its officers in the disclosure of information. Training them in correctly denying it, is equally important

 

Battered by several inconvenient disclosures, the government seems to be all set to rein in the Right to Information (RTI) genie as is evident in criticism of the law from many quarters. The Prime Minister has led the assault himself when he expressed concerns over the impact of the RTI Act on efficient governance and the limited resources of public authorities. Another minister has questioned the type of information that should be disclosed under RTI.

 

Before the advent of the RTI Act, information from within the government was available to journalists with the right contacts and some vested interests who would strategically “leak” it, attributing it to “reliable sources”. The only change after the RTI Act has been that the same information is now available to any ordinary citizen. The advocates of a critical review of the Act are now proposing to bar the common man from accessing information and restricting its availability to a few. Information is not some kind of a scarce commodity in a socialist economy, only to be rationed out in limited quantities to a select few.

 

The latest bout of RTI soul-searching started with the release of the now famous note related to the 2G controversy. Not many know that the note had been released twice earlier but it was only the third applicant who was able to appreciate its import and release it into the public domain. Being the national RTI coordinator for the BJP helped in creating the pandemonium. RTI only allows a citizen to access information, leaving it to the recipient to interpret it. If the interpretation is incorrect or is quoted out of context, as was initially claimed in this case, surely the government should have set the record straight by releasing the complete set of documents. Strangely, rather than answering the message, the government is shooting the messenger, making the citizen all the more suspicious of its intentions. It is the government’s job to train its officers in the disclosure of information. Training them in correctly denying it, is equally important.

 

Another argument is that RTI has slowed decision-making since ministers and senior bureaucrats are hesitant to express their opinion freely in file notings and internal communications with colleagues and seniors, petrified that their point of view will be available for public scrutiny sooner or later. What is it that a public servant is afraid of? Why will a honest and transparent officer or minister give one opinion in a written note to his seniors and colleagues, while wanting to disclose another opinion to the public? In fact, those who are sincere and honest would be encouraged to give frank opinions and make reasoned notings knowing fully well that they are writing on a blackboard being read by 1.2 billion citizens. The RTI Act has in fact made the decision-making process more transparent and the government should itself volunteer to release the maximum amount of information into the public domain if it really wants to reduce the number of requests for information. Most public authorities, including most of the higher judiciary, have not even made public the set of suo motu disclosures mandated in section 4 of the RTI Act.

 

Finally, apprehensions have been expressed that the efficacy of government officers and staff is suffering due to the ever increasing number of applications seeking information. Although no empirical evidence has been advanced for this, the blame nevertheless lies squarely with the government. The RTI Act provides for each public authority to index and catalogue its records so as to facilitate access to information. Even public authorities in the top-most echelons of the government have yet to comply with this basic provision. Neither has the government accepted the recommendation of the second ARC that one per cent of the funds for all flagship programmes should be earmarked for a period of five years for updating records, improving infrastructure and creating Public Records offices. Most states do not even have a Public Records Act in place. If its own record-keeping is shoddy, the government can hardly blame the RTI applicant for the overload.

 

Rather than calling for a review, the government would be well advised to first implement the Act properly — both in letter and in spirit.

Article view.pdf

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karira

As reported by PRAVEEN KUMAR SINGH, NISTULA HEBBAR in financialexpress.com on 26 Oct 2011:

http://www.financialexpress.com/news/rti-puts-govt-in-goslow-mode/865246/1

 

RTI puts govt in go-slow mode

 

New Delhi: The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has realised the power of the Right to Information (RTI) Act the hard way. Bruised by the row over the finance ministry note on 2G spectrum scam to the Prime Minister’s Office, which exposed the schism between the two senior most ministers in the Cabinet, government departments have turned wary of such communications.

The result: a go-slow attitude seems to have taken over, with communications between various government departments being subjected to scrutiny. Top sources confirm Railway Board chairman Vinay Mittal has issued a circular demanding that “all communications between the ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office” be shown to him. This pertains to both outgoing and incoming communications.

 

A senior railway official, however, clarified that the direction was a reiteration of an earlier guideline to inform the railway board chairman of all matters requiring inter-ministerial consultation. The official said since the guideline was not being followed strictly, a fresh circular was issued.

“With the full significance of the RTI being acknowledged by senior ministers like Veerappa Moily, Salman Khurshid and even Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, it is always better to err on the side of caution,” said a senior railway official on condition of anonymity.

 

Decision-making on the development of roads and ports has also slowed down. In ports, only one project has been awarded so far against the overall target of 23 projects.

 

In roads, the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI ) could award projects for 2,812 km till October 19 against the target of 5,500 km.

 

“Several factors have caused the slow progress towards achieving the target. A recent order from the cabinet secretariat that all issues related to land be routed through it is one of them. However, we will be able to award 22 project by the end of this fiscal,” shipping secretary K Mohandas told FE.

 

Senior officials in the road ministry and NHAI said they had to exercise caution after revelation of an alleged scam in NHAI. Central Vigilance Commission is investigating several cases of wrongdoing in project award and recruitment by NHAI.

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Sajib Nandi

Don't bring changes to RTI: Advani

 

As reported by www.hindustantimes.com on 29 Oct 2011:

http://www.hindustantimes.com/India-news/Thiruvananthapuram/Don-t-bring-changes-to-RTI-Advani/Article1-762434.aspx

 

Opposing the move to dilute the RTI Act, BJP leader LK Advani on Saturday said Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's talk of a relook at the Act could be due to "sharp" differences between some of his ministers giving the impression of a "civil war" within the government. "I see no reason for the talk of a critical relook at the RTI except for the fact that differences between (Union ministers) Pranab Mukherjee and Chidambaram came to fore very sharply and gave the impression of a civil war going on within the government. That is the only reason for the anger of Prime Minister against RTI," he told reporters here.

 

BJP was totally opposed to any move to dilute the Act, through which some of the major corruption cases had come to light, he said.

 

UPA government, which claimed RTI as one of its major achievements, was now trying to have a relook at it as certain corruption exposes had materialised through the RTI itself, Advani said. "We are opposed to any change of any kind in the RTI law," he said.

 

Asked if the BJP had the moral standing to take on the Congress on corruption when former Karnataka chief minister BS Yeddyurappa was in jail, Advani said, "I have ever spared anybody and have given my position on Karnataka and nothing more to say on that."

 

Asked whether the yatra was meant to project himself as a Prime Ministerial candidate, he said the party's stand would be decided at the time of elections. "When elections come, we will declare what has to be declared", he said.

 

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had said a critical look must be taken at the RTI Act and concerns on it discussed and addressed. "The Right to Information should not adversely affect the deliberative processes in the government," he had said.

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karira

As reported in indiatoday.intoday.in on 02 Nov 2011:

http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/rti-act-cabinet-ministers-2g-scam-upa-government/1/158283.html

 

Streamline RTI Act instead of diluting it

 

The discomfort in some of its departments with an increased use of the Right to Information Act has thrown up a tough challenge before the government.

 

Though some Cabinet ministers like Veerappa Moily and Salman Khurshid have openly voiced concern over RTI coming in way of effective functioning of the administration, it will be difficult for the government to justify, either on grounds of law or on facts, any amendment which could dilute the mandate of the Act.

 

The Centre cannot ignore that arming citizens with the right to information is the duty of a government in a democracy and the 1995 transparency law merely gives a statutory form to the inherent 'right to know' enjoyed by citizens in a democracy. Much before the enactment of the law to regulate RTI, the right had been held by the Supreme Court to be a Fundamental Right under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution.

 

In what makes it clear that RTI was not a concession by the government, the SC in the S. P. Gupta case (AIR 1982 SC 149) and the Reliance Petrochemicals case (1989 AIR SC 190) had already held that the right to know was a basic right of the citizens.

 

The court in the S. P. Gupta case went a step further to state that "disclosure of information in regard to the functioning of Government must be the rule and secrecy an exception justified only where the strictest requirement of public interest so demands".

 

In the subsequent Reliance case, the court stated that the right to know was a facet of the fundamental right to life. "That right has reached new dimensions and urgency. It puts greater responsibility upon those who take upon the responsibility to inform," the court said. The purpose of the RTI Act, therefore, is to regulate the process for facilitating sharing of information and any restriction beyond the mandate of Article 19(2) can be questioned in court.

 

Speaking at a function recently, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, pointed to a heavy flow of RTI applications and spoke about the need to strike a balance between disclosure and "the limited time and resources available with the public authorities."

 

This may be a genuine difficulty but the law cannot be faulted for this. The Act was enacted after much deliberation and the government was not only duty- bound but also aware that it would have to deal with the extra burden. In fact, the problem would not have been so alarming if government departments had made voluntary disclosures as per the mandate of section 4 of the Act.

 

Section 4 not only seeks maintenance of records in a duly catalogued manner but also mandates voluntary disclosure of certain categories of information for the public's benefit. The list shows that many of the queries would not have been there if suo motu disclosures were made. Apart from permitting an update of the list, the section - among other things - mandates voluntary disclosure of information relating to the budget, details of subsidy programmes including beneficiaries, particulars of those receiving concessions, permits and facts pertaining to policies affecting the public.

 

No doubt, the concerns expressed by some ministers are serious but their fear has to be seen in the light of section 8 of the Act which already provides an exhaustive list of exceptions to create a balance between transparency and the need for secrecy in national interest. Though there is hardly any scope for further exceptions, any new exception should be justified in terms of an existing provision in the Act which allows access to information, "if public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm to the protected interests".

 

Further, dilution of RTI cannot be justified on grounds of misuse also. First, because it can hardly be disputed that misuse is not rampant and even UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi had earlier opposed any change in the Act. Second, because misuse of a right by some cannot justify curtailment or denial of the right to all. True, an amendment is a part of the legislative process for the evolution of a law but given the success story of RTI, it will be difficult to justify changes in the Act barely six years after its enactment.

===

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smbhappy

Another RTI Activist Nadim Sayed killed in Gujarat today. It is 13th cush killing in the past 2 years.

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Dr Kuntal

It was lame excuse by PM. RTI is exposing govt,their scams,RTI isnt a threat to honest officer,but RTI is curse for scamsters.PM to aise bol rahe hai jaise RTI ane se pehle govt ka kam kafi ache tarike se hota tha.

Govt should rather make pro active disclosures,getting information under RTI isnt easy even after 6 years of act,one has to wait for 2-3 years nd go to court for getting information.

Govt should increase penalty amount from 25000 as per inflation,penalising FAA and SIC and CIC if thy dont provide information.RTI applicant should be allowed to do 3rd appeal to CIC,if not satisfied with SIC.

ADVANI doesnt have any right what so ever to speak about RTI,BJP ruled states are pathetic in replying RTI,gujrat is worst in that.

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    • karira
      By karira
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    • karira
      By karira
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