Indian Law Minister Denies Plans to Rewrite RTI Act

18 October 2011

A top Indian minister has denied that the government wants to rewrite the right to information law, apparently seeking to quell a firestorm of criticisms precipitated by the prime minister’s call for a “critical look” at the RTI Act.

Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid Oct. 16 said there is no proposal to “relook” at the act “but noted that not only the government but the judiciary too had experienced `difficulties’ because of it,” reported the Press Trust of India.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Oct. 14 said the government was overwhelmed by requests, voiced concern that deliberations of government officials are impaired and said public-private partnerships should not be covered. (See report.) “We must also take a critical look at the exemption clauses in the Right to Information Act to determine whether they serve the larger good and whether a change is needed in them,” Singh said.

Leading RTI activists promptly objected to Singh’s message.

While Khurshid ruling out “fundamental” change to the law, several government proposals for modifications have surfaced, addressing sports and nuclear power. One from the sports minister would extend the RTI Act over sports groups, although not as far as proposed recently and rejected by the Cabinet. (See previous report.) Another would exempt the nuclear regulator, the National Nuclear Safety Authority, from the law, reported the Hindustani Times.

Khurshid Plays Down Singh Comments

“We are proud of RTI. We are pleased that we gave RTI to this country. Even if it causes inconvenience to this country to an extent, we will bear that inconvenience… But we must ensure that in totality, the efficiency and functioning of government is strengthened,” he said, according to media accounts.

He said “there is no proposal to relook at the Act.” He also said, “Today, we are only absorbing the experience of the RTI and now whether after a period, looking at the experience, looking at the demands, looking at the consensus that can emerge, we can bring about any changes or not is something that is futuristic. It is something which I cannot say today.”

The law minister further stated: “If you say that we’ll make any fundamental changes in the RTI, the answer is no. We are proud of RTI.”

 He did not rule out potential change however, when asked about the exemption recently granted to the Central Bureau of Investigation. (See previous report.) Asked about more exemptions, he said, “No legislation is perfect.”

“You will have to see any legislation, you will have to, from time to time, (see) how it is working. If it needs to be tightened, you tighten it; if you need to broaden, you broaden it; if you need to deepen, you deepen it; if you need to make exceptions, you make exceptions as the CBI exception has now been made,” the law minister said, according the Press Trust account, which continued:

Replies to some RTI queries have generated major controversies recently like the one by a Finance Ministry note to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) which suggested that the 2G spectrum scam could have been averted if then Finance Minister P Chidambaram had insisted on an auction.

Mr Khurshid noted that the government and the judiciary have faced “some difficulties” in dealing with RTI queries.

“We certainly know, we (government) are not the only ones. Government is not the only one. Government meaning political government, not the only ones which felt some difficulties… Bureaucrats have felt difficulties, independent agencies have felt difficulties, the courts have felt difficulties,” he said.

Elaborating on his point, he said the High Courts and the Supreme Court are being asked questions, which include demands for draft judgements to see “how a draft judgement and the final judgement differs”.

There have been demands to know why a certain judge is elevated to the Supreme Court and the other one was not, he said.

Referring to certain grey areas in dealing with RTI applications, Mr Khurshid said what goes into the preparation of a Cabinet note is “today not clear. So, I think experience, either through judgements or in due course to amendments, you’ll probably have to clarify this”.

Asked if it was time to introduce fresh exemptions in the RTI Act, he said he could not say that. “It is a collective view that must emerge from society, from Parliament…”

When referred to ‘voices’ seeking changes, he said there are “all kinds of voices”.

“There are some voices which say don’t dilute. Some voices say don’t touch RTI. Some voices say it is inconvenient, you have to chisel it,” Mr Khurshid said.

To a question on the exclusion of correspondence between a minister and the Prime Minister from the ambit of RTI, he referred to the oath which ministers take to maintain confidentiality.

“Now when the RTI was drafted, I don’t think anybody looked at the oath, because if I can’t disclose it to you, but whatever I do is disclosed to you by a clerk, then what is the point in having this oath. We should change this oath,” he argued.

The ministers take oath that whatever comes to their knowledge is part of their functioning as a minister and they will not disclose to anybody unless they required by their duty to do so.

Mr Khurshid said there are certain things that are kept confidential and secret for good reasons.

Roy, Dey Criticize Singh

Founding member of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) Aruna Roy Oct. 15 condemned Singh’s statement, rejecting the idea that it caused inefficiencies.

“In the last six years, information received by the people has created upheaval in governance. What has upset the system is the scams. Instead of welcoming transparency, the persistence for amendments is wrong,” she added, according to reports such as on in the Times of India.

“I’m much more concerned about the lives of RTI activists being killed. What have you done to protect our lives?” she asked.

Nikhil Dey, co-convener of NCPRI, said, “We completely oppose amendments in RTI. The prime minister is saying the RTI affects bureaucratic functioning, but it is the opposite. It is a great benefit for honest officers as earlier their notings were being hidden.”

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