‘Development’ and ‘governance’ are once again the two most used words as the second innings of the NDA government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is about to begin. In his speech after winning the elections he stated, "Ab hamara koyi paraaya nahin ho sakta hai. Jo humein vote dete hain, woh bhi hamare hain; jo hamara ghor virodh karte hain, who bhi hamare hain. (Now we cannot see anyone as an outsider. Those who voted for us are ours. Those who severely oppose us are also ours). This statement gives us hope that the Right to Information Act (RTI) will get the right respect, as transparency in information is the biggest strength of democracy that gives the citizen a feeling of `belonging’ with its government.
In fact, when the NDA government came to power in 2014, there were high expectations that the RTI Act would receive a boost. Soon after the government took over, the department of personnel and training (DoPT) issued a circular to all public authorities stating that the facility to upload the reply to RTI applications and first appeals on the website of the respective ministry or department should be started from October 31, to be available for all to view. Thereafter at the National CIC Convention in 2016, home minister Rajnath Singh in his speech stated that ``Government must be sensitive, corruption-free and accountable to people of the country. Thus, importance of RTI in these times has increased more than ever. It is an effective and strong mode of communication between people and the government.’’
However, as the NDA term progressed, it somersaulted on its own commitment. The RTI Act began getting strangulated systematically and cold-bloodedly. So, here’s wishing that NDA II will reverse some of its decisions that have been detrimental to transparency and have put information, which the public has the right to know, under secrecy.
Till then, let’s have a look at the RTI’s killing fields from 2014 to 2019:
1. Mandatory public disclosures reduced to a bare minimum: As per a report in 2018 of the Central Information Commission (CIC), over 85% of the public authorities (PAs) have been reluctant to ensure mandatory disclosures under Section 4 of the RTI Act. This includes crucial information that needs to be suo motu transparent like “budget and programme, publicity and public interface and E-governance.’’ This despite the much tom-tommed circular by the DoPT.
2. Deliberate negligence in appointing Central Information Commissioners: With four CIC posts vacant and second appeal pendency increasing by the day, not the government that promised to strengthen the RTI Act, but it is the Supreme Court, which came to the rescue. Based on the petition of activists Anjali Bharadwaj, Amrita Johri and Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd) in 2018, the Supreme Court (SC) directed the Centre to publish names, criteria and other details of search committee’s work so far for appointments to the Central Information Commission, under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
3. Appointing only retired bureaucrats as CICs: Again in February 2019, the SC slammed the government, observing: ``It is difficult to fathom that persons belonging to one category only are always found to be more competent and more suitable than persons belonging to other categories. One category, namely, public service, i.e., they are the government employees. In fact, even the search committee, which short-lists the candidates, consists of only bureaucrats. For these reasons, official bias in favour of its own class is writ large in the selection process…We also expect that information commissioners are appointed from other streams, as mentioned in the Act and the selection is not limited only to the government employee/ex-government employee.
4. Government allegedly protecting accused in RTI whistle blower’s case: the Bombay High Court closed the sensational murder case of RTI activist Satish Shetty in January 2010 abruptly in 2019. This, despite CBI's (Central Bureau of Investigation's) intensive investigation into the murder that had led to a 10,000-page report that named 11 persons as accused, including a high-profile name like Virendra Mhaiskar, managing director of Ideal Road Builders (IRB). Surprisingly, CBI itself appealed to the High Court to hurriedly bring closure to the case, stating there is no evidence against Mhaiskar and the other accused. Strange and unfair to the whistleblower’ fraternity!
5. NDA govt puts Official Secrets Act over and above RTI Act: In March 2019, during a hearing in the Supreme Court regarding the Rafale deal case, Attorney General K K Venugopal had stated that the documents presented by the petitioners are protected by the Official Secrets Act and disclosure of the documents come under Section 8(i) of the RTI Act. To this, Justice K M Joseph responded that Section 22 of the RTI Act states that it is over and above the Official Secrets Act and that Section 24 of the RTI Act states that security and intelligence agencies are not exempt from the RTI Act. RTI Act states: `Section (8) (2) Notwithstanding anything in the Official Secrets Act, 1923 (19 of 1923) nor any of the exemptions permissible in accordance with sub section (1), a public authority may allow access to information, if public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm to the protected interests.”
6. Private companies in PPT model shielded under Section 8 of the RTI Act: For example, recently, the Adani group won rights to operate, manage and develop airports of Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Lucknow, Thiruvananthapuram and Mangalore by offering highest per-passenger fee (PPF), which is paid by the developer to the Airport Authority of India (AAI) of the relevant state. Unlike the Delhi and Mumbai airports, wherein the GMR and the GVK groups have entered into a 74:26 joint venture (JV) with AAI and have to share profits, the Adani group has been handed over the airports completely for itself for 50 years under the public- private partnership (PPP) model. Information under RTI is not forthcoming despite RTI activist Sanjay Shirodkar’s efforts.
With such a disappointing track record, one hopes for miracles by the government but in all probability citizens and activists will have to keep fighting and campaigning to keep this powerful citizen-friendly law, alive and kicking!
(Vinita Deshmukh 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”