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For greater transparency

Although the RTI has become a vital instrument for holding prominent public officials accountable, it has come at a grave cost to many information activists, who have often suffered at the hands of those working against greater transparency.

For greater transparency
The Right to Information Act, which was passed by Parliament in 2005 during the tenure of the then United Progressive Alliance government, remains a critical piece of legislation for the Indian people. What it did was to provide a transparent mechanism through which citizens could hold their government accountable. It played a significant role in exposing massive corruption scandals involving the distribution of telecom spectrum and allocation of coal blocks, besides a whole host of other cases. Last week, the National Democratic Alliance government had announced that it had decided to update the rules for the implementation of RTI, merely five years after a similar exercise by the previous administration. It is the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), which acts as the nodal government agency for enforcing the Act.

On its website last week, the DoPT published the draft rules and sought feedback from the public by April 15. Without drafting rules, any attempt to implement the law is a futile exercise. Rules enable governments and citizens to put the law into practice. After Parliament passes a law, the rules required to implement it are framed, sent to the Law Ministry for final review and then notified in the Gazette. Any attempt to tweak RTI rules must result in making it easier for citizens to obtain information from the government. Experts, however, fear that some of the changes proposed in the government's draft could end up discouraging citizens from using the law. Why the government would engage in such an exercise is evident, and that is a debate for another time. Under the draft rules published on its website, many concerned citizens have raised alarm over two particular provisions. One permits the withdrawal of an application. In 2011, the UPA government had proposed similar provisions which were vehemently opposed by civil society. The then administration decided to drop it altogether. The second provision under the scanner says that pending appeals proceedings will come to an end automatically with the death of the appellant. Both provisions are very problematic.

The two provisions of Rule 12 of the government's draft are as follows:

"12 (1) The Commission may in its discretion allow a prayer for withdrawal of an appeal if such a prayer is made by the appellant on an application made in writing duly signed or during hearing. However, no such prayer may be entertained by the Commission after the matter has been finally heard or a decision or order has been pronounced by the Commission."

"12(2) The proceedings pending before the Commission shall abate on the death of the appellant."

Although the RTI has become a vital instrument for holding prominent public officials accountable, it has come at a grave cost to many information activists, who have often suffered at the hands of those working against greater transparency. The nexus of corruption ties together businesspeople, contractors, criminals, politicians, bureaucrats and even the judiciary. They all receive their share of kickbacks from public money and work to protect this nexus. An honest official or a concerned citizen, who wishes to expose this corruption, faces a possible backlash from such powers. And yet one scam after another has been exposed by brave officials and other whistleblowers, often at great risk to their lives. Far from considering the acts of these whistleblowers as epitomes of patriotism, our legislature has shown a remarkably lackadaisical attitude towards their protection.

According to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, an international non-governmental organisation, the first three months this year have witnessed more than 375 attacks against people (including 56 murder cases), seeking information to highlight corruption in public offices. Public policy experts contend that the two provisions listed above could further encourage vested interests from using violence against those individuals seeking crucial information. Citizens could withdraw their RTI application after suffering from intimidation. And if the government allows the closure of application after the applicant's death, murder could become a tool for vested interests seeking to protect themselves. As per the Act, applications and first appeals are required to be mandatorily disposed of within 30 days of their receipt. For information concerning the life and liberty of a person, a response should be forthcoming within 48 hours. For second appeals, however, no time limit has been prescribed for its disposal, leaving information activists vulnerable to threats.

Many concerned citizens have pushed for a final deadline under which the Central Information Commission (CIC) must act on appeals. The government must work on if it wants to burnish its anti-corruption credentials. Recent reports indicate that an estimated 30,000 cases are pending before the CIC. The government must also work towards bringing political parties under the ambit of the Right to Information Act. Another unfortunate provision of the draft rules is that if the postal charge for an RTI application is above Rs 50, the cost will be borne by the applicant. At a time when the government is yet to operationalise the Whistleblower's Protection Act due to its inability to frame the rules necessary for its implementation, the public must come out and compel the government to drop these possible changes to the rules that govern RTI.
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