Foil the UPA Government's Bid to Undermine the RTI Act

T he National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Right to Information Act - the Congress has never tired of dangling these two widely publicised pieces of legislation to showcase the UPA government's professed concern for the aam aadmi and the Common Minimum Programme. But with every passing day, the UPA government can be seen increasingly reneging on these two points of its supposedly sacrosanct contract with the rural poor and the democratic intelligentsia. The chinks in the NREGA armour have already started showing in each of the 200 districts where the Act is supposed to be currently in force. Now the government's decision to amend the RTI Act within ten months of its enactment has exposed the utter hollowness of the UPA's so-called commitment to the twin ideals of good governance and empowerment of citizens.

The Union Cabinet has decided to present a bill to amend the RTI Act in the forthcoming monsoon session of Parliament. The amendment will prevent people from securing information regarding file notings made by bureaucrats. This will effectively insulate the entire process of decision-making in the bureaucracy and government from the domain of public accountability and transparency. It is ironical that while the overwhelming majority of our people are still not aware of the provisions and potential of the RTI Act with no official infrastructure yet in place in many states, the Union Government is already ready with amendments that will kill the very spirit of the legislation. The government's pretensions regarding transparency and accountability could not even survive for one full year.

Clearly most government departments and institutions are still not comfortable with the very idea of the people claiming a right to information. Even after six decades of independence, the bureaucracy in India remains heavily immersed in the feudal and colonial culture of secrecy and arbitrary functioning. The problem however lies not just with the various rungs of bureaucracy but also with the political ‘masters' themselves. The powers that be in India have been only too accustomed to the privileges that lie behind the wall of ‘classified information'. Such conditions come in handy not only for scams of all sizes but also for stonewalling any kind of inconvenient public debate or scrutiny.

For instance, the government has refused to make available the correspondence between former President Narayanan and Prime Minister Vajpayee during the crucial period from February 28 to March 15, 2002 which could have thrown important light on the Vajpayee government's collusion with the Modi government of Gujarat in allowing the post-Godhra genocide.

If the amendment becomes a reality, then people will only be able to know decisions without any knowledge of the actual process of decision-making. Right to Information campaigners have rightly pointed out that it would be tantamount to robbing the Act of its very essence by protecting the beneficiaries of bureaucratic secrecy in perpetuity. This is yet another example of how the lofty democratic principles and rights enshrined in our Constitution are violated in real life. The RTI Act was projected as a definitive proof of the changing character of the citizen-government interface in our democracy; now the amendment will show how democratic aspirations continue to be throttled by bureaucratic privileges. Coupled with the office-of-profit amendment bill, which an adamant UPA government is reportedly planning to resend to the President rejecting his suggestion for reconsideration, the RTI Amendment Bill would showcase the UPA's continued commitment to political and bureaucratic corruption and denial of transparency and accountability.

While the government is busy placing embargoes on the people's right to information, sensitive defence information and military secrets are being systematically sold to foreign powers. Even as the real dimensions of the ‘Naval War Room Leak' case are still unfolding, the country has come to learn that a computer systems operator at the National Security Council Secretariat has been arrested by the Delhi Police on charges of espionage. The operator, SS Paul, had passed on secret NSC documents to Rosana Minchew, a CIA operative working under cover as a Third Secretary at the US embassy in New Delhi . With India 's growing strategic partnership with the US , we can only expect an explosion of such ‘free trade' in Indian military secrets in the days to come. And it need not necessarily be through channels of espionage. After all, the Indo-US nuclear deal now being finalised by the US would enable the US to officially gather every bit of information regarding India 's nuclear programmes. The American public may well have a right to such classified information from India , but the Indian people will never have the right to collect information from the privileged bureaucratic domain of the making of decisions that would affect their everyday lives.

There can be no real right to information as long as the present information hierarchy is not dismantled and the beneficiaries of secrecy are not dislodged from their current position of domination.

- DB