What began as a few whispers is now a booming drumbeat. Powerful senior ministers are asserting that the Right to Information Act (RTI), till now flaunted as one of the UPA government’s biggest gifts to the aam aadmi, is “transgressing into government functioning”. Similar misgivings are being voiced on another constitutional body that has been in the news lately—the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG). Put together, this has raised fears of a possible attempt to muzzle the proverbial messenger.
“Both (RTI and CAG) are messengers that bring to people something that has been stolen or gone wrong,” says former CAG T.N. Chaturvedi. But that’s not how a beleaguered government is seeing it. Facing varied governance scandals, it says that RTI is being misused for political and business ends. Over the past few weeks, one RTI response brought to fore the rivalry between Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and home minister P. Chidambaram. Another RTI reply has cast doubts on the CAG’s assessment of losses to the exchequer in the 2G case.
Are they really hampering government functioning? That’s arguable, feels former chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah, pointing out that if government agencies share information or store it well in the first place, no time would be lost in retrieving and giving RTI responses. “The apprehensions,” Habibullah stresses, “arise due to the fact that we have been an insular government and very secretive so far. The use of RTI is not to impair law or government functioning.” On concerns over leakage of sensitive information, he cites the example of the army, which has streamlined the system with adequate checks.
Civil society, meanwhile, is happy that RTI is now helping improve services by generating, for instance, public debate and action in Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh for monitoring nrega and better supply of subsidised foodgrains, respectively. Voicing civil society’s fears, Nikhil Dey of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information says: “We’re worried that the government will dilute the RTI on some pretext. If at all we need to rethink, it’s only about better implementation.”
Till now, civil society has managed to thwart attempts by the government to impose many new conditions—like word limit or multiple questions in an application. So far, the government has promised there would be public consultation for any amendment.
“Why should there be any rethink on RTI? Nobody can fully cleanse the system, but at least RTI is helping to do so in bits and pieces. It has put some fear in the system,” says former chief election commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh, who still lends support to various anti-corruption movements. The general consensus is that despite the odd misuse of RTI for political ends, it has only helped improve government functioning. Unfortunately for the government, the full potential of RTI is still being unravelled.
While admitting that RTI is being used as a weapon to fix political rivals, Prof Sudha Pai of JNU’s Centre for Political Studies feels the RTI legislation is fine, though some rules governing it need to be better defined. “The government has not made it clear what can be made public and what cannot (like cabinet deliberations), which is what is leading to so many controversies,” she says. Pai points to the Supreme Court’s directive in the case of universities, which clearly defines what sort of information (including exam answer sheets) can be made available under RTI provisions and to whom.
In bureaucratic circles, opinions are more varied and nuanced. Some admit to being wary of taking risky decisions, while others feel that RTI helps them ward off political pressure for taking decisions that could backfire. “RTI should really be used for the rights of citizens. Let us not use RTI to become overseers of governance. We are not intellectually ready for that,” says D.K. Mittal, secretary, financial services. Similarly, while supporting RTI, former petroleum secretary Anil Razdan feels files that are “current” or in the process of decision-making should be kept out of RTI’s purview.
While admitting to the desirability of freedom in action for a government without being overly questioned, former cabinet secretary T.S.R. Subramanian would prefer to settle for “the lesser evil of complete transparency at the cost of efficiency”. He states that people overruling a decision or views expressed by their subordinates are not necessarily villains; he would be worried if only one point of view was expressed in a file with no one questioning it. Of course, the noting has to give the reasons for the dissenting view.
But sometimes the overruling itself can be seen as questionable—for example, the varied estimates emanating from CAG on 2G losses. Declining to comment on the issues raised, the CAG is expected to put the facts before the public accounts committee (PAC) soon. In a convocation address on October 11, CAG Vinod Rai said: “These criticisms emanate from a mindset that views accountability agencies as an adversary than as an aid to good governance and better management.”
At the centre of the CAG controversy on 2G losses, R.P. Singh, former director general, audit (P&T), describes RTI as a “double-edged cutting weapon, good so long as it’s working in my favour”. Called to depose before the PAC, Singh refuses to get drawn into any controversy, maintaining that “the CAG is constitutionally empowered to present his report. It is his responsibility and liability.”
Former CAG Chaturvedi, who came to prominence with Bofors and helped the institution earn public and international credibility, says the procedures for audit are so strict and prolonged that they often come in for criticism. At the same time, “CAG is not interested in running down the government or the PMO. The final report will only hold a mirror to what’s happened. It is doing only what the government wants,” Chaturvedi says.
Given the credibility deficit facing the government, most bureaucrats and experts feel the RTI and CAG should be strengthened and their scope extended to all entities utilising public funds. But will the politicians play ball?