Reacting to the proposal by the government to amend the Right to Information (RTI) Act, over a 100 civil society activists and academics have written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asking him to abandon the “ill-advised move.”

An amendment in this landmark legislation would be a “retrograde step” at a time when there was a popular consensus to strengthen it through rules and better implementation.

The Act and its use by ordinary people had helped India acquire an image of an “open and receptive democracy,” they said.

Public debate

Instead of amending the Act, the signatories to the letter have suggested that the government initiate a public debate on the problems it was facing in implementing the law and take on board the findings of the two national studies on the RTI.

“It is only through a public debate that a lasting and credible way can be found to strengthen the RTI regime.”

“For a government that has been repeatedly been appreciated for bringing about this progressive legislation, such a move would strengthen the spirit of transparency and public consultation. Surely that is the least that can be expected of a government that propagates the spirit of transparency.”

Vexatious pleas

Referring to the proposed amendment to check “vexatious and frivolous” applications, the contention of the activists and academics was that it was not possible to clearly define what was vexatious and frivolous.

“We also feel that it is a hollow promise to have a legislation for ensuring transparency and encouraging accountability in governance which excludes the basis on which a decision is taken,” they said, pointing to the proposal to exempt file notings from the purview of the Act.

Stating that the Act had facilitated the right to know why decisions were taken, by whom, and based on what advice, they noted: “This right is the bedrock of democracy and the right to information, and cannot be separated or extinguished without denying this fundamental right.”

As for the reasons cited by the government for mooting these amendments, the letter said that if there was credible evidence that despite the safeguards inherent in the RTI Act, vexatious and frivolous applications, and access to the deliberative process were posing a great danger to the nation, it should be placed in the public domain. “We are confident that the involvement of the people of India will result in evolving solutions that do not threaten to destroy the RTI Act itself.”

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