Ask at Your Peril

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Under siege The citizen’s fundamental right in a democracy to question the State should be safeguarded by all means. Photo: Vijay Pandey
Under siege The citizen’s fundamental right in a democracy to question the State should be safeguarded by all means. Photo: Vijay Pandey

The past decade has also witnessed attempts to delay and derail the RTI Act by stalling the disposal process especially at the level of state commissions. Levels of pendency at the second level of the process of filing an RTI leaves one not only bewildered but also astonished as to it how ineffective the process can be. A recent study by the RTI Assessment and Advocacy Group and the Centre for Equity Studies (CES) shows that it could take 80 years for a petition to be decided in Madhya Pradesh and 17 years in West Bengal. Noted RTI activist and CES director Harsh Mander tells Tehelka that the authors of the assessment have found that in cases of negligence by PIOs, hardly any action is taken against them. The rate of punishment is only 4 percent.

Furthermore, every fifth office of the State Information Commissioner (SIC) remains vacant. Jharkhand tops the list where four posts remain vacant including that of the State Information Commissioner. The post of the SIC is also being reduced to a post-retirement arrangement for IAS officers. Section 15(5) of the RTI Act says that SICs “shall be persons of eminence in public life with wide knowledge and experience” of different fields. However, in practice, only IAS officers seem to fill up the SICs post. Most state governments seem to have paid no heed to the Supreme Court’s 2013 order which says that all states must include candidates with ‘other specialisations’. A CHRI report says that 76 percent of posts are being held by retired officers. This reflects a lack of interest on the government’s part to maintain the RTI as a dynamic system.

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SC dilutes the RTI even more

On 7 October, former Chief Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi’s RTI request seeking former Maharashtra deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar’s Income Tax return was declined and his subsequent writ petition has been rejected by the Bombay High Court citing the Deshpande vs CIC verdict given by the Supreme Court (SC) in 2012.

The SC, while hearing Gandhi’s SLP (Special Leave Petition), said that it will reject the plea in light of the Deshpande verdict. Gandhi chose to withdraw his SLP so that there would be a possibility of raising the issue in the future. He believes that if the judgement is taken as a precedent then “a lot of corrupt and arbitrary actions will not be exposed”.

In Deshpande vs CIC, the SC had denied an RTI request by Girish Deshpande for copies of all show cause notices, assets, details of gifts received and IT returns of a public servant. The new interpretation by the SC will classify a lot of information related to public servants as ‘personal’, hence out of the RTI’s ambit.

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Despite such attempts to strangle the RTI act, constant vigil from activists has made the law popular. For example, Vyapam, the horrific admission and recruitment scam, of Madhya Pradesh was busted because of the relentless contribution of various RTI activists. “I started filing RTIs in 2010. If activists are well informed and know how to file RTIs effectively, it becomes a noose for the corrupt officials,” says Vyapam whistle blower Ashish Chaturvedi. Chaturvedi was recently threatened by the doctor against whose appointment he has filed an RTI application. Chaturvedi also points out the dangers of RTI activism, “I filed an RTI on 9 September and within a week, I received a threatening call from the concerned doctor. The information of the RTI was leaked and it could have been done by none other than the PIO at the Secretariat. Unfortunately in my case, it is an IAS level officer.” Chaturvedi has survived several attacks and physical assaults since he started his war against the Vyapam scam.

The RTI Act has helped in exposing irregularities in public welfare schemes such as the National Rural Employment Gaurantee (NREGA) and the Public Distribution System. The changes which the RTI has brought about at the micro-level go almost unnoticed until activists are assaulted. Research carried out by the CES to assess the effectiveness of the RTI reveals that in rural areas, majority of the applications have been filed by those who are below the poverty line.

Though the RTI is being used to mostly address issues of financial corruption, its scope is very diverse. “The RTI has proved effective to secure information in the context of human rights violations such as the Hashimpura massacre,” says Vrinda Grover, senior Supreme Court lawyer and human rights activist.

Activists believe that the RTI Act is yet to be used to its full potential. There is also the danger of the Act being diluted, “Serious, persistent attempts to amend the law began in 2006, less than a year after its passing. The struggle to keep the law from dilution and to spread its use remains important,” says Aruna Roy, the torch bearer of the RTI movement.

The outcry over the Whistleblower’s Protection Act (WBA), which started during the years of the Jan Lokpal (People’s ombudsman) movement, has fizzled out. Interestingly, the WBA, 2011, was passed by the outgoing Congress government, which received the president’s consent on the Act on 9 May 2014. But the Modi government which came to power with mandate of fighting rampant corruption never bothered to notify the Act, keeping it from commencement. Furthermore, the nda government went ahead with draconian amendments which further dilute the WBA and the RTI. If the amendments, passed in the Lok Sabha, are cleared in the Rajya Sabha as well, it will take away cabinet papers and economic affairs, covered under the Official Secrets Act, out of the RTIs ambit. Also, the government may soon come out with a provision which seeks to keep ‘frivolous’ RTIs in check by imposing a fine of 30,000 and imprisonment of minimum three months as punishment.

A decade after the RTI Act got passed, we find ourselves asking the same questions; whether we will struggle on to ensure full transparency of governance systems or accept the blanket opacity which shields rampant corruption.

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