Indian Prime Minister Urges Critical Look at RTI Act

14 October 2011

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Oct. 14 called for a “critical look” at the six-year-old Right to Information Act.

He expressed concern about a “flood” of requests, about disclosure inhibiting the deliberations of government officials, and about the coverage of private-public partnerships.

Singh’s comments before the annual convention of Information Commissioners were quickly criticized as “very objectionable” by an opposition party.

The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) accused the government of trying to dilute the RTI Act and demanded a clarification.  “We never expected that the prime minister through his words will tell the country that money is wasted on RTI and the time of officials is being wasted,” party leader Rajiv Pratap Rudy said, according to a report in The Deccan Herald. “The BJP leader said the government was trying to dilute the act as it had landed it in trouble due to revelations made through RTI,” the report said.

Singh’s speech followed a series of comments by government ministers in recent weeks critical of the RTI Act.

Prime Minister Outlines Several Concerns

“I am sure we are all agreed that empowering our citizens with this right was a huge step forward in the direction of curbing corruption and improving process of governance,” Singh began.  

He said:

Our government stands committed to a comprehensive agenda of legal, executive and technology initiatives to curb corruption and improve governance and we consider the Right to Information to be a powerful tool to enable us to move in that direction. We wish to make the Right to Information an even more effective instrument for ensuring transparency and accountability in administration. I would like to mention here our initiative to enact legislation for the protection of Whistleblowers which would further strengthen the Right to Information. We expect this law to be enacted in the next few months and it would, among other things, help in prevention of violence against those who seek to expose wrongdoings in our public administration.

Singh continued: “Even as we recognize and celebrate the efficacy and the effectiveness of the Right to Information Act, we must take a critical look at it. There are concerns that need to be discussed and addressed honestly.”

The prime minister expressed concern about  “the need to strike a balance between the need for disclosure of information and the limited time and resources available with the public authorities.”

He amplified:

A situation in which a public authority is flooded with requests for information having no bearing on public interest is something not desirable. We must, therefore, pool all our wisdom, our knowledge, and our experience to come to a conclusion on how to deal with vexatious demands for information, without at the same time hindering the flow of information to those whose demands genuinely serve public interest.

Deliberative Process, Privacy Concerns

In addition, Singh said:

Another concern that has been raised is that the Right to Information could end up discouraging honest, well meaning public servants from giving full expression to their views. I think we need to remember here that a point of view brought under public scrutiny and discussion in an isolated manner may sometimes present a distorted or incomplete picture of what really happened in the processes of making the final decisions.

The Right to Information should not adversely affect the deliberative processes in the government. 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 further said that there “certain grey areas” regarding privacy “that require further debate.”

He said:

The Right to Information enables access to information even from a private party that comes under a regulatory framework. This assumes an added significance in the context of an increasing number of projects being taken up in the Public Private Partnership mode.

Noting the reclining rejection rate for requests, 5.2% in 2010-11, Singh said the number of appeals and complaints before the Commission, however, “is still very large.” He continued:

This is indicative of the scope for further enhancement of the quantum as well as quality of voluntary disclosure. Public Authorities in our country have still a long way to go in making proactive disclosures of information that is not covered by the exemption provisions of the Right to Information Act. They must endeavor to voluntarily put information in the public domain without waiting for applications from information seekers. If this is done, a lot of time will be saved both for public authorities as well as for citizens.

He also spoke of the need for “information housekeeping” to improve records management.

Build Up

In recent weeks, Union Law Minister Salman Khursheed and Corporate Affairs Minister M. Veerappa Moily, have expressed concern aboyt the RTI Act.

A spokesman for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government later said that action would not come quickly and that it was important for the ongoing debate on the issue “to play itself out.” “An invigorating debate is going on RTI with entire spectrum of views coming from various stakeholders,” Manish Tewari said.

Khursheed said misuse of the Act was affecting “institutional efficacy and efficiency” and that  bureaucrats was becoming reluctant to voice their opinions, according to a summary in The Hindu.

A “balance,” therefore, needed to be maintained between transparency and accountability and institutional efficiency, he had said, adding that, for instance, it was not right to claim under the RTI papers “which are part of internal communications ahead of a Cabinet decision until such time that a decision is finally taken.”

“The government has tried to prune RTI earlier as well and the effort saw it at odds with the Sonia-led National Advisory Council,” according to a report by The Times of India, which continued, “This time, the government has issued a circular that asks government departments to be prudent in handing out information in response to RTI applications.

Moily has complained that RTI “transgresses into the independent functioning of the government.” He stated, “Transparency, yes, but it cannot scuttle the independence of individuals and Ministries expressing difference of opinion. It’s time for a national debate on this issue.”

“The RTI activists are upset over the words coming from the Government and the Congress on the transparency law. RTI activist Subhash Aggrawal said RTI has emerged a major instrument in exposing earlier scams and effectively checking such scams to happen in future,” according to a Daily Pioneer report.

Aggrawal was quoted a saying: “What do these ministers want? Should guilty not be punished? Should scams be allowed to happen? Should truth not come before public?”

 

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