Chok­ing RTI

The Cen­tre is mer­rily sit­ting on 40,051 cases reg­is­tered un­der the Right to In­for­ma­tion Act

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS - LATHA JISHNU

Wthe right to in­for­ma­tion (rti) HERE DOES be­gin and die? What con­sti­tutes public in­ter­est and when do pri­vacy is­sues over­ride them? These ques­tions came to mind af­ter a fel­low jour­nal­ist sought to know the names of In­dia’s top gold im­porters un­der the rti Act. I thought it to be a le­git­i­mate query since the write-offs on the im­port duty by re­cent fi­nance min­is­ters have re­sulted in an­nual rev­enue losses of over 60,000 crore (see “In­dia’s gold fol­lies and

` food se­cu­rity”, DownTo Earth, Au­gust 16-28,2013) and also re­sulted in an un­ten­able bal­loon­ing of the cur­rent ac­count deficit.

How­ever, the Di­rec­torate Gen­eral of For­eign Trade, to whom the query was sent, re­fused to dis­close the names, claim­ing it had to pro­tect pri­vacy. An ap­peal to the Cen­tral In­for­ma­tion Com­mis­sion proved equally in­fruc­tu­ous since it said the same thing: “…dis­clo­sure of such in­for­ma­tion may harm the com­pet­i­tive po­si­tion of the third party”. It also said that the ap­pel­lant had “not es­tab­lished any larger public in­ter­est in the dis­clo­sure of such in­for­ma­tion”. Surely, cit­i­zens have a right to know who ben­e­fit­ted the most from this largesse over the past four to five years?

The jour­nal­ist, though, was lucky to have got a re­sponse at all.The sham­bles in the Cen­tral In­for­ma­tion Com­mis­sion is such that most queries have not seen the light of the day for three to four years since there are not enough com­mis­sion­ers—three posts are still va­cant— to deal with the cases. The law says that on pay­ment of

10, ap­pli­cants should be pro­vided in­for­ma­tion within ` 30 days. In­stead, a ver­i­ta­ble moun­tain of 40,051 cases (32,531 ap­peals and 7,520 com­plaints) has piled up.

Op­po­si­tion politi­cians and ac­tivists have ac­cused Naren­dra Modi’s bjp gov­ern­ment of de­lib­er­ately mak­ing the rti law dys­func­tional by re­fus­ing to ap­point a Chief In­for­ma­tion Com­mis­sioner (cic), a post which has been va­cant since Au­gust 2014. Fi­nally, on June 8 this year, the gov­ern­ment did fill the va­cancy, the new man be­ing a serv­ing in­for­ma­tion com­mis­sioner (IC). There is a dan­ger­ous trend ev­i­dent in this process. For­mer bu­reau­crats al­ready pack the com­mis­sion and by pick­ing the se­nior­most IC in a se­lec­tion process in which all ICs are in the run­ning, the gov­ern­ment has in­sti­tu­tion­alised the grip of babu­dom on a crit­i­cal of­fice. How would such a cic be able to act in­de­pen­dently of the gov­ern­ment whose in­ter­ests it would feel bound to pro­tect? What hope then of un­cov­er­ing the sweet­heart deals and crony pacts? Po­lit­i­cal pa­tron­age means that or­ders will of­ten be bi­ased against trans­parency. There will be stonewalling. And worse, as cic’s back­log in­creases, it will also lose the moral au­thor­ity to pe­nalise de­part­men­tal of­fi­cers who do not abide by the time limit on rti queries.

Such a cic will in all like­li­hood turn out to be com­mit­ted—not to trans­parency and the public but to the gov­ern­ment which pro­vides sinecures. This would force more peo­ple to ap­peal to the courts against the de­ci­sions of the cic. Few would have the re­sources to do so or the stamina to wait another three to four years for a ver­dict. As it is, many de­ci­sions of the cic have dis­re­garded the prece­dents set by the higher courts.

No gov­ern­ment likes public scru­tiny of its func­tion­ing. Most claims of po­lit­i­cal par­ties that they sup­port trans­parency are in­vari­ably hol­low. It is more so with the bjp regime as the past year has proved. Although it stoutly cham­pi­oned open­ness in gov­ern­ment as the Op­po­si­tion, the bjp has (pre­dictably) made a U-turn once it cap­tured Delhi.The Congress may not have been much bet­ter, although it did pass the land­mark rti Act. In its sec­ond stint, the United Pro­gres­sive Al­liance tried to di­lute the law but for­tu­nately did not suc­ceed.Now we have a com­mit­ted bu­reau­cracy that will en­sure just that.

TARIQUE AZIZ / CSE

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