Under attack from all quarters on corruption charges, is the UPA trying to undermine its own flagship law? Kunal Majumder reports
AS THE UPA government struggled to hide its embarrassment over the finance ministry note on the 2G spectrum allocation, the RTI Act — through which the note was made public — has become the whipping boy. Senior Cabinet members such as Corporate Affairs Minister Veerappa Moily and Law Minister Salman Khurshid have hit out at the ‘misuse’ of the transparency law.
Moily called for a national debate as he claimed RTI was “transgressing into government functioning”. Khurshid went a step ahead and claimed the Act was affecting “institutional efficacy and efficiency”. While the Congress party refused to take any official stand on the issue — its spokesperson Manish Tewari wants “the debate to play itself out” — experts including former judges, senior bureaucrats and National Advisory Council (NAC) members have lashed out at the attempt to dilute what was once considered the key achievement of the Manmohan Singh government.
Former Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah feels that the government should not be on the defensive as people use RTI to expose the corrupt. “Corruption has always been there. It is now being exposed because of the access to information. The government should take credit for that,” he feels.
NAC member and former Planning Commission member NC Saxena says that the very reason for RTI’s creation was opaque structures that encouraged corruption. “Transparency should improve accountability. Not the opposite,” he adds. Aruna Roy, NAC member and one of the main advocates of RTI, is even more blunt. “Tell us what has gone wrong?” she asks, “Except we now know how our ministers and bureaucrats really behave. RTI has exposed their inefficacy and inefficiency.”
Moily and Khurshid have claimed that the fear of being exposed through RTI would stop government officials from expressing their honest opinion. However, former Chief Justice of India JS Verma disagrees. “I don’t think any honest officer has anything to worry about in case his file notings are provided under the RTI Act. Also, the Act itself has adequate safeguards to check its misuse,” he says. Nikhil Dey of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), which has been at the forefront of advocating a stronger RTI Act, agrees with Verma. “Government officials should instead be happy that the fear of being exposed later would stop ministers from imposing their views,” says Dey. He points to Section 8 of the RTI Act, which has enough provisions to restrict sensitive information from being made public. “According to the Act, the Cabinet note should be revealed once a final decision is made. If ministers made their decisions honestly, what is the problem in letting the citizen know what transpired?” he asks. Roy has a better solution: “If bureaucrats have a problem with giving their opinion in fear of public scrutiny, they should just resign.”
Moily and Khurshid are not the first ministers to criticise the RTI. Immediately after the note on 2G became public, the Department of Personnel and Training, headed by Minister of State for PMO, V Narayanasamy, sent out a note on 16 September advising officials not to draw ‘inferences’, make ‘assumptions’ or provide ‘opinion’ or ‘advice’ in their RTI replies.
CPI MP D Raja questions the timing of these objections. “Why is the government speaking about lacunae when it is being pulled up due to information exposed through RTI?” he asks. One of the three activists who revealed the note on 2G is associated with the BJP, whose spokesperson Nirmala Sitharaman says there is an attempt to undermine RTI because the Opposition or civil society is using it to expose the UPA. “It is trying to underplay what is coming out of RTI by questioning the nature of the applicants. Congress is calling it a ‘misuse’ because people opposed to them are seeking information,” she says.
HOWEVER, RAJYA Sabha MP Rajiv Chandrasekhar agrees that the Act is at times used by vested interests. “RTI has some lacunae but there can be no argument for dilution of the Act, certainly not in the name of transgressing into independent functioning of government,” he says.
As the politicians argue about the intentions of RTI applicants, activists like Nikhil Dey feel the best way to deal with people who use the Act for blackmail is to put out all information in the public domain so that they wouldn’t have to file RTI in the first place. “If 95 percent of information about MGNREGA expenses can be put on the website, why can’t other government departments follow suit? Section 4 of the Act already requires each department to do so,” he says. (The section talks about proactive disclosure by all public authorities.) Dey feels making more information available in public will bring down the number of RTI applications and end chances of misuse.
This is not the first time that the government has tried to amend the Act to remove file notings from the purview of RTI. In 2006 and 2009, similar attempts were made but thwarted after protests from civil society and opposition parties. Will the government succeed this time?
Kunal Majumder is a Senior Correspondent with Tehelka.