NAC finalises draft on right to information, rural employment

NEW DELHI, AUG. 14. The National Advisory Council (NAC) today finalised two drafts, one suggesting amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, 2002 and another recommending a National Rural Employment Guarantee Bill, aimed at providing a minimum 100 days of assured employment.

Diluting the promise made by the United Progressive Alliance Government in the Common Minimum Programme document to provide legal guarantee to "one able-bodied person in every rural, urban poor and lower middle-class household," the proposed Bill restricts it to "rural'' areas.

Two drafts

The two drafts were cleared at a six-hour sitting of the NAC, chaired by the Congress president, Sonia Gandhi here. Ms. Gandhi, will forward these documents to the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, shortly for further action.

The recommendation include renaming the exist Act as Right to Information and carrying out amendments to make the functioning of the Government more open, from the panchayat level to the Central Government.

The NAC drew from existing Acts in Karnataka and Maharashtra and their use by social activists in Rajasthan under "Jan Sunwai" (public hearing) programme. The CMP promised the Right to Information Act "will be made more progressive, participatory and meaningful'' and the amendments being suggested were keeping this end in view.

The basic aim was to give all citizens the fullest possible access to public documents. In keeping with the principle of maximum disclosure and minimum exemptions, the NAC recommended a reduction in the scope and number of exemptions to be allowed under the Act, consistent with constitutional provisions, NAC member Aruna Roy told The Hindu. Even those agencies that were covered by a blanket exemption will be required under the amended provisions to provide information on matters of human rights and corruption.

Penalties were being recommended for non-compliance with the provisions of the Act. Public servants who deliberately withhold, or delay the furnishing of information will be liable to pay Rs. 250 a day, and in case of providing false information will be liable to financial penalties, departmental action and criminal prosecution. It also provides for two levels of appeal, within the department and an independent appellate authority.

Work within 15 days

The draft Rural Employment Guarantee Bill was prepared after a debate on the type of employment and the financial implications. It was understood that the guarantee, now restricted, would be implemented in a phased manner starting with 150 most backward districts identified by the Planning Commission. It had to be seen in the context of fiscal reforms envisaged by the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act and the roadmap unveiled recently, another NAC member said. The scope of employment for asset creation public works will, however, be extended to cater to regional variations instead of limiting to unskilled workers. It is proposed that anyone who applies for work will have to be provided work within 15 days, failing which he or she will be entitled to an unemployment allowance of one third of the minimum wage. All areas of rural India are to be covered within five years of the enactment of the Act.

Health insurance

Discussions also took place on issues pertaining to health in the light of the papers circulated for the purpose, including a scheme for health insurance for poor families that is a component of the CMP. It was agreed that a detailed Agenda for Action will be formulated for further consideration in the Council. The education sector, including the mid-day meal scheme and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, the Integrated Child Development Scheme programme, Governance, Tribal Welfare and Development and the status of incomplete irrigation projects in different parts of the country are among the subjects to be discussed in the coming weeks.

The NAC also decided to engage in wider consultations with experts and practitioners in their fields. The next meeting of the Council is scheduled for August 28,when the education and irrigation sectors will be discussed.

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