Strangling RTI ever so neatly

BJP's way of dealing with transparency process is effective: pack it with bureaucrats and let cases pile up

By Latha Jishnu
Published: Wednesday 15 July 2015

Where does the right to information (RTI) begin and die? What constitutes public interest and when do privacy issues override them? These questions came to mind after a fellow journalist sought to know the names of India’s top gold importers under the RTI Act. I thought it to be a legitimate query since the write-offs on the import duty by recent finance ministers have resulted in annual revenue losses of over Rs 60,000 crore (see “India’s gold follies and food security”, Down To Earth, August 16-28, 2013) and also resulted in an untenable ballooning of the current account deficit.

However, the Directorate General of Foreign Trade, to whom the query was sent, refused to disclose the names, claiming it had to protect privacy. An appeal to the Central Information Commission proved equally infructuous since it said the same thing: “…disclosure of such information may harm the competitive position of the third party”. It also said that the appellant had “not established any larger public interest in the disclosure of such information”. Surely, citizens have a right to know who benefitted the most from this largesse over the past four to five years?

The journalist, though, was lucky to have got a response at all. The shambles in the Central Information Commission is such that most queries have not seen the light of the day for three to four years since there are not enough commissioners—three posts are still vacant—to deal with the cases. The law says that on payment of Rs 10, applicants should be provided information within 30 days. Instead, a veritable mountain of 40,051 cases (32,531 appeals and 7,520 complaints) has piled up.

Opposition politicians and activists have accused Narendra Modi’s BJP government of deliberately making the RTI law dysfunctional by refusing to appoint a Chief Information Commissioner (CIC), a post which has been vacant since August 2014. Finally, on June 8 this year, the government did fill the vacancy, the new man being a serving information commissioner (IC). There is a dangerous trend evident in this process. Former bureaucrats already pack the commission and by picking the seniormost IC in a selection process in which all ICs are in the running, the government has institutionalised the grip of babudom on a critical office. How would such a CIC be able to act independently of the government whose interests it would feel bound to protect? What hope then of uncovering the sweetheart deals and crony pacts? Political patronage means that orders will often be biased against transparency. There will be stonewalling. And worse, as CIC’s backlog increases, it will also lose the moral authority to penalise departmental officers who do not abide by the time limit on RTI queries.

Such a CIC will in all likelihood turn out to be committed—not to transparency and the public but to the government which provides sinecures. This would force more people to appeal to the courts against the decisions of the CIC. Few would have the resources to do so or the stamina to wait another three to four years for a verdict. As it is, many decisions of the CIC have disregarded the precedents set by the higher courts.

No government likes public scrutiny of its functioning. Most claims of political parties that they support transparency are invariably hollow. It is more so with the BJP regime as the past year has proved. Although it stoutly championed openness in government as the Opposition, the BJP has (predictably) made a U-turn once it captured Delhi. The Congress may not have been much better, although it did pass the landmark RTI Act. In its second stint, the United Progressive Alliance tried to dilute the law but fortunately did not succeed. Now we have a committed bureaucracy that will ensure just that.

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