Common knowledge

Monday 30 June 1997

Let the government begin its long march into Freedom of information by making its proposed bill public even before it goes to Parliament

HOPEFULLY, the public will now know. If a draft bill on the freedom of information, prepared by a 12-member committee, is accepted by the Union Cabinet,-the government will be under obligation to provide citizens with any information they ask for. Such a measure is more than welcome. The right to know can translate into a right to demand and power to change. Far too long, government action has remained shrouded in unnecessary secrecy. Information that could be considered vital for the public good, has never been willingly shared with the people. Even as large Parts of the democratic world have moved towards making access to information easier, the Indian government, following the footsteps of its erstwhile coloniser, Britain, has kept its proceedings away from the people. Today, there is wide acceptance that the right to information is indispensable for increasing and enforcing accountability.

However, the bill needs to be publicly scrutinised and improved before it is passed by Parliament. What must be probed is the practicality of legislation that would guarantee ordinary citizens such a right and lay down time limits as well as penalties if the information sought is not provided. Opponents of the bill argue that the government system would be overwhelmed if every citizen were to demand bulky, and sometimes irrelevant, information.

Such fears are unfounded. A lot of information is already being collated and compiled within the government. There is very little authority that is exercised in government that is, at least in theory, not accountable to a higher level. Making these documents, reports and other papers available - at present available only to senior government officials - to ordinary citizens should not be such a difficult task. Even if it is, it is a cost that a nation should be prepared to pay for its democracy. All that needs to be done is to set up mechanisms to provide this information to the people who ask for it. Given the availability of technology, generating additional copies of such information at a price would not be unbearably burdensome to the system.

Putting a price on the information has other advantages. The department concerned can be held accountable if it does not deliver the goods. Fortunately, this has been reportedly provided for in the draft bill. The official or the department concerned are liable to be taken to the consumer court, under the Consumer Protection Act, if the information is not provided within the stipulated 30-day period.

As yet, the draft bill has not been seen by anyone outside the government. The reworked draft was submitted to the Cabinet secretary on May 22 and much of what the media is debating is drawn from comments by H D Shourie and its original author, Justice P B Sawant. The proposals in the bill are reportedly radical enough for it to cut a swathe through virtually every level of government administration. It seeks to bring within its purview all public authorities, with a public authority being defined as "any organisation, institution or department substantially funded by the government". Therefore, not only Central and state ministries, but even public sector undertakings, administrative offices of the Supreme Court, high courts, Parliament and state legislatures, municipal bodies and panchayats will be covered by the provisions of the proposed bill. But the meaning of 11 substantial funding" is left unclear. Neither are the words "organisation, institution or department" defined. Would it then mean that even non-governmental institutions that receive money from the government or schools that are run by the government become open to public scrutiny. In fact, if passed, the Right to Information Bill proposed by justice Sawant, which the H D Shourie Committee has been studying on behalf of the government, would be a first- of- its-kind legislation in the world as its recommendation is to extend the right of information to cover the private sector, including multinationals and business establishments. This was emphasised by Justice Sawant in his address to the Goa Union of journalists on May 18.

If this be the case, the government will go beyond any legislation on the right to information that exists in the world today. Information about the government should be made public. The government is there to work for the people. Citizens have a right to know what is being done with their money and their resources. They have a right to know what the government is doing for their future. They have a right to know if the government is working at all. But to extend this to other bodies may be taking things a bit too far. A private firm has not taken money from the taxpayer and there is no justification for the latter to demand information about the former's activities, except for all those documents that any private agency submits to the government under its financial, environmental and social regulations.

The right to know can help strengthen democracy. It has the power to transform lives. But the government could begin this long march into transparency by putting the proposed bill and its provisions up for debate. The government does not have much of a track record in implementing its laws. Let it begin with the government sector and then amend and extend the law as more experience is gained. Every long journey begins with a small step. It's definitely time now to take that step.

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