Shhh! Agnipath Papers Are ‘Secret’ Documents Says CPIO of Defence Ministry; Experts Lambast It
Any major policy decision and, in this case, pertaining to the future of thousands of youngsters who are staking a career as Agniveers in the newly launched Agnipath scheme, wherein they would be enrolled in the armed forces for a four-year period and serve as soldiers in all three arms, cannot be a ‘secret’. It has to be a transparent public document, say Right to Information (RTI) experts!
 
This anger has been triggered following a reply by the central public information officer (CPIO) of the defence ministry, to an RTI application filed by Pune-based RTI activist Vihar Durve. Quoting Section 8 (1) of the RTI Act, Mr Sood, the CPIO and under-secretary of the defence ministry replied, “The file wherein approval for Agnipath scheme is accorded is classified as ‘Secret’. Hence, your RTI application is rejected under Section 8(1) (a) of RTI Act-2005.”
 
The irrelevance of the reply can be gauged from what Section 8 (1) (a) states. It says “(a) Information, disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign State or lead to incitement of an offence.” 
 
Will dissemination of this information lead to any of the above? 
 
Certainly not, as Mr Durve, in his RTI application, in the last week of August 2022, sought information on the following:
 
1) Furnish me complete details (including details of discussions with all stakeholders) of correspondence, records, information, emails, (with file notings) for introducing the Agnipath scheme for recruitment of youth in the armed forces
 
2) Furnish me details (including details of discussions with all stakeholders) of correspondence, records, information, emails, (with file notings) for introducing Agniveers to be enrolled under respective service acts for four years
 
3) Furnish me about details (including details of discussions with all stakeholders) of correspondence, records, information, emails, (with file notings) for introducing attractive monthly package with risk & hardship allowances as applicable in the three services 
 
4) Furnish me details (including details of discussions with all stakeholders) of correspondence, records, information, emails, (with file notings) for introducing one-time ‘Seva Nidhi’ package to be paid to Agniveers upon completion of engagement period of four years
 
5) Any other relevant details relating to point no 3(1) to (6) herein mentioned in this RTI application 
 
6) Furnish me exact web link of above information on your official website in compliance to department of personnel and training office memorandum, circulars, guidelines eg. No 1/1/2013-IR/2014 uploading of RTI replies and so on issued from time to time.   
 
Shailesh Gandhi, former central information commissioner (CIC) and RTI activist, says, “This reply by the defence ministry PIO is absurd, illegal and unconstitutional. How can he introduce the word ‘secret’, which Parliament has not mentioned? All the information asked for by Mr Durve, which is very valid, should have been suo motu disclosed by the defence ministry on its website.”
 
States Vijay Kumbhar, also a noted RTI activist, “This is a major policy decision and pertains to 45,000 youngsters who are going to be recruited annually. Hence, they should know what their career holds for them, all of which should be available on the website, which one can access with the click of the mouse. Mr Durve has asked pertinent questions and all that information should be available to all fellow citizens too.”
 
Mr Durve, who has filed the first appeal with the first appellate authority (FAA), states, “It is important that the general public, particularly the aspirants who desire to join defence services, are taken into confidence. This will serve the public interest. The ministry of defence would therefore be well advised to be proactive in disclosing information to the public in general and the information seekers under the RTI Act, in particular.”
 
In his first appeal, he has mentioned the observations of the Supreme Court of India in SP Gupta vs President of India & Ors AIR 1982 SC 149: “It is axiomatic that every action of the government must be actuated by public interest but even so we find cases, though not many, where governmental action is taken not for public good but for personal gain or other extraneous considerations. Sometimes, governmental action is influenced by political and other motivations and pressures…”
 
“At times, there are also instances of misuse or abuse of authority on the part of the executive. Now, if secrecy were to be observed in the functioning of government and the processes of government were to be kept hidden from public scrutiny, it would tend to promote and encourage oppression, corruption and misuse or abuse of authority, for it would all be shrouded in the veil of secrecy without any public accountability.” 
 
“But if there is an open government, with means of information available to the public, there would be greater exposure of the functioning of government and it would help to assure the people of a better and more efficient administration. There can be little doubt that exposure to public gaze and scrutiny is one of the surest means of achieving a clean and healthy administration. It has been truly said that an open government is a clean government and a powerful safeguard against political and administrative aberration and inefficiency…”
 
(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”.)
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