Like Banquo's ghost, the scare of amendments to the Right to Information Act has made a habit of rearing its head every so often. In a recent letter to an RTI activist, the Department of Personnel and Training has confirmed the central government's intention to overhaul the 2005 Act — of course, with the now-familiar caveat that the process would include consultations with the stakeholders. No less than Sonia Gandhi argued against the amendments, to little avail, it seems. So what chance do the other stakeholders stand? In the time-tested manner of governments and bureaucracies, the department is upfront about some of the amendments while deliberately obfuscating the nature of some others. The door is to be shown to applications deemed to be “frivolous or vexatious.” Section 8 of the Act, which prescribes exemptions to the Act, could be amended to “take care of the sensitivity of the office of the Chief Justice of India” as well as to “slightly modify the provision about disclosure of cabinet papers.” What this means, shorn of officialese, is this: The office of the CJI will enjoy full immunity. Cabinet papers currently being processed are already exempted from scrutiny under Section 8. However, the bar abates once a Cabinet decision has been taken. Undoubtedly, therefore, the “slight” modification hinted at in the letter is aimed at making Cabinet decisions permanently inaccessible and opaque. Another amendment under consideration could disallow single-commissioner Information Commission benches. If that happens, the disposal of cases could slow down, rendering the Act ineffective.
Then there is the matter of “frivolous or vexatious” applications. Who is to decide what is vexatious and what is not? Any government department will naturally be vexed by an application that seeks to expose misconduct or corruption. A recent Union Home Ministry communication advised an RTI applicant not to disclose the names of men and women considered for the Padma awards. The anxiety clearly emanates from the arbitrary manner of deciding the awards. Under a future version of the Act, all queries relating to the awards could be deemed “vexatious.” It is true that the RTI is not always approached in the public interest; for example, there may be a disproportionate use of the Act by insiders, those within officialdom, to pursue their narrow career interests or even personal agendas. But this cannot be an excuse to dilute or degrade an Act that is recognised as being among the best in the world. At a workshop held recently to assess the RTI environment in South Asia, India was held up as model. It would be a great pity if the government was allowed to get away with the retrogressive amendments it has in mind.