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It took years of struggle, harassment, sweat and courage to get the Right to Information Act (2005) in place. Now, it looks like the government is hell bent on frustrating the purpose of this legislation.
Yesterday, the Madhya Pradesh Legislative Assembly secretariat notified new rules that bar the transfer of applications to multiple authorities, limit the subjects and seeks additional fees for first appeals under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. Also, the public information officer will now be authorised to reject an application and make it mandatory for an applicant to disclose public interest, before seeking information about old matters and detailed records.
As expected, the new set of rules has sparked outrage among activists nationwide. "This is exactly what we were apprehending," said GR Vora, a noted RTI activist from Mumbai. "The government will try to put more hurdles on the way, and everyone must protest against such arbitrary regulations." Allegations have also been made by several activists that some bureaucrats are abusing their power of subordinate legislation to protect themselves.
The new rules are in conflict with Section 6 of Part-II of the RTI Act, which says that (a) the applicant is not required to explain the reason for seeking information and (b) when required, the application should be transferred to multiple authorities. According to the Act, no application can be rejected, and any public information officer doing so would be penalised.
The proposal for amendment of the Act has already thrown RTI activists and users in a tizzy. The amendment draft contains some bizarre conditions. Section 4 says that the information sought should be restricted to one subject and should be limited to 250 words (!) which should include all details that have been specified in the given format. The applicant will be charged for the equipment that will be hired to access/tabulate/publish the information sought, but the definition of 'actual cost' has not been provided. The new amendment is also silent about the penalty for providing misleading information.
The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), which acts as a nodal agency for the implementation of the RTI Act, has also proposed restricting the word limit to 250 in an application, by making certain changes in the Act and it has sought people's comments. Not surprisingly, the proposal has received negative reactions from activists, users and citizens. Mr Vora said, "We must protest against this. No amendment is required. The government has always been uncomfortable with the power the Act has given the people, and will do everything to reverse the process. If these amendments are made, the Act will be reduced to a paper tiger with no applicability."
An informed citizenry is essential for the functioning of democracy. At a time when corruption rules the roost, dilution of the Right to Information will only mark another abysmal low.