Millennium Post

On questions of transparency

At the time of its inception in 2005, the Right to Information Act generated high hopes and was rightly called the second independence of sorts for the people. Now that this powerful weapon is aimed at the political parties, to make them accountable and transparent, our self-centred politicians, cutting across party lines, have united to undo the historic verdict of the central information commission (CIC) by a short-cut: amending the law. Such a cowardly act by our politicians only endorses the correctness of a well-drafted CIC verdict in which no political party could find a flaw and could not challenge it legally.

If the political parties are going to be exempt from this law, ethics demands that they return land and bungalows allotted to them by the union and state governments at subsidised rates and lease, not to mention other privileges like tax concessions and free airtime on All India Radio and Doordarshan for campaign during elections.

Unusual political unanimity is always seen when similar verdicts come from the supreme court. Parties have also opted to undo the apex court’s verdicts on tainted candidates. Parties are crying that they respect the election commission (EC) and provide it with all required details. But these parties, and governments formed by them, never cared to respect long-pending recommendations by EC for poll reforms, including putting the ‘None To Vote’ option on electronic voting machines. Even the EC directive seeking details of wealth and criminal records from all candidates was followed only after a supreme court directive.

Little wonder. After all, we have a democracy which is for the politicians, by the politicians and of the politicians!
On the subject of RTI, when an organisation is declared a ‘public authority’ under the transparency law and are thus made open to queries, there is a tendency that it would rush to courts seeking ex-party stay orders. (The Board for Control of Cricket in India even succeeded in getting an ex-party stay on CIC proceedings initiated to decide whether or not the board was a public authority under the RTI Act!) But while the government is determined to legislate amendments to keep parties out of the purview of the RTI Act, it has done nothing to undo such tendency.

The legislation should bring all cooperative societies, including multistate cooperative societies (MSCS), public-private partnerships (PPP) and all national sports federations (including BCCI) – under the RTI Act. All those getting land and accommodation from governments at subsidised lease/rate should be declared ‘public authorities’. Considering the importance of the private sector in public life (think of telecom and banking), private companies with a specified turnover and above should also be brought under the RTI Act. According to a government press release of July 8, 2009, the government has assured parliament that NGOs and social activists will be consulted before any amendment in the RTI Act. So the amendment coming now may even be considered contempt of parliament.

When the government revised the RTI rules in 2012, registries of even central information commissioners were given undue powers to reject on totally flimsy grounds petitions filed with them. Registries of some newly appointed central information commissioners got printed proforma letters with a dozen or so excuses rejecting the petitions even before getting these registered. Petitions were returned by randomly ticking some such excuses, though some of the ticked excuses might not be relevant in respect of returned petitions.

What is more, cognizance of such petitions was being taken three-four months after they were filed. This means the data of pending petitions at CIC as available on its website is totally false. Moreover, returned petitions were mailed after several months of the date of the forwarding letter, thereby depriving the petitioner to file any modified petition in the three-month time as stipulated under the RTI Act. However, the chief information commissioner took remedial measures when his attention was drawn to this aspect.

Another worrying aspect is the misuse of this wonderful legislation by miscreants for fun and publicity. There have been several occasions when fake RTI petitions were filed under my name and address, copying my style of drafting petitions. All such fake petitions relate to personal rivalry and are filed by insiders in the public authority to whom the queries are addressed. They keep a watch on the movement of files on their petitions, and are not bothered if the RTI response reaches me. The department of personnel & training (DoPT) should make it mandatory to submit some identity proof with every petition. RTI fees should be raised to Rs 50 uniformly to discourage frivolous petitions. (It will not affect poor persons because persons below poverty line are already exempted from not only RTI fees but also from copying charges.)
The first 10 copied pages of documents can then be provided free. It should also be made compulsory for public authorities to use Speed Post or registered post for all communications relating to petitions and appeals. It will save time and cost of public authorities.
RTI stamps on the lines of revenue stamps should be issued to save operational cost of handling postal orders, presently the most popular mode of remitting RTI fees and copying charges.
On arrangement with Governance Now
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