Di­lut­ing RTI

Pro­posed amend­ments to the RTI Act will end up serv­ing of­fi­cial­dom at the cost of cit­i­zens.

Business Today - - CONTENTS - By JOE C. MATHEW @joec­mathew

Pro­posed amend­ments to the RTI Act will end up serv­ing of­fi­cial­dom at the cost of cit­i­zens

On April 2, Ma­ha­rash­tra- based Suhas Hal­dankar, a 35-year-old civil so­ci­ety ac­tivist known for ex­pos­ing the ill-do­ings in lo­cal gov­ern­ing bod­ies by us­ing in­for­ma­tion gath­ered un­der the Right To In­for­ma­tion ( RTI) Act, 2005, was mur­dered. He was bat­tered to death, al­legedly by peo­ple af­fected by his ex­po­sure of the mis­use of pub­lic money by those re­spon­si­ble for con­struct­ing poor qual­ity roads and un­us­able toi­lets (un­der the Cen­tre’s flag­ship pro­gramme, the Swachh Bharat Ab­hiyan). This, ac­cord­ing to an NGO, Com­mon­wealth Hu­man Rights Ini­tia­tive ( CHRI), was the sec­ond mur­der of an RTI ac­tivist in the state in 2017. A to­tal of 66 RTI ac­tivists have been killed na­tion­wide since the Act came into force 12 years ago, says CHRI.

One week later, the CHRI wrote to the Ma­ha­rash­tra In­for­ma­tion Com­mis­sion ask­ing it to take cog­ni­sance of all pend­ing RTI ap­pli­ca­tions filed by Hal­dankar and seek­ing a di­rec­tion to pub­lic au­thor­i­ties to dis­close all the in­for­ma­tion sought in ac­cor­dance with the RTI Act. Ir­re­spec­tive of whether the com­mis­sion pays heed to the re­quest or not, RTI ac­tivists to­day have an op­tion to see that the is­sues raised by their departed col­league are pur­sued.

How­ever, this may not re­main the case if changes pro­posed by the cen­tral gov­ern­ment in Rules (draft RTI Rules 2017) framed un­der the RTI Act are im­ple­mented. If the pro­pos­als are ac­cepted, pro­ceed­ings pend­ing be­fore the Com­mis­sion can be dropped in case of the death of the appellant. The move has in­vited wide­spread crit­i­cism, with ac­tivists fear­ing a rise in at­tacks against RTI ac­tivists.

Pe­ri­odic amend­ments to Rules un­der var­i­ous Acts are not bad. How­ever, the amend­ments should be aimed at strength­en­ing the Act and bring­ing it in tune with the chang­ing times and re­quire­ments. Not all changes in draft RTI Rules 2017 seem to be in that spirit.

Con­sider this. Un­der ex­ist­ing rules, the Cen­tral In­for­ma­tion Com­mis­sion, or CIC, needs to hear the appellant be­fore de­cid­ing to dis­miss the case. Un­der the pro­posed amend­ment, it can dis­miss ap­peals with­out giv­ing that op­por­tu­nity to the ag­grieved per­son. Sim­i­larly, the pro­posed changes put the onus on the com­plainant to serve the ap­peal to the re­spon­dent and pro­duce proof be­fore the CIC.

Of half-a-dozen new rules that have found place in the draft amend­ment, one pro­vides pow­ers to the pub­lic au­thor­ity to del­e­gate any of its of­fi­cers to present its case be­fore the Com­mis­sion. While this can be seen as a mea­sure to avoid over­bur­den­ing some of­fi­cers in key po­si­tions, its im­pact on the qual­ity of the hear­ings also needs to be looked at.

Any move to make RTI rules cum­ber­some may go against in­di­vid­ual RTI ap­pli­cants. At the same time, these are not sig­nif­i­cant is­sues for cor­po­rate ap­pli­cants, who have been in­creas­ingly util­is­ing this op­por­tu­nity to know more about gov­ern­ment de­ci­sions that may im­pact their busi­ness in­ter­ests. In­dian pub­lic au­thor­i­ties have, over the years, found sev­eral ways to evade RTI queries. The amend­ments should be mak­ing such eva­sion tougher and not eas­ier.

How­ever, given the fact that the changes are still in the draft stage, and the au­thor­ity has re­ceived pub­lic com­ments on the draft till April 15, one can hope that bet­ter sense pre­vails. ~


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