Prime Minister’s statement has disturbing implications for implementation of the Act, say civil society activists

Civil society activists have decided to launch a nationwide campaign in case there are attempts by the Government to dilute the Right to Information Act, 2005. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while inaugurating the 7 annual convention of the Central Information Commission on Friday, had cautioned against misuse of the transparency law and suggested “the citizens’ right to know should definitely be circumscribed if disclosure of information encroaches upon someone’s personal privacy”.

Activists like Aruna Roy and Nikhil Dey, who had actively pushed for the legislation in 2005, said on the anniversary they expected the Prime Minister to call for a more “energetic and vibrant RTI regime” but “what the Prime Minister actually spoke has disturbing implications for the overall implementation of the Act on the ground”.

Arguing that with the Prime Minister’s views on issues like the RTI Act vis-à-vis public-private partnership (PPP) “frivolous” queries and the “possible infringement” of personal privacy could strengthen those who wanted to “dilute and weaken the Act”, Mr. Dey said the RTI activists will take this to every State and create pressure from the public against any possible dilution of the Act.

“On the occasion of the 7 anniversary of the RTI Act we have decided to raise a country-wide debate on the way it is being implemented, focusing on the problems the transparency law faces on the ground. After what the Prime Minister talked about, it will also be a part of our nationwide campaign to create pressure on the Government,” he said.

Ms. Roy of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information said the transparency law has been one of the most monitored Acts from the people’s side which will not tolerate its weakening.

The activists also issued a statement with a point-by-point rebuttal of the Prime Minister’s arguments on the Act.

Countering his view that blanket extension of the law to PPP bodies may “discourage” private enterprises from entering into partnerships with the public sector entity, they said “the PPP is a ploy by the Government to escape its responsibilities and accountability. If anything, PPP should have greater standards of transparency and accountability because a public service is being entrusted into the hands of a private body. We see no justification for this suggestion.”

Countering the Prime Minister’s argument that “frivolous” RTI applications don’t serve any “productive social purpose”, they said terms like frivolous and vexatious are “undefinable and arbitrary”.

“Any application can be termed ‘vexatious and frivolous’ as per the whim and fancy of a PIO. The law has adequate provisions under Section 8 to reject applications that are not legitimate.”

On the issue of privacy, the activists said the Prime Minister had neither elaborated why the provisions of the law were inadequate nor cited a case in which personal privacy had been infringed because of the RTI Act.

While agreeing with the Prime Minister that the RTI Act should not be taken as an “irritant but something that is good for all collectively”, they argued “the fact of the matter is the areas of concerns outlined by the Prime Minister and potential proposed changes will promote just the opposite”.

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