Amending the Right to Information Act would be a retrograde step
BEFORE ANY debate starts, we must remind ourselves that India has a tendency of corruption. India, though a democracy, has a history of reported corruption cases. While the Chief Justice of India, KG Balakrishnan, has demanded that PM Manmohan Singh amend the RTI Act to ‘protect’ the judiciary from ‘intrusive’ queries, what needs to be kept in mind is that the proposed amendments will totally defeat the purpose of an RTI Act.
The proposed amendments include introducing an exemption for so-called ‘vexatious and frivolous’ applications, and excluding from the purview of the RTI Act access to ‘file notings’ and decision-making processes, this time by excluding ‘discussions or consultations that take place before arriving at a decision’. Two contemporary nation-wide studies, one done under the aegis of the Government of India and the other by people’s organisations (RTI Assessment and Accountability Group and the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information), have both concluded that the main constraints faced by the government in providing information are inadequate implementation, the lack of training for staff and poor record management. They have also identified the lack of awareness and harassment of the applicants as two major constraints that prevent citizens from exercising their right to information. Despite interviewing thousands of Public Information Officers, neither study concluded that frivolous or vexatious applications were frequent enough to pose a threat to governance or to the RTI regime in general.
It is strongly believed that it is impossible to come up with definitions of ‘vexatious’ and ‘frivolous’ that are not completely subjective and, consequently, prone to rampant misuse by officials. Would it be fair to judge a decision (or the decision maker) without knowing why such a decision was taken and what facts and arguments were advanced in its favour and what against? Can one hold a government (or an official) accountable, on the basis of what they did or did not do without knowing the reasons for their action or inaction? Moreover, it’s too early to propose changes to an Act which hasn’t even been fully implemented. Section 4, which states that all public authorities are supposed to duly catalogue, index and publish their records, is yet to be implemented.
We, the people of India, already directly or indirectly know the decisions of the government, for we are the ones who bear the consequences. What the RTI Act facilitated was a right to know who took those decisions and the reasons why the decisions were taken. Our right to information is part of the bedrock of democracy. It cannot be separated or diluted without denying us our fundamental rights.
It is significant that even among Information Commissioners from across India, whom the government recently “consulted”, the overwhelming consensus was against any amendment to the RTI Act at this stage.
The government, therefore, should abandon this ill-advised push to amend the Act. Instead, it should initiate a public debate on the problems that it might be facing in implementing the Act. It is only through such a public debate that a lasting and credible way can be found to strengthen the RTI regime.
The government must initiate public debate to strengthen the Act, rather than amending it
At a time when there is a popular consensus to strengthen it through rules and better implementation, an amendment in the Act would be an obviously retrograde step. The fear is that political pressures influence our PM. A decision on this issue should be taken after careful consideration. If the wrong decision is taken, severe criticism is bound to follow. We strongly urge that an unequivocal decision be taken to refrain from amending the RTI Act.
Roy is a social activist based in Rajasthan