Friday, July 21, 2006

India's improved "Right to I_f_r_a_i_n Act"

According to news reports, the Indian Union Cabinet has approved that the "Right to Information Act, 2005" will henceforth be known as "Right to I_f_r_a_i_n Act, 2005"
?!!
...well, in a manner of speaking.

The Union Cabinet has proposed an amendment. According to the Hon'ble Information & Broadcasting Minister Priyaranjan Das Munsi, this amendment "would remove ambiguities in the bill and make provisions of the Act more effective and progressive."

The "ambiguities" that will be removed are the "file notings" that relate to the govt decisions; they will become exempt from the Act - i.e., the citizen (subject?) will have no right to access the process by which a certain decision was taken. According to the Minister, exemptions exist in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia (maybe that is what makes it "progressive")

...though,actually, "file notings" had been a bone of contention even while the Act was in its nascent stages last year. In December 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had instructed the Department of Personnel and Training to change the rules pertaining to disclosure of file notings under the Act. "Substantive file notings on plans, schemes, programmes and projects of the Government that relate to development and social issues may be disclosed," the PM had said. "However, file notings relating to identifiable individuals, group of individuals, organizations, appointments, matters relating to inquiries and departmental proceedings, shall not be disclosed."

In response to this, O.P. Kejariwal, one of the five Central Information Commissioners appointed under the Act, had written to the Prime Minister calling the decision the "last desperate attempt on the part of some vested interests within the Government to protect their identities from being exposed."

What is a "file noting"?

To quote from an article that was published a fortnight before the RTI was enacted:

"...the government file, usually has two halves: on the right side is the correspondence and materials. This could be someone's grievance, a project proposal, a tender, a concept for a policy, anything the government needs to consider. On the left is the closely held note sheet, which records how the proposition was examined. The advice given in the notings has to be strictly in accordance with laws, rules, norms, and orders. The concerned officer puts down views, advice and recommendations. The file then goes up the line to the decision-making authority. On the way the hierarchy adds more notes, putting their signatures against their views. With all advice in hand a justifiable decision must be made.

Cumulatively, the note sheet reflects the mind of government, bares the intention of an individual officer and whether his advice and consent were grounded on established rules. File notings, then, are X-rays of government functioning. They are proof of fair play and reason , or dishonesty, bias, and negligence. They are the shield that most honest bureaucrats wish they had and the sword that dishonest ones fear. It is only by allowing thorough public scrutiny of the evidence of how the government works at every level that corruption can be fought. File notings fall squarely within the definition of "information" in the Act."


Given the Cabinet's recommendations, in effect:
The recommended amendment aims to ensure that public has no information access to :

  • the mind of government

  • the intention of an individual officer and whether his advice and consent were grounded on established rules

  • proof of fair play and reason, or dishonesty, bias, and negligence

  • the evidence of how the government works at every level that corruption can be fought.
    etc.

    Ah.. OK!, now I get it!!!
    According to the "amendment", the GOI will tell me what the decision is, but has no accountability to share
  • why a decision was taken?
  • how the decision was taken?
  • who took that decision?

    So, can we petition that RTI should now be called Right to Ignorance Act?
    -----
    UPDATE: According to press release from PHD Chamber of Commerce: "The justification that it is excluded in other countries like the US, the UK and Australia is not valid as what is excluded by these countries is internal communication between different departments of the government during which these decisions are deliberated."

    Can One Do Something?


    Yes, one can. To the best of my knowledge, even if the amendment to the RTI Act 2005 is passed by the two houses of parliament, it has to have the consent of the President of India.

    One can write to the President, by going to the site:

    http://presidentofindia.nic.in/scripts/writetopresident.jsp


    or simply sending a mail at:

    presidentofindia@rb.nic.in

  • 3 comments:

    gaddeswarup said...

    What happens now? Does it need parliment approval? The following news items say that there is enough opposition to the amendment:
    http://www.tribuneindia.com/2006/20060722/main8.htm
    http://www.zeenews.com/znnew/articles.asp?aid=310614&sid=NAT
    Is the 'iron law of oligarchy' at work again?

    Madhukar said...

    Yes, Prof,
    it will be introduced as an amendmend bill in the parliament, and if passed, will become the law. One just hopes there is enough opposition to the changes by that time...

    gaddeswarup said...

    From http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/1832474.cms
    Head of Delhi-based Parivartan citizen's movement, Arvind Kejriwal, was on Monday selected for this year's Ramon Magsaysay Award for his contribution to India's right-to-information movement and empowering poor citizens to fight corruption.