When the RTI ‘Basmasura' chased the government

When the controversial Finance Ministry note to the Prime Minister's Office (PMO) on P. Chidambaram's role in 2G spectrum allocation was traced to a Right to Information application, there was surprise — and some concern — both within the government and in RTI circles.

The government's discomfiture was understandable: The RTI Act, which was its proud creation, recoiled on it much like the boon that Lord Shiva granted Basmasura. In the fable, Basmasura seeks and gets the power to reduce to ashes anyone on whose head he places his hand. The Lord agrees, only to be chased around by Basmasura, who wants to test the boon on Shiva himself. From the Commonwealth Games to 2G, there has been an RTI angle to many of the scams and scandals that have emerged in recent times from the corridors of power. In the old days, a Finance Ministry note like the one that surfaced last week would have been a closely-held secret. Yet this document, used by the Bharatiya Janata Party as a weapon against both the Home Minister and the Prime Minister, was among a sheaf of papers released by the PMO itself. The irony is compounded by the fact that of the two applicants who sought the papers, one was R.K. Garg, convener of the BJP's RTI cell. The other was RTI veteran Subhash Chandra Agarwal.

The release of the note obviously placed the government in a quandary: It could hardly argue against its own decision. So while Pranab Mukherjee lauded the transparency of the RTI process in distant Washington, Veerappa Moily struck the first cautionary note. In a newspaper interview, he called for a national debate on the RTI, arguing that the Act could not be allowed to interfere in official decision-making. He also wheeled out the old chestnut of RTI amendments. RTI activists began to press the panic button. Activist Lokesh Batra sent out a message that said: “Alert, is this another attempt to dilute the RTI Act?”

The former Chief Information Commissioner, Wajahat Habibullah, who led the fight against amendments to outlaw file notings, told The Hindu that the RTI Act had acquired too much momentum for it now to be rolled back by the government. He said the Act provided for exemptions which the government could have used to deny information to the applicants. “Section 8 provides immunity from disclosure on grounds of national and economic security, privacy and commercial interest. The law does not become bad because the government chose to disclose information.”

Mr. Habibullah pointed to the vital role played by the RTI in digging out many of the recent scams. The CWG exposure started with a plea by the Organising Committee that it be kept out of the RTI. However, the Central Information Commission ruled that the OC was a public authority which allowed its spending to be scrutinised. This brought out a deluge of damning documents. Similarly, there were RTI queries on the procedure followed in spectrum allotment.

Nikhil Dey, convener of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information, said if the government attempted to roll back the RTI or bring in amendments, it would be an admission of its guilt: “That will immediately raise questions about its motives.” To Mr. Moily's charge that the RTI allowed normal inter-departmental discussions to be misinterpreted as dissensions, Mr. Dey said: “The best and most accurate interpretation can come only from full disclosure. It is only through full disclosure that you get a perspective of what happened. Leaks are far more selective and damaging.” He also argued that laws could not be enacted to make the government comfortable: “If the government feels some discomfort because of disclosure it is not a bad thing.”

Mr. Agarwal, who has brought out hundreds of secret documents from the vaults of the government, including correspondence between the Prime Minister and the President and between the Prime Minister and the Congress president, salutes Manmohan Singh and the PMO for upholding transparency: “With Ms. Gandhi and civil society watching, a rollback is almost ruled out. If despite this, the government dilutes the Act, it will have to pay a heavy price for it.”

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 9:28:46 AM |

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