New draft rules for RTI draws flak

Activists say the rules undermine the spirit of the law

By Ankur Paliwal
Published: Thursday 10 February 2011

The proposed draft Right to Information (RTI) rules, prepared by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), Government of India, have invited more criticism than praise. RTI activists say the rules dilute the very spirit of the RTI Act 2005, instead of strengthening it. The new rules aim to amend the existing ones.

DoPT uploaded the rules on its website inviting comments within 10 days between December 17 to December 27, 2010. DoPT claimed the new rules will make the implementation of the law more effective but activists differ. National Advisory Council (NAC), set up by the Centre as an interface with civil society, too has sent a critique report on RTI rules to the Centre. The critique was drafted by Aruna Roy, one of NAC members and a leading social activist who spearheaded the RTI movement.

There are several provisions in the draft rules which undermine the spirit of the law. One of the rules proposes that request for information should be related to only one subject matter and queries should not exceed 250 words. Venkatesh Nayak of access to information, a commonwealth human rights initiative said, “These restrictions are unjustified. Subject matter is not defined in the act or rules, so is open to interpretation.” This means that if a RTI applicant wants to know statistics of births and deaths from a municipal hospital, the public information officer can argue that 'birth' and ‘death’ are two different subject matters if the proposed rules are implemented, noted Krisharaj Rao, a Mumbai-based RTI activist.

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Nikhil Dey, member of the National Commission for People’s Right to Information, a non-profit based in Delhi said, “The proposed rules would create more trouble for applicants than empowering them.” Limiting the application to just 250 words is unacceptable. RTI is a common man’s act. Everybody, especially people from rural areas are not capable of summarising their request in 250 words, Dey added. Nayak said, this rule could be amended to require the public information officers to advise the applicant to prioritise the queries seeking information. Under another rule an applicant would have to pay the actual cost spent by a public authority on hiring a machine or any other equipment to supply information. This can be misused, said Nayak. “It is common for machine reproduction services to be provided by private players in the open market, which can be expensive. Machine rates also vary in different locations,” he added. Activists say, if these restrictions are notified the government officers may use them as grounds for rejecting RTI applications

A new rule allows the Chief Information Commission to give permission for withdrawal of an appeal during the course of the hearing. Activists said this rule may become a source of harassment or blackmail as forcing complainants to withdraw their appeal. The new rules also take away the choice of the applicant to be not present during the hearing.

The provisions also allow public authorities to authorise any representative or any of its officers to present their case. Nayak said that this provision leaves the door wide open for public authorities to hire legal practitioners for representing them in proceedings before the Commission. This may create pressure on applicants who may not be able to afford lawyers to represent them at the Commission.

Then there are provisions asking applicants to submit copies of documents duly authenticated and verified. “This is a cumbersome process. It may require the applicant to seek the services of a lawyer or wait for a gazetted officer to authenticate documents,” said Commodore Lokesh Batra (Retd), a Noida based RTI activist. The existing rules merely require the applicant to submit selfÔÇÉattested copies of the documents related to the appeal.

Batra said the proposed rules miss many provisions that need to be added to give more power to people. For example, rules should be formulated to ensure that all RTI applications and responses are made public.

“We have received the objections to the new rules. We are considering the subject matter and 250 word limit for an application. Everything is under review," said K G Verma, director, RTI department in DoPT.

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