Government assures action; Minister assures action; says he’s glad it’s raised by MPs across party lines
It all started with an inoccous question in the Rajya Sabha by BSP member of Parliament Salim Ansari.
In a starred question, that requires the government to give written reply as well as answer supplementary questions in the House, Mr Salim asked the Prime Minister whether ministries and government departments were refusing to share with the Central Information Commission even basic data and if so what steps were being taken by the government to strengthen the procedure so as to minimize the trend of rejecting or evading information to RTI applicants.
Minister of State in Prime Minister’s Office Jitender Singh gave a standard reply to the member’s question and his supplimentaries.
But what surprised many was a severe and what appeared to be an almost organized attack on the path-breaking transparency legislation by members MPs from the opposition benches who were in power when the RTI Act was passed. Prominent among the attackers were two ministers in the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government – Rajiv Shukla and Praful Patel. They were joined by Samajwadi Party MP Naresh Agarwal. The trio termed the legislation a “big problem” which was brought in “under US pressure” and was being widely “misused”.
The Minister while answering the BSP MPs question assured the members that his government was committed to ensuring transparence and said that this was evident from the fact that for the first time since the passage of the RTI Act the government has filled up all the ten posts of information commissioners which has never happened before in the last ten years.
He said that since Modi government assumed office, the number of grievances recorded has grown three-fold from an average of two lakhs earlier to six lakhs now. On being asked by members about the reason for the rise in number of grievances and whether people are not as happy with this government as they were with the previous one, the minister said people have far more expectations from this government and therefore they are seeking information and expressing their grievances. To drive home his point, the minister quoted Urdu poet Ghalib:
Jab tawaqqo he uth gayi Ghalib;
Kyun kisi ka gilaa kare koi
(Where there is no expectation, how can there be complaints).
Mr Jitender Singh said “our response has increased and therefore the number of grievances has increased and pendency has reduced.”
After the minister was done with answering Mr Salim Ansari’s second supplementary question, Congress MP Rajiv Shukla stood up and asked the minister if he was aware of the “massive misuse” of the RTI. ‘People have got visiting cards printed calling themselves RTI Activists, as if this is some kind of designation. People are being blackmailed, huge benefits are being taken, money is being earned. What steps are being taken to stop all this and ensure that the law is being used for the purpose it has been enacted.” As if Mr Shukla’s disdain for RTI activists was not enough, nationalist Congress Party MP Praful Patel added insult to the injury by claiming that the RTI Act has created a situation where “any paan wala or chai wala could just file an application for ten rupees and seek information about missile technology or international relations.”
Mr Patel’s reference to chai wala had Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was present in the House, in splits. Mr Modi has frequently referred to his modest origins as a tea seller. Leader of the House Arun Jaitley, who was seated next to Modi, also smiled. . Mr Patel soon realized his faux pas and profusely apologized to the Prime Minister. “There is no disrespect to the Prime Minister. Rather it is an honour. He has become Prime Minister. Now he has to answer.”
The NCP MP further said that when the officers sit down to take decision the topmost thing in their mind is what information will go out about their decision through RTI query. This leads to end of objectivity. I know that there is a lot of discussion about this in the government. I would not say who I have come to know this from. But everybody is concerned about the fact that we have brought in this law in a hurry. So my question to the government is whether it is thinking about making some changes in the Act, as there is no locus in the present Act. Today if some person wants to use this to know about some missile programme or international relations or about some secret document, then there must be some restrictions. The locus of the person must be known. So my question is the government willing to consider bringing amendment to the RTI Act so that it becomes more objective and practical?”
Mr Patel was one of the ministers in the Cabinet which brought in RTI Act. But he does not seem to know that anybody cannot ask for any information. There are many areas that are kept out of the purview of RTI. Section 8 and Section 24 of the RTI Act lists the exempted areas. Section 8 states that information which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India would be kept out of RTI; and Section 24 deals with exempting subjects relating to security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign State etc. If only Mr Patel had read the Bill that he approved in the Cabinet, he would not have indulged in fear mongering.
Still, Mr Jitender Singh assured the members that there was nothing to fear for the officers as the government had already changed the DSP Act to make it mandatory to seek government’s permission before proceeding against any officer. Welcoming Mr Patel’s suggestions, the minister said “this will be kept in mind. And, to the earlier observation made by him that this might cut down the initiative of officers, I would say that the government is equally concerned. I think, this is evident from the fact that the Prevention of Corruption (Amendment) Act, 1988 that has been brought in by the government includes Section 17 to replace Section 6(a) of the DSP Act wherein the permission to proceed against an officer was sought only in case of Joint Secretary and above. Now, this will be mandatory for all officers. So, we are equally concerned that there should not be anything done which cuts down or intimidates or causes unnecessary harassment to any officer or reduces his initiative.”
Earlier, Samajwadi Party MP Naresh Agarwal alleged that the RTI Act was brought in under pressure from the United States of America and wanted to know whether this sirt of law was in force in the neighbouring Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal. He said “like Rajiv Shukla said, this RTI and Public Interest Litigation have become a big problem for the country.”
Mr Agarwal said many departments are exempt from RTI and those that are not want to be kept out. They have written to the government. Many secrets are getting leaked through RTI. I would want to know from the government as to which are the departments that have sought to be kept out of the purview of RTI.”
The minister replied that the RTI Act was brought in unanimously. There must have been a noble intention behind it. Some rules can be framed about how to use RTI, and it can be reviewed from time to time. “So far as misuse of RTI is concerned, it could be looked into,” the minister said. So RTI, which has exposed many scams, scandals, misappropriation of funds, corrupt deals, tall claims and lies peddled by public bodies; and is today one of the most potent tools in the hands of the beleaguered common man has come under attack from the ruling elite against whom the law is used. Is there a move to dilute the RTI? Only time will tell.