Millennium Post

Unnecessary alteration

The meticulously drafted RTI Act should continue functioning the way it was conceived without any amendment, enabling it to serve its purpose with complete integrity

The recent controversial amendment to certain provisions of the Right to Information Act 2005 was a threat to the very existence of the institution. Several opposition parties, as well as activists, feel that squeezing RTI means that the government may threaten or lure the Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners to suit its political exigencies. The amendments made changes in the terms and conditions of appointment of the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) and the Information Commissioners at the Centre and in states. The fixed tenure of five years for the CIC and the ICs was done away. Their salaries too have been altered. Both will now be separately notified by the government of the day. The original RTI Act was passed after it was discussed and cleared by the Parliamentary Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice. It recommended the level of the Chief Election Commissioner for the CIC and that of Election Commissioners for the ICs respectively.

To recall the genesis, need, concept and evolution of the RTI Act, it may be appropriate to trace the roots since the days of earlier NDA government, or to that matter, the days when Inder Kumar Gujral was Prime Minister. When the then NDA government, though enacted the Freedom of Information Act, did not frame the rules and regulations and as a result, the Manmohan Singh UPA government brought the RTI Act on June 21, 2005. Though the then President APJ Abdul Kalam gave his assent on June 15, 2005, he went on record that confidentiality of communication between the Head of State and Head of Government should be maintained. He further emphasised that notings by bureaucrats on files should also be privileged, as otherwise, it could adversely affect the decision-making process. He, however, expressed the view that the legislation is an empowering tool and added that, "the Right to Information can provide immense relief to people who feel they have been wronged". An Act of this sort, framed with meticulous care, is rarely seen anywhere in the world.

The strong driving force behind RTI Act was undoubtedly the nine-point Action Plan adopted in the Chief Ministers' conference chaired by the then PM IK Gujral held on May 1997, on the eve of 50 years of independence. The conference observed that even after (by then) 50 years of independence, people have growing doubts on state and central governments and to justify the trust of the people, an action plan containing the components of Accountability, Transparency and Citizen friendly government was necessary. In the process, the chief ministers and the Prime Minister, irrespective of party affiliations, agreed on enacting Freedom of Information Act, and to make it a success, every government department should draft citizen charters and establish public facilitation and information centres. Unfortunately, in the majority of states, either all three or one or more remained only on paper and for namesake. The RTI Act provisions generated lots of hopes in citizens. The main reason for enacting such a law was that democracy requires an informed citizenry and transparency of information is vital to its functioning.

The question was what constitutes information? The answer is simple. Information means any material in any form including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material, etc., held by any public authority. Any authority or body or institution of the government including non-government organisations substantially financed by the government is a public authority and they are expected to maintain all its records. All this information shall be widely disseminated in the public domain and in an easily accessible format. Each public authority shall appoint Public Information Officers (PIO) who are responsible to provide information when a citizen seeks. In case if the citizen does not get a response from the PIO within the prescribed time, he or she has a right to approach the Information Commission for redressal and the concerned Commissioner(s) initiate appropriate action against the PIO who fails to give information.

A couple of doubts still haunt citizens in the implementation of the Act despite the formation of commissions in some states and the Centre. Is it possible for the government to commit to "provide for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities" as stated in the Act? For each and every government department, unless otherwise committed to the Act, is not possible. Every Public Authority shall, as per the Act, maintain all its records duly Catalogued, Indexed, Computerised and Connected through a network all over the country as well as publish within four months from the enactment of this Act, the particulars of its organization, functions, powers and duties of its officers and employees besides the procedure followed in the decision-making process. How many have done this? In addition, they should publish within four months from the enactment of this Act, the budget allocated, proposed expenditures, reports on disbursements, manner of execution of subsidy programmes, facilities available to citizens for obtaining information, working hours of a library or reading room and names, designations and other particulars of the Public Information Officers as Single Point of Contact. It is debatable as to how many adhere to this as of now either at Centre or in states.

The Act did not define the phrase "substantially financed" and as a result, Non-Government Organisations (NGO) ignored their obligations under the Act. The Second Administrative Reforms Commission's recommendation that organisations which perform functions of a public nature that are ordinarily performed by government or its agencies, and those which enjoy natural monopoly may be brought within the purview of the Act is yet to be implemented.

Any Organisation (Government or Non-Government) may take shelter under clauses. "There shall be no obligation to give any citizen such information which is classified as "the disclosure of which would prejudicially affect." Does this provision not amount to limitations?

Some Pro-Active Initiatives may perhaps help in better implementation of the Act. They are: Identification and analysis of citizens' information needs; Developing Active Public Information Tools and Techniques like briefings, central information contact, information hotline, technical assistance, simulation games, information centres and field offices, expert panels, field trip, open houses, community fairs etc.

Finally, in a country like ours where nothing is practicable without political influence and interference, identification and appointment of persons of eminence in public life with wide knowledge and experience in different fields, as required in the Act, for the positions of Information Commissioners is a Herculean task.

While this has been the scenario, the government's decision to amend the act to suit its requirements is unhealthy and further diminishes the strength of the Act. Let the Indian Right to Information Act remain as the best in the world as was originally conceived and passed by the Manmohan Government. All that the citizens are saying is to 'treat us with courtesy and respect, make things easy for us, provide reliable and timely help, give us choice and voice and shift from rule-driven procedures to citizen service-driven procedures'. Any direct or indirect control on the Act amounts to infringement of citizen's right.

(The author is Chief PRO to Telangana CM. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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