Between 5th and 8 July 2014, over 11,100 files were destroyed without following any mandatory procedure on directions from the Prime Minister, reveals RTI reply
As most of us are aware, the Government of India has stringent rules for maintaining official files as well as for destroying them. So, when word went round initially that over 1.5 lakh files, probably of historical value, were destroyed indiscriminately by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), there was a ruckus in the Rajya Sabha between 9th and 14 July 2014, demanding the specific details by the members.
While, some members questioned as to whether files pertaining to Subhash Chandra Bose or assassination of Mahatma Gandhi were shredded to pieces, Home Minister Rajnath Singh replied that the files were destroyed at the direction of the Prime Minister (PM) to secretaries of all department and that, only 11,100 files were destroyed with unspecified number of pages. Minister of Law and Justice, Ravi Shankar Prasad assured that none of them were of any historical value. The two ministers though, did not back their claims with any proof of having followed official procedure of destroying filed and what exactly was destroyed and therein lies the suspicion.
As always, one can fall back on the Right to Information (RTI) Act to find out if the government had indeed adhered to the norms. In this case, RTI activist and researcher Venkatesh Nayak, has done commendable work by filing applications to the Home Ministry. The vague replies he received confirms that the government is hiding valuable facts from people and clamping down on transparency.
Ridiculously, to Nayak’s request of providing him with a list of 11,100 files that were destroyed, the Home Ministry replied that it is still compiling the data (after destroying them!) To the query of whether the six monthly report of files destroyed have been submitted to National Archives of India, the reply is 'no', although it is mandatory for the government to do so. Regarding a query of the manner in which these files were destroyed, the Public Information Officer (PIO) informed Nayak that he can get the same on payment, despite the fact that the information comes under Section 4 of the RTI Act and should be freely available and despite the fact that the PIO replied after the mandatory 30 days, in which case information must be given free of cost.
Nayak narrates the RTI applications filed by him, the replies he received and what they connote.
Nayak filed an RTI application on 18 July 2014 to the Home Ministry. Following are the points on which he had sought information and the reply that he received:
• A clear photocopy of the list containing the subject matter of each of the 11,100 files and records that were weeded out/destroyed by your Ministry along with a clear indication of their categorization- such as Category A’, ‘B’ and C’’ accorded to them prior to such destruction;
Reply: List of files which are destroyed is being compiled. This can be made available in due course on payment of requisite fee. You may write to us if so desired.
• The number of the Officer(s) of your Ministry along with their designations who authorised the clearing of the said files and papers (names are not required);
Reply: A copy of letter No. NIL dated 05.06.2014 from the Cabinet Secretary is attached. Para (f) thereof refers.
• The designation(s) of the representative(s) of the National Archives that were present at the time of weeding out of the said files as required under para #113 of the Central Secretariat Manual of Office Procedure (names are not required);
Reply: -do (i.e., same as above reply).
• A clear photocopy of the half-yearly report of the records weeded out during the latest clearing exercise, prepared by your Ministry for submission to the Director General Archives, as per Rule 9(4) of the Public Records Rules, 1997;
Reply: No such report has been sent to National Archives of India.
• The exact number and subject matter of files originally classified: “top secret”, “secret” and “confidential” that were declassified and deposited with the Director General, National Archives of India under Rule 7(3) of the Public Records Rules, 1997, if any;
• The exact number and subject matter of files accorded with the security classification: “top secret”, “secret” and “confidential” that were weeded out, if any;
• A clear description of the manner of disposal of the records that were cleared, namely the number of files incinerated (burned) and/or shredded."
: Record Retention Schedule of MHA is available on the website of MHA (Website: mha.gov.in). This list can be made available on payment of requisite fee.
Venkatesh Nayak says, “the Public Information Officer's reply is vaguer than the Home Minister's statements in the Rajya Sabha.”
Nayak analyses as to why the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government, which promises transparency has indulged into a devious and suspicious game:
• Even after more than a month of destroying the 11,100 files, the MHA does not have, in one comprehensive list, details of all files that were destroyed. Having looked at records management practices in some detail during my decade-long career of advocating for transparency in government, I find it surprising that the MHA went about destroying files without even preparing a list of files for review, first. The PIO's reply that the even the list of files that were weeded out has not been compiled till date indicates that the procedure for properly identifying files for weeding out was simply not followed.
• Further, Section 4(1)(a) of the RTI Act states that all public authorities including the MHA must index, catalogue, computerise and network the records they hold in custody. If the MHA's divisions did not have a preliminary list of files to be reviewed for destruction, how exactly did the weeding out process take place? Did the 500 officers whom the Home Minister stated as being involved in the weeding out exercise, simply walked to the records rooms or the shelves where the old files were kept and started weeding them out one by one? The refusal to give details of this process both to Parliament when the issue was debated and now when a request is made under RTI, is shocking to say the least. What worsens the case is the audacity of the PIO's reply sent more than 30 days after the request was received in the MHA that the information will be given only on payment of fees.
• The Home Minister informed Parliament that 500 officials were involved in the weeding out exercise. No further details were given. When I asked for only the designations of such officers because officers of all grades and ranks are not permitted to authorise destruction of official records, a vague reply is given to me. Para (f) of the Cabinet Secretary's letter only states that the entire process of weeding out files must be done in accordance with rules of record keeping including digitisation within 3-4 weeks. The PIO's reply to this query is simply not a sensible reply at all. Let alone the names, even the designations of the officers who authorised destruction of files is being denied under the RTI Act in a roundabout manner.
• 3) Para #113(2) of the Central Secretariat Manual Office Procedure (CSMOP) requires that records that are more than 25 years old be reviewed for archivisation in consultation with the National Archives. However the PIO's reply indicates that National Archives was not consulted at all during this weeding our process. So how old were the records that were weeded out is a serious question and this was not satisfactorily answered either in Parliament or in response to my RTI application.
• Para #113(7) of the CSMOP requires that Category 'A' and 'B' records that are not weeded out be sent to the Archives for preservation, if not required for reference within the Department. These records are meant for preservation for 25 years or more. However the PIO's reply indicates that no file classified 'top secret', 'secret' or 'confidential' was sent to the National Archives in June-July, 2014. It is only obvious that files of shorter lifespan would also not have been sent to the Archives for preservation as they may not contain information of historical value that is worth preserving. What then was destroyed in June-July 2014 is a mystery that neither the Home Minister's reply in the Rajya Sabha nor the PIO's reply clarifies. The only saving grace is that no classified record (i.e., top secret, secret or confidential) was destroyed. Even there we simply have to take the MHA's word for it.
• The PIO's reply to my query about the manner of destruction is also vague.
According to the CS-MOP records may be destroyed either by shredding or burning. The answer to my query has to be "one of the two" or "both" depending upon the choice of mode of destruction made by the MHA. Nevertheless I looked through the MHA's website but could not find the record retention (RR) schedule anywhere on the website. The 3-4 line explanation given under Section 4(1)(b) RTI manuals under clauses (iii), (iv), (v) and (vi) is childish and shows scant respect for a law made by Parliament. These manuals have not been updated since they were first drawn up several years ago. (See:http://mha.nic.in/infoundrsec
) However, if readers find the RR schedule on the MHA's website, kindly alert me and I will reconsider my views on this subject.
So much for transparency by the NDA government, which in reality is throttling the RTI Act, this being a stark example.
is consulting editor of Moneylife, an RTI activist and convener of the Pune Metro Jagruti Abhiyaan. She is the recipient of prestigious awards like the Statesman Award for Rural Reporting which she won twice in 1998 and 2005 and the Chameli Devi Jain award for outstanding media person for her investigation series on Dow Chemicals. She co-authored the book “To The Last Bullet - The Inspiring Story of A Braveheart - Ashok Kamte” with Vinita Kamte and is the author of “The Mighty Fall”.)