In a letter to an RTI activist, the Department of Personnel and Training (Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions) has admitted to considering about a dozen amendments to the Right to Information Act, with the assurance that any amendment “will be made only after consultation with the stakeholders.”
The letter to Subhash Chandra Agrawal is upfront about at least two of the amendments: exempting the office of the Chief Justice from the RTI Act and prohibiting applications which could be deemed to be “frivolous or vexatious.” However, the letter is less clear about many of the other amendments. One of them is a proposal to amend section 8 of the Act (this lists the exemptions to the Act) to “slightly modify the provision about disclosure of Cabinet papers to ensure smooth functioning of the Government.” Section 8 already exempts Cabinet papers and deliberations in the Council of Ministers from public scrutiny. However, there is a caveat here: Once a Cabinet decision has been taken, the decision (as well as the material and reasons on which the decision was based) is no longer exempt from scrutiny.
RTI activists surmise that the “slight” modification hinted at in the letter could in fact aim at lifting the time limit for examining Cabinet decisions, rendering them forever inaccessible and opaque. This could also adversely affect the release of file notings, aggravating tensions between the government and RTI stakeholders.
Another amendment relates to constitution of benches of the Central Information Commission. The letter does not say whether or not the amendment would permit the currently functional single-member benches.
“Most dangerous part”
Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi is upset about the amendment to exclude “frivolous or vexatious” applications as well as the proposal to constitute benches. Says Mr. Gandhi: “The frivolous and vexatious bit is the most dangerous. Suppose an RTI applicant wants to know about corruption in a government department. The department is bound to be vexed by it. So what prevents it from deciding it is a vexatious application? Who is to decide what is vexatious or frivolous?” Mr. Gandhi disclosed that in its October 2009 meeting with Central and State Information Commissioners, the DOPT had spoken of forming two-commissioner benches. This, he feels, would “reduce the output of the Information Commissions by 50 per cent.” Right now the vast majority of the cases at the CIC are decided by single-commissioner benches, which speeds up disposal of cases: “The Act will be finished if they disallow single-commissioner decisions.”
For RTI pioneer Aruna Roy, the proposed amendments are an indication that “they won't let go.” Says Ms. Roy: “The truth is that RTI has opened a million cans of worms. It has put the fear of God in the government. The RTI has brought in transfer of power on an unimaginable scale and no government wants that.”
What upsets RTI activists and other stakeholders is that the government hands out assurances even as it shows no signs of relenting on the amendments.