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Government plans to scuttle RTI

Government plans to scuttle RTI
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Digitization of many important records still remains a pipe dream in many offices. The sub-committee of Information Commissioners suggested that 1% of...

Digitization of many important records still remains a pipe dream in many offices. The sub-committee of Information Commissioners suggested that 1% of the budget of all departments be earmarked for better record maintenance, including digitization. This has not happened

A little over six months ago, civil society and the RTI fraternity celebrated when the Union Cabinet withdrew the controversial draft amendments to the Right to Information Act (RTI) that had been approved in 2006. Since 2006, the government had tried repeatedly to amend the Act to exclude file notings. Each time, activists and civil society prevented dilution. Six months on, the plans of the government surfaced once again, this time in the name of a 360-degree study on RTI. This study was a veiled attempt to amend the Act.

For a couple of years, PM Manmohan Singh and a few of his cabinet colleagues have repeatedly raised the bogey of 'frivolous and vexatious' applications and how the bureaucracy's precious time is being wasted in providing information to such applications. Similar remarks were made by the PM at the recent annual convention of Information Commissioners, including concerns about privacy, how private players will be discouraged to invest in PPPs if RTI is extended to them.

Now the government has come up with yet another plan in the guise of a 360 degree study on implementation of the Act. A closer look at the scope of this study raises quite a few apprehensions. As per the document uploaded on the DOPT website, the scope of the study includes five broad areas viz., - To determine the level of satisfaction among people with the functioning of the RTI Act.

- To study the use of RTI by different users like types of applicants (in cases where applicant type is identifiable from application), assessment of the type of information sought and its classification into personnel information sought by employees; procurement related, information sought without any apparent objective/purpose; general information sought without specificity across sections/fields, as assessment of the levels of government and the percentage of RTI applications received by them � field offices, HODS, Secretariat, etc.

- To record the experience of public authorities at different levels in dealing with RTI applications and appeals.

- To calculate the cost to the government of providing information under RTI.

- Public perception about the extent of reduction in corruption as a result of the functioning of the RTI Act.

Inclusion of 'information sought without any apparent objective/purpose and to calculate the cost to government in providing information under RTI' raises doubts about the motive behind this study. Is the government getting ready to introduce a slew of amendments citing statistics from this study? Is this study going to open floodgates of demands from the bureaucracy to amend the Act?

The government intends coupling 'purpose' with the so- called frivolous and vexatious applications. Even a few Union Ministers have supported introduction of a purpose clause in the Act whereby the applicant would need to inform the purpose of seeking such information. It looks plausible that this study would probably prepare ground for introduction of such a clause. That would sound the death-knell of the Act.

Imagine an applicant who suspects corruption in a department actually writing about it in his application and the officials providing information even after knowing that the citizen is going to use this information to expose their wrongdoing. This is never going to happen. As a matter of fact, there are enough safeguards in the Act in its present shape that the bureaucracy can use if an applicant is actually filing frivolous applications.

Provisions like Sec 7(9) can be used where information can be provided in the form it is available rather than in the form it is sought if it disproportionately diverts the resources of the public authority. Officials can invite the applicant to inspect records or documents as per Sec 2(j) of the Act if the information requested is voluminous and takes a lot of time to collate.

One argument is that the Government is facing a huge burden, both financially and in terms of the time spent in providing information to the applicants. The Act specifies a cost to the information if it is provided within the stipulated 30 days. In fact, the cost per page per copy is Rs 2/- which is at least 100% more than the cost of photo-copying outside.

So if the information is actually provided within the specified time limit, the government does not face any financial burden. Often, officials are forced to provide information free of cost to the applicant as per Sec 7(6) of the Act if they do not provide the requested information within the stipulated time limit.

The second argument is about the amount of time spent in providing information to the applicant. There is no empirical evidence whatsoever to suggest that the bureaucracy is spending a lot of time in disposing these so-called 'frivolous and vexatious' applications. At the lower levels of the government, officials do spend a lot of time providing information not because the application is frivolous or vexatious, but because their record maintenance is dismal.

Digitization of many important records still remains a pipe dream in many offices. The sub-committee of Information Commissioners suggested that 1% of the budget of all departments be earmarked for better record maintenance, including digitization. This has not happened.A A majority of applications at the village level are regarding entitlements and list of beneficiaries. All this information should have been part of 'Proactive Mandatory Disclosures' as mandated by Sec 4(1) (b) of the Act.

All this is not to say that a study is not required. We need a constant monitoring of the Act to see where it is going and how people are using it. The 360 degree study should focus on the awareness levels, why the government has not been successful in spreading the awareness about the Act, why Sec 4(1)(b) has not been properly implemented and how better implementation of this could have reduced the load of applications, how digitization of records could help in faster dissemination of information, how lack of training of officials is hindering implementation, what the problems faced by officials are in providing information, the problems faced by citizens in accessing information, etc.

The previous such study, commissioned by the government in 2008-09, had entrusted PWC with 'understanding of the key issues and constraints in implementing the RTI Act'. The civil society was up in arms and questioned the logic behind selection of multinational consulting agency for a study that involved a great deal of understanding of the ground realities. A The civil society took up a parallel study under the aegis of 'RTI Assessment & Analysis Group (RaaG)' that included organizations like the NCPRI, United Forum for RTI Campaign � AP, etc, and submitted its final report in 2009. It was supported by the Google Foundation.

If the government goes ahead with its proposed 360 degree study by selecting some multinational consulting agency this time as well, civil society will take up a parallel study to look into issues intentionally ignored by the government. A The government does not seem to have learnt its lessons from the events of the last couple of years where people have time and again expressed their anger on the streets over various issues. The government should discuss this study with civil society and decide on the areas of study only after inputs from all stakeholders. This study should also be entrusted to an NGO or a group that has extensive experience in working on the RTI front.

The writer is an RTI activist and co-convener, National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI)

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