Wednesday, May 12, 2010

THE HINDU: Saving the right to information miracle

Saving the right to information miracle

Vidya Subrahmaniam

The RTI juggernaut has begun to roll over Indian babudom. Let us not turn the clock back.

Over the past week, there have been reports that the Prime Minister's Office, responding to Sonia Gandhi's muscular intervention, is backing off on the dreaded amendments to the Right to Information Act, 2005.

On the other hand, it is worth remembering that the amendments scare has never been too far away. It resurfaced as recently as April 30, 2010 — this time in the benign form of a friendly letter to an RTI applicant. The letter, from the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), was in response to his application seeking details of the amendments under consideration, and it confirmed that far-reaching changes were in fact under way.

And yet, whatever the outcome of this see-sawing confrontation between the government and the growing band of RTI stakeholders — activists, Information Commissioners, ordinary citizens — one thing is clear. Almost against its will, official India is changing.

The DoPT's letter is an example in itself. In the past, the department, the nodal government agency for matters relating to RTI, would get into a lather if anyone so much as asked a question. RTI activists and the Central Information Commission (CIC) fought a marathon battle to get the DoPT to acknowledge that the Act allowed access to file-notings. The department stubbornly maintained the opposite on its website, providing just the excuse the other Ministries needed to stonewall demands for file-notings.

The DoPT's April 30 letter is accommodating to the point of disbelief. In reply to “point number 8,” it says: “copy of file noting is enclosed.” Was this the same government organ that possessively clutched file-notings to its bosom? Not just the DoPT. There is reason to believe that RTI glasnost is wrecking babudom's practised ways everywhere in government. If today we know for a fact that Ms Gandhi and the Prime Minister hold opposing views on amending the RTI Act, it is thanks, ironically, to RTI. The Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi correspondence was accessed by Subhash Chandra Agrawal, an RTI zealot with an unmatched penchant for bombarding government offices with complicated queries — the kind that would have normally got the government bristling.

Yet today he has in his possession documents of unimaginable importance. To name only a few: The entire 2004 and 2010 Padma awards records, including a 2004 “secret” letter from A.P.J. Abdul Kalam to Atal Bihari Vajpayee on norms for deciding the awards; information on the wealth and assets of judges as well as expenditure on the travels of judges and their spouses; files relating to appointment of judges; the Naveen Chawla-N.Gopalaswami correspondence; details of RTI amendments under consideration; and most recently, a CIC ruling extending the RTI Act to correspondence between the Prime Minister and the President.

Indian Express has scooped significant stories using the RTI Act, and recently published the entire lot of letters exchanged between Ms Gandhi and Dr. Manmohan Singh over the term of the first United Progressive Alliance government. The letters confirm what many have suspected for long: that two different visions inform the offices of the Prime Minister and the Congress president.

The CIC has far surpassed expectations, pushing the envelope to uphold transparency and accountability in the public sphere, and shaking up the judicial fraternity with its daring interpretation of the RTI Act. The CIC's January 2009 ruling that the Act covers the assets of Supreme Court judges is beyond anything one could have imagined in pre-RTI India.

To understand the import of this decision one has only to look at the incredible phenomenon of the Supreme Court appealing to itself against the Delhi High Court order upholding the CIC's ruling in the judges' assets case. Significantly, the effect of all this has been to open rather than shut doors. One judge after another has come out voluntarily to declare his assets.

A little over a month ago, this writer filed two RTI applications with the Ministry of Rural Development. Twenty days later, I got a call from the Ministry. Over the following week, officials incessantly fussed over me, worrying that I was not finding the time to go over and inspect the files. Once in the hallowed corridors of Krishi Bhawan, officials eagerly obliged with mounds of files, pointing out file-notings and such, and printing out photocopies late into the evening.

In the case of the second application, the Ministry overshot the RTI deadline of one month by five days. But no harm done. A Deputy Secretary was on the phone profusely apologising for the “unwarranted” delay. The ease with which officials parted with file-notings was a knock-out surprise. Indeed, the experience was almost surreal. Did I owe the kindness to my being a journalist or was something else happening here? The former possibility is fairly ruled out because the fourth estate is not a particular favourite of the bureaucracy.

In truth, not just me, RTI applicants everywhere are possibly finding it just a bit easier to approach the giant behemoth called the government. The term “top secret” which was the bureaucracy's single biggest weapon, no longer looks that forbidding. A correspondent from The Hindu approached a member of the Padma awards committee seeking details of the controversial Padma Bhushan award to NRI hotelier Sant Singh Chatwal. The member threw a fit: “How dare you even call me? Don't you know our decisions are secret?” Yet thanks to RTI, within days we had full information, not just on the award to Mr. Chatwal but on the 1,163 names considered by the committee. The awards committee member, like so many from the “secrecy” era, had not understood that what was secret in his time was open information today. The Hindu correspondent actually held in her hand President Kalam's “secret” note to Prime Minister Vajpayee. And the letter was handed out by the Home Ministry, once the proud repository of all things secret.

Spectacular as these breakthroughs are, it is the smaller stories involving a score of poor RTI applicants that truly point to the transfer of power taking place on the ground. Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi's favourite story is of a man in rags who was treated with respect at the ration office only because he had filed an RTI application. “The same officer who used to treat him like dirt offered him a chair and tea,” says Mr. Gandhi. “The man understood the power of information, and told me what he had achieved was far more than a ration card. From being always overpowered, he actually felt powerful.”

The implications of this transformation are surely not lost on the top echelons of government. Though not fully by any means, feudal, secretive India has adapted to an open information culture sooner than anyone could have anticipated. Who could have thought that government departments would treat information seekers with deference? If this is the case with the number of RTI users still being minuscule, one can guess the scale of the havoc a fully operative RTI Act would cause.

Says RTI pioneer Aruna Roy: “What we are witnessing is a potentially massive transfer of power. This is democracy at the grassroots, and that is why it is hard to believe that the government will let go of the amendments. RTI has opened a million cans of worms. It has put the fear of God into the bureaucracy.”

And so we have a strange situation. One half of the government is ever so slowly relaxing its hold on information, while the other half is far from giving up. The conflict becomes visible every now and then. Last month, the Home Ministry released the details of the 2010 Padma awards aspirants but advised the RTI applicant who sought them not to make them public.

At a South Asia RTI workshop convened in Delhi recently, delegates from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka seemed in awe of the Indian achievement in RTI. Pakistan framed a freedom of information ordinance in 2002. However, official data from that country shows that all its federal departments and ministries put together get less than five information applications a month. Between 2003 and 2007, only 51 complaints reached the office of the Federal Ombudsman (equivalent to the Indian CIC). Of these, only eight were filed by ordinary citizens. The Indian CIC in the single year of 2009 received 21,500 appeals and complaints, of which it disposed of 19,500.

India's RTI activists and Information Officers are an unusually inspired lot. Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah has passed landmark rulings that have changed the rules of governance. Information Commissioner Gandhi has been working with a rare dedication, spending his own money to employ staff, and disposing of 5,800 cases annually. Aruna Roy and countless other activists breathe and sleep RTI.

For all their sake, and more importantly, for the sake of the common citizens, the miracle called the Indian RTI Act must be saved.

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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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