Changes would have restricted disclosure of file notes to social, development issues

Days after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh cautioned against the misuse of the Right to Information Act, the Cabinet on Thursday bowed to protests and withdrew a set of amendments it had proposed to the Act, among them an amendment to restrict the disclosure of file notes to social and development issues.

The news came as a major relief to the RTI fraternity, which has been in ferment over Dr. Singh’s speech and a recent judgment of the Supreme Court mandating the appointment of judges to the Information Commissions.

Said RTI pioneer and member of the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council Aruna Roy: “For four years we struggled to get these amendments out of the Cabinet, and finally we have succeeded. This is a big day for us.”

Cleared in 2006

The amendments were cleared by the Cabinet in 2006, though public protests ensured that they were never taken to Parliament for passage. Minister of State for Personnel V. Narayanasamy said the amendments were being withdrawn in view of the larger public sentiment against diluting the seminal legislation. He accepted that the decision was taken in response to representations by civil society activists, NGOs and Information Commissioners.

Sonia’s opposition helps

NAC and government sources said Ms. Gandhi’s strong opposition to the amendments was a major factor in their withdrawal.

Ms. Roy said while the said file notes were at the heart of the RTI Act, and limiting their access would have destroyed the legislation, the two other amendments were equally pernicious. These were: Exemption of examination papers and selections to the Union Public Service Commission from the Act and disallowing information on ongoing executive decisions. The RTI Act already exempts ongoing Cabinet decisions from purview and extending the exemption to executive decisions would have rendered the government virtually out of bounds to RTI queries.

Nikhil Dey of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information said the victory was proof that even a determined government had to give in to popular pressure ultimately.

Added Ms. Roy: “We can now push for other accountability bills such as the ones for whistleblowers’ protection and grievance redressal.”