In India, Right to Information in Jeopardy

18 August 2006

Just six months after the Right to Information Act came into force, the bureaucrats in the Indian government are on the verge of rolling back the Act’s progressive access provisions. In July 2006, without any public consultation, the Cabinet approved amendments to the RTI that exclude from disclosure file notings contained in many of the government’s administrative files, as well as Cabinet papers that were previously available after a decision had been taken. The new amendments came after the Central Information Commission had repeatedly held file notings to be subject to disclosure in appeals against the Department of Personnel.

Advocates and civil society organizations in India have sharply criticized the amendments as impairing the fundamental right to information guaranteed under the RTI Act and the Indian constitution. Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey of the Rajasthan-based MKSS argued in a recent editorial in The Hindu that file notings-opinions and deliberations related to papers under consideration and written on the left side of a government file-constitute an essential "trail of responsibility and accountability" and their exemption from disclosure will "protect the dishonest manipulators but also give no support to honest officers whose forthright views are overruled."

The National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) in a press statement condemned the amendments as a "retrograde step" and a "sure method of obfuscating the existence of arbitrariness in the decision making process, which enables fixing accountability on specific officers." The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) in New Delhi has similarly challenged the new amendments in its press release, contending that true open government requires disclosure of file notings and that "[t]he beating heart of the Act lies in the provision that file notings cannot be hidden away from the public but must be available for scrutiny."

MKSS, NCPRI and CHRI request that all RTI supporters weigh in against the recent amendments before it is too late. Currently, these and other organizations are holding a "Save the RTI Act" dharna [sit-down protest] in New Delhi, as the Bill to amend the RTI Act may be discussed in Parliament any day until the close of the Monsoon Session of Parliament on August 25. In addition, the groups are calling for a national referendum, seeking the support of all concerned citizens to strengthen the protest against the proposed amendments through submission of ballots [English version] to be counted and announced at the close of the dharna.

To voice your support, send a protest letter to: before August 25.

Related Materials

National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, Press Note

Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (New Delhi), Press Statement on the proposed move to amend the Right to Information Act, 22 July 2006

Aruna Roy & Nikhil Dey, "Disabling the RTI Act." (Edited version appeared in the Indian Express, 22 July 2006).

Aruna Roy & Nikhil Dey, "To note the noting: People chasing the paper trail." (Edited version appeared in The Hindu, 24 July 2006).

Letter to Indian President Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam from Madhav Godbole, 21 July 2006

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