Sunday, November 15, 2009

Amendments to RTI Act on the anvil

Amendments to Right to Information Act on the anvil

Vidya Subrahmaniam

They will be abandoned if civil society groups show the government they are unnecessary

Activists led by Aruna Roy submit letter containing their misgivings

"RTI constrained by inadequate implementation, lack of trained staff, poor management"

New Delhi: The Department of Personnel and Training (Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievance and Pensions) has admitted that the government is considering amendments to the Right to Information Act, 2005.

The admission, which came at a meeting between RTI activists and DoPT Secretary Shantanu Consul on Saturday, ended the suspense over whether or not the government was contemplating amendments to the RTI.

Speculation in this regard started following a meeting that the DoPT had with Information Officers on October 14 where a proposal for the amendments was formally put on the table. However, the government refused to confirm or deny the move, leading to a growing anxiety in RTI circles.

Significantly, Mr. Consul assured the delegation led by Aruna Roy of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI), that the amendments will only be introduced after hearing the views and objections of civil society groups. He said the department would initiate a "transparent and consultative process," including putting up the draft amendments on the DoPT website, to enable public and civil society participation in their implementation.

Mr. Consul also said the amendments would not go through if civil society groups were able to convince the government that they were not necessary, and the purpose for which they were being considered could be met in other ways.

Earlier in the day, hundreds of activists from the NCPRI and other organisations gathered at Jantar Mantar to warn the government against tinkering with the RTI Act, 2005.

The delegation that met Mr. Consul presented him a letter containing their misgivings over the proposed amendments. The letter was signed. among others by Ms. Roy, Nikhil Dey and Shekhar Singh of the NCPRI and Annie Raja of the National Federation of Indian Women.


The signatories said they had apprehensions that the government was moving towards amending the RTI and cited as evidence the October 14 meeting between the DoPT and Information Officers.

The RTI activists also wrote to the Prime Minister on October 20, which was signed by dozens of public-spirited citizens. The letter argued that the proposed amendments — envisaging exemption from disclosure for official discussions and consultations (previously known as file notings) and prohibition of frivolous and vexatious complaints — far from strengthening the Act, as promised by the President in her June 4 address to Parliament, would in fact emasculate the Act.

The letter quoted two nation-wide studies, "one done under the aegis of the government," to make the point that RTI was constrained, not by issues being considered for amendment such as frivolous complaints and file notings, but by inadequate implementation, lack of trained staff, and poor management. There was no suggestion in either of the studies that RTI work was hampered by "frivolous or vexatious" applications or by disclosure of "file notings," it said.

The letter said: "This government gave its citizens the RTI Act, and there has been no crisis in government as a result of its enactment. In fact… its use by ordinary people is helping change its (the country's) image to that of an open and receptive democracy. An amendment in the Act would be an obviously retrograde step, at a time when there is a popular consensus to strengthen it through rules and better implementation..."

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The RTI Act was passed by the Lok Sabha (Lower House) on 11 May 2005, by the Raj Sabha (Upper House) on 12 May 2005 and received Presidential assent on 15 June 2005. Parts of the Act came into force upon Presidential assent, but the Act came fully into force on 12 October 2005, 120 days after Presidential assent.

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