Babus' FOI-pas?

Published: Thursday 30 September 2004

-- (Credit: EMKAY)Freedom of Information Act (2002) Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (chri)

Does this government really wish to improve the central Freedom of Information Act 2002 (foi)? No, says chri, an international non-governmental organisation that works for human rights in commonwealth countries. In a stinging critique of draft rules the government recently formulated, chri says the bureaucracy is hell-bent on watering down foi. As chri director Maja Daruwala puts it, "After 18 months of saying they were making rules, the government brings out rules with five inadequate sections that could have been written up in two days." This, she notes, in the face of the Common Minimum Programme (cmp), "which promises a much-improved right to information law than was passed by the last regime." The rules were posted on the government's website, and the public were invited to comment on it by August 31.

The situation is darkly comic. The National Advisory Council, set up to advise the government on cmp, is poised to submit its recommendations on improving foi. Also, the Supreme Court recently ordered the government -- in response to a public interest litigation -- to implement the law effectively. This is the context in which the draft rules -- Daruwala calls them "raggedy" -- were put out. The lackadaisical attitude with which a mere 5 clauses were presented as ways to improve foi is clear proof, says chri, that the bureaucracy wishes to make the right to information initiative meaningless.

What's especially raised chri's hackles is that each application for a document will cost Rs 50, and this must be paid by demand draft or bank cheque. Moreover, copies of documents will be charged at Rs 5 per page. This in a country, says chri, where 60 per cent of people live on less than Rs 100 a day. Best practice requires that fees -- if any are charged at all -- should never be more than the actual cost of copying the information, and no charge should be imposed for search time.

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