The recent Cabinet decision to amend the nine-month-old Right to Information Act, 2005 by excluding the file noting from the purview of information has exposed Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh'sinability to rein in the bureaucrats and provide a better governance to the people. The UPA'sleading light, who took entire credit for the passage of this historic Act and its implementation, is maintaining a studied silence on the raising debate barring an unconfirmed stray report that Smt Sonia Gandhi is unhappy about the proposed change.
It is unbelievable that such an important decision can be taken without the knowledge and approval of Smt Gandhi.
If there are genuine concerns being raised by statutory bodies like UPSC to keep its selection process secret that can be solved to put that part of the information under Section 8 [exemption clause] rather than going in for blanket exclusion. ?This is a deliberate attempt to cover up for acts of corruption,? felt Aruna Roy,? a leading social activist and till recently a member of the UPA advisory committee. This move is bound to weaken the Act and compromise the UPA government'spromise for a transparent and accountable government, reportedly said a Congress leader.
Interestingly, a close look at the very implementation of the Act in the late October 2005 would reveal that Dr Manmohan Singh was hardly serious to reap the desired benefits of the Act when he decided to appoint a large number of serving as well as retired bureaucrats as members of the Central Information Commission (CIC), thereby giving a message to the state governments for appointment of State Information Commissioners on the similar lines.
The CIC has been placed at par with the Central Election Commission. The salaries and allowances payable to and other terms and conditions of service for the Chief Information Commissioner shall be the same as that of the Chief Election Commissioner. Four out of the five central information commissioners are former bureaucrats and each one of them is alleged to be close to 10, Janpath.
Even as there are protests against dilution of the Act, the very functioning and decisions of the Central Information Commission, which are required to administer the Act in letter and spirit, have come under severe criticism from both the appellants and RTI activists who are dismayed at the conduct of the Commission. During its little over nine months of existence the Commission has come to be known for tardy disposal of appeals, giving a long rope to the Public Information Officers (PIOs), i.e. no time limit to decide an appeal, succumbing to pressures and, above all, passing illogical and funny orders which clearly protect the erring babus rather than benefitting the appellant.
The Commission'sorders and decisions in several cases are material for great entertainment, says an RTI activist who has been following the CIC'sdecisions regularly. He recounts the case of a lady officer in a government department. She failed to get a copy of the inquiry report from her office in a complaint of sexual harassment. In the first instance, the department pleaded that it was not under the government and, therefore, not under the purview of RTI Act. Then the public authority pleaded before the Commission that the report was in the custody of some other section in the department, hence could not be given to the appellant due to a technical difficulty. After almost six months and two hearings the Commission passed an order for giving the copy of the inquiry report to the appellant by a specific date. When the lady requested to have a photocopy of the file noting of the inquiry proceedings as she was asked to file another appeal.
There are several instances, in which the information commissioners passed ridiculous decisions completely negating their own previous orders. It'sa frustrating experience for appellants as experienced any other forum in our country?nothing different to expect. Do we really need this Commission? Appellants wonder.
Magsayay Award winner Shri Arvind Kejriwal, Director of Parivartan India, says: ?The CIC has mutilated the whole Act. It does not know what its job is; what the rules are.?
Out of over two thousand petitions received by the CIC, 400 odd appeals are supposed to have been decided by now. Not even in a single case has it imposed a money penalty on an erring PIO as envisaged under Section 20 of the Act. The Commission and its members have taken it upon themselves to interpret the Act in a manner that empowers them to relax the penalty clause, a typical bureaucratic style, when Section 20(1) clearly stipulates that once the Commission is satisfied that the public authority has failed to furnish information within the time specified under sub-Section 1 of Section 7 or malafidely denied the information or knowingly given incorrect, incomplete or misleading information?it shall impose a penalty? One fails to understand wherefrom the Commission gets its power to relax the penalty or to exonerate the erring PIOs even after establishing that they have violated the Act.
Perhaps the lengthy phraseology and meandering bureaucratic/legal expression in sub-Section 1 of Section 20 have provided a scope to the retired bureaucrats in the CIC to show their prowess over English and arrogate to themselves the authority to interpret the Act to the illiterate or vernacular-knowing public?a typical colonial trait. The very purpose of the law is lost in the knowledge and wisdom of the presiding officers.
Unless this trend is broken, any number of forums to uphold our democratic structure will prove meaningless. Then, who needs the CIC if its role is to negate the very intent of the Act?