Indian RTI Activists Object to PM’s Comments; Bill Planned

15 October 2012

Indian right to information activists have roundly condemned Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s recent criticisms of the RTI law, but one major media outlet reports that the government is preparing amendments to change the law to prevent alleged misuse.

“A senior bureaucrat” told The Times of India Oct 13 that amendments are in the works.

 “After the PM expressed concern over the misuse of the Act, we sought opinion from state governments and activists. We are in favour of complete transparency and accountability in the administration. But at the same time, we are keen that commercial establishments and businessmen should not take refuge of the RTI Act to settle personal scores,” the official was quoted as saying. 

The same official noted that a provision requiring applicants to state their purpose in seeking information had been removed prior to passage.  He was then quoted as saying: “No doubt in certain cases, the law is misused. But if the purpose is mentioned, it will give the PIOs the option of refusing to divulge routine information. Then, the basic purpose of the legislation will be defeated.”

Singh in his comments Oct. 12 (full text) expressed concern about “frivolous” and “vexatious” use of the RTI Act, spoke of privacy issues, and opposed extension of the law to public-private partnerships. (See previous report.)

Activists Oppose Singh’s Comments

The Prime Minister made his remarks at a two-conference commemorating the seventh anniversary of the law, attended largely by activists.

A statement by prominent activists lamented that his comments would lend support to those who seek to dilute the law. Their rebuttals were widely reported, for example in DNA India, the Daily Mail, the Times of India, and the Hindustan Times.

The National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) said it was “dismayed” by the Singh’s speech. The statement was signed by National Advisory Council member Aruna Roy, veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar, NCPRI members Anjali Bhardwaj, Nikil Dey and others.

“The concerns expressed by the PM will support and pass a signal to those who want to dilute and weaken the act that they support from the highest quarters. Citizens will be deprived of a transparent and accountable system,” the statement said.

The terms “frivolous and vexatious” are “undefinable and arbitrary,” the statement said, and would lead to arbitrary rejections.. “Any move to sanction rejection of applications on this basis would cripple the RTI Act.”

Regarding PPPs, the statement said that an exemption would leave them unaccountable and opaque.

As the conference began, India Today published an overview of its use, stating in part:

The NCPRI’s founder-member Aruna Roy, who played a key role in the Act’s enactment termed the seven years since the RTI was enforced a wonderful journey. But some of the activists, who had arrived in the Capital from 16 states across India regretted that government officials had found ways to delay replies. Coupled with the officials’ knack for giving opaque answers that were short on specifics, the Act’s purpose stood defeated, they said.

An editorial in the Daily Mail was critical of Singh, but worried, “The PM’s position is only going to strengthen the hands of those who have time and again tried to limit the efficacy of the RTI Act.”

It continued:

There is no escaping the conclusion that having brought into the public domain information that has put the government in a spot in recent times, the legislation is being increasingly looked at with disfavour by the authorities.

This is also the message emanating from the Union government’s move to add to the list of organisations that are exempted from the ambit of the RTI Act – the inclusion of the Central Bureau of Investigation, which is not a security organisation in the list being a good example here.

It would have been preferable if the PM had highlighted specific instances where the misuse of RTI Act has infringed on individual privacy, given that the legislation provides for queries which are not in public interest being rejected.

Another editorial, in DNA India, regretted that Singh “chose to find a panacea to weaken an embattled law.”

.A blog post by Hundustani Times editor Chetan Chauhan urged stronger action by activists stating:

Not even a single RTI activist or groups have launched an agitation or movement to SAVE RTI against the government. If they are really serious about they should organize large scale public awareness campaigns to mobilize public opinion against the governments of the day and hold candle light marches to depict slow-death of RTI law. Talking big on television channels will not work.

Another commentary, by Venky Vembu, concluded:

But the government’s ongoing effort to abridge the space in which the RTI operates on specious grounds of protecting ‘privacy” amount to slow-killing the RTI. Particularly given the government’s recent record of shielding corruption in high places, it shows up its mala fide intentions.

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