Once a Bill is tabled in Parliament after Cabinet nod, there can be no bar on disclosing the contents

The Central Information Commission (CIC) has ruled that once a Bill has been tabled in Parliament, the Cabinet decision and file notings relating to it can be made public.

Ordering the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) to produce the Cabinet note, papers and file notings relating to the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority Bill, 2011, the CIC said that once the Cabinet cleared a Bill, and it was tabled in Parliament, there could be no further bar on disclosing the material, based on which the Cabinet had cleared the Bill.

Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi said the Cabinet decision and the introduction of the Bill in Parliament in September 2011 together fulfilled the twin conditions set out in Section 8(1) (i) of the Right to Information Act: the Cabinet must have “taken the decision,” and the matter must be “complete or over.”

The DAE had rejected applicant Venkatesh Nayak’s request for a copy of the note it prepared for the Cabinet, on the grounds that the information sought was prohibited under Section 8(i) of the Act. This section disallows disclosure of “Cabinet papers, including records of deliberations of the Council of Ministers, Secretaries and other officers,” with the rider that these can be made public “after the decision has been taken, and the matter is complete, or over.”

The DAE said that though the “decision had been taken,” the matter was not “complete or over” because the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology had deliberated on the Bill and forwarded its comments to the presiding officers of the two Houses of Parliament. Thus, the condition of the matter being “complete or over” had not been met.

Mr. Nayak sought the Cabinet papers because, according to him, the Bill, among other things, was a backdoor attempt at amending the Act. The Bill provided for two amendments. The first sought exemption from the Act of sensitive information relating to nuclear radiation safety and sensitive information relating to technology-holders. The second sought exemption of regulatory bodies overseeing the nuclear facilities.

The proposed amendments drew the ire of Mr. Gandhi, who wrote to the Prime Minister in March this year, arguing that the existing provisions of the Act provided “adequate protection for the legitimate needs of information, which should not be disclosed. I truly believe that there is no need to amend the RTI Act for this purpose.” It was unacceptable that safety regulators could be given blanket exemption from accountability, he said.

In his decision on the RTI application, Mr. Gandhi said: “Once the decision is taken by the Cabinet…‘decision has been taken’” and “when the Bill is tabled in Parliament, ‘the matter is complete or over’.” Further: “The heart and essence of democracy is the concept that each individual citizen is a sovereign in her own right, and she gives up a part of the sovereignty to the state, in return for which she gets the rule of law. The citizen has a right to know the basis on which decisions were taken by the Cabinet before the law is finally made… This would facilitate a reasoned discussion and debate in the country among citizens and their public servants.”

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