Right to Information – Revisiting the Act

August 23rd, 2008

Round Table Discussion on ‘Right to Information – Revisiting the Act’ by Mr. Prabodh Saxena – Director – Investment & FIPB, Department of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Finance, Government of India; in Espire, A 41, MCIE, Mathura Road, New Delhi – 44.

HIGHLIGHTS

  • If you look at the history of the RTI all over the world, the first legislation is as old as more than 240 years. In 1776, Sweden passed the first access law and really the spurt came when Russia broke after the Cold War and many of these communist countries then moved on to a new path of democracy, enacted this law primarily as a revenge legislation against the previous communist rulers. 2005 is really the watershed year because the UK, which had enacted this law in 2000, operationalised it in 2005, Germany, the biggest economy in Europe also came up with this law, Uganda, a major African country and then the one billion strong country, India.
  • The uniqueness of this Act is that it covers the high and the mighty. The President of India, the Prime Minister of India, the Chief Minister, the Lieutenant Governor, the UPSC, everybody. Though unfortunately, now the government has taken a stand before the Delhi High Court, that constitutional authorities are not covered.
  • Another thing is that the Act provides very clearly that no reasons are required for you to ask any questions.
  • There is a penalty and this is only in India. And I think it is very rightly here because the mindset, our way of working is much different but nowhere in the world do they have the system of penalty. This is a unique feature. Even if it is Rs25,000, it is a unique feature because the penalty has to go from one’s pocket and it does pinch you.
  • It also has an institutional framework right from PIO to the information commission and there are duties cast on each institutional agency involved in the implementation of this Act. We have an independent Information Commission.
  • The Act nowhere restricts appointments to only bureaucrats. There are a few distinguished members and quite a few others who are not so. One has to ensure that the category of the distinguished has to be really distinguished, because we have examples from UP and many other places where party workers and brief-less journalists have become Information Commission members.
  • Unlike Western countries; the Information Commission here gives decisions, which are binding. In developed countries like in Canada and in many other countries this is not so, but this is again a requirement of the Indian system. If you don’t give power of contempt to tribunals, nobody would be bothered. If you don’t make decisions binding, nobody will bother. But this is the strength of the Indian legislation as compared to other legislations.
  • All other Acts have been made subservient in so far as the conflict with the Right to Information is concerned. In many countries of the world it is very clearly written in their statutes that this law will not override their official secret acts or legislations. When there is a conflict between the Official Secrets Act and the RTI Act, the RTI would prevail but in the Indian situation. It is our strength that we have clearly provided that every other legislation has to be in conformity with the Right to Information. And all information has to be free after twenty years.
  • This Act is a service available 24×7, you can ask anytime you want. In Parliament, you can only ask when the Parliament session is convened. Now nobody knows when the monsoon session will be convened this year. A matter being sub – judice is no ground of denying information. In the Parliament, in the legislature, you can always say that the matter is sub judice and therefore the house will not debate.
  • Notings are as much part of the file as they were before and you can have access to them, provided they are not excluded under any of the provisions of the RTI Act. In developed countries, whenever the notings are given, the name of the person who writes the noting is excluded. It is not so in India.
  • The worrying thing is that a large number of people, particularly government employees, are on a fishing expedition. Ask as many questions as you want. The only thing is your mind should be fertile enough and there is no cap on your imagination.
  • Negligible e-governance in record keeping, inadequate capacity building, irresponsible citizens to some extent, no flexibility on time and volume of information are the problems with this act and its working are beset with. In a judicial system, if one is not happy with the decision of the High Court, one can approach the Supreme Court.
  • People look upon these assignments as a job that everybody wants to transfer from one to another. The public authority has to go for maximum disclosures. The appellate authorities have to move beyond their narrow departmental loyalties.
  • We need an amendment of the Act because of so many drafting errors. We should therefore grow out of this mindset that this is a holy cow and we should not touch it. We should amend it and the activists, the government and parliament have to be on board. We cannot just put a full stop and say that we cannot amend the RTI Act, when in fact; we have amended the Constitution so many times.
  • In the UK, they have come up with a charter known as the Request to the Requestors. This is not happening in India. They have come out with a charter, which says, “don’t harass, don’t be offensive, be public-spirited, ask what is related to a policy, don’t confine it to your personal domain.” A government servant who is an information provider; may also become an information seeker.

 

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