Strongly opposing the proposal of the government to amend the Right to Information (RTI) Act through the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill (DPDP Bill), a group of RTI activists, along with some political leaders and people, have made a firm resolution to oppose any regressive amendments to the RTI Act; reject the centralisation of power sought to be done through the DPDP Bill; and reject and oppose the DPDP Bill in its current form.
While the unanimous demand was that the Bill should be put through a proper process of public consultation including in Hindi and regional languages; Wajahat Habibullah, former chief information commissioner of the central information commission (CIC), stated that “the proposed amendments would fundamentally destroy the RTI Act. Giving a wide, non-specific definition of what constitutes privacy will make it very difficult for people to access information from the government.”
The meeting was attended by stalwarts of civic activism. Prashant Bhushan, senior lawyer of the Supreme Court, stated that “accessing information is already a challenge and if the amendments come through, most of the information crucial for seeking accountability from the government will be outside the purview of the RTI Act. The amendments must be strongly opposed by all citizens.”
Commodore Lokesh Batra, a transparency activist who has extensively used the RTI Act, said the proposed amendment would cause hindrances on even accessing the information on decision-making as they would deny names and opinions of officials on the pretext of privacy.
Nikhil Dey, of the NCPRI, said that public disclosure of information was crucial for people to be able to access their rights. He cited the example of the MGNREGA public database which enables people to carry out public monitoring and tracking of funds, wages, work sites and said that if such information is removed due to the DPDP Bill, people will find it impossible to access their rights.
The public meeting was held early this week at the Constitution Club, Delh in anticipation of the DPDP Bill which is likely to be introduced in Parliament during the ongoing second half of the Budget session. The Act will severely restrict the scope of the information access legislation.
Amongst the political leaders, Karti Chidambaram, MP from the INC and member of the standing committee which examined the DPDP Bill, said that no amendments should be made to the RTI Act. He said the government is weakening people’s rights and centralising power within itself. He also expressed concern about the government usurping several powers related to the oversight body proposed to be set up under the DPDP Bill and said that his party will oppose these anti-people and anti-RTI provisions.
Jawahar Sircar of TMC, who is also a member of the standing committee, said that the government’s tenure is marked by dilution of people’s fundamental rights. He said the government must not weaken the RTI Act in any way. He also shared that, despite the committee deliberating on the Bill, there was no focus on the issue of its impact on the RTI Act.
John Brittas, MP from CPIM and also part of the concerned standing committee, said it was alleged that there is a conspiracy and ulterior motives behind actions of the Central government such as using the DPDP Bill to amend the RTI Act. He said DPDP Bill should be for the benefit of people in terms of protecting and furthering their rights and must not weaken the RTI Act.
Prasanna S, of Article 21 Trust, and Anushka, from Internet Freedom Foundation, expressed concerns about the Bill giving wide discretionary powers to the Central government both in rule-making and vis-à-vis the oversight body. They said, rather than a data protection bill, it was a government protection bill.
Several RTI users highlighted how using the RTI Act empowered them to access granular information and hold the government accountable for the delivery of basic rights and entitlements.
Kusum Lata, a resident of Moti Lal Nehru Camp, said that they used to face a lot of problems in accessing their entitlement of kerosene oil from the depot which used to be part of the public distribution system. The depot dealer would turn them away saying the stock had not reached the shop. She filed an application under the RTI Act and accessed the sale register of the shop which provided details of how much oil had been supplied to which person and the cost.
Using the information, the community did a public audit by checking with people whether they had indeed received the oil as per the entries in the register. They unearthed significant diversion of kerosene and successfully followed up with complaints and community monitoring to improve the delivery in the area. Others spoke of the importance of public disclosure of granular information related to rations, pensions, scholarships, welfare schemes and voter lists.
(Vinita Deshmukh is consulting editor of Moneylife. She is also the 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”.)