When the UPA passed the landmark Right to Information Act in 2005, it was meant to empower citizens. The law promised transparency, accountability, and the end of corruption in governance. But in under five years, the government is planning to push through amendments that will dilute the law. Ironically, the amendments are being pushed through in a totally opaque manner. There has been no public discussion, nor have suggestions from citizens been invited.
While the bureaucracy had attempted to dilute the law earlier, what is worrying is the belief that the changes are being sought for by PM Manmohan Singh. There are reasons to believe so. Firstly, the department of personnel and training (DOPT), which overlooks the implementation of the act, comes directly under the PM. And attempts to seek transparency in the proposed amendments have all been stonewalled.
“They gave freedom of information...to take it back now is disturbing. Unveiling of corruption will now be ‘frivolous’. ”
Shailesh Gandhi, Information commissioner
But there are rumblings from within. Central information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi upped the ante last week when he sent out the minutes of a meeting of information commissioners with DOPT officials on October 14 last. It spelt out the amendments through a PowerPoint presentation. Many commissioners, including Gandhi, are shocked.
The DOPT proposed seven amendments, including the addition of a clause that would define some applications as “frivolous and vexatious requests”. If introduced, this will give the public information officer liberty to reject applications. This, crucially, would increase the workload of the commissions, where final appeals are heard. The other worrying proposal is to have a bench of two commissioners for every appeal. With commissioners struggling with the present workload, this will ensure further delay. Barring two information commisisoners, all rejected these amendments outright.
“This is the only law that can turn India into a participatory democracy from an elective one. If amendments are introduced at this stage, it will create a huge problem in the understanding of the law and undermine it completely,” Gandhi told Outlook. “By including such exemptions, we can say that public information officers will find any application that threatens to unveil corruption as vexatious or frivolous.”
Gandhi is also worried at the government’s efforts to change the definition of information and says that keeping file notings out (as is the case usually) would be disastrous. “I agree that this government gave the freedom to information. But to now take it back is disturbing.” According to him, despite several requests for the minutes of the meeting with the DOPT, the government had kept silent for five months. Finally, Gandhi released them unilaterally.
Otherwise too, the RTI is not fully functional. A study by Magsaysay awardee and activist Arvind Kejriwal and PCRF clearly shows that information commissioners are not working. “According to us, only 22 per cent of our appellants get information,” says Kejriwal. Which means that in the absence of any effective penalty, information commissioners are now misusing the Act and its provisions.
While some information commissioners such as M.M. Ansari have attacked the study, it is a fact that pending cases are piling up. While Gandhi brought down pendency from a year to just two months by processing 270 cases a month, those like Suresh Joshi of Maharashtra have dealt with just 85 cases a month. Even worse are commissioners like Dilip Reddy (Andhra) with just three cases, and A.K. Bhattacharya (West Bengal) with nine cases a month.
With the RTI Act under attack and the PM maintaining a silence despite letters of concern from commissioners and activists, there are no positives. Slowly, but steadily, the right of citizens to know is being pared back into the right of bureaucrats to deny information.