What began as a few whispers is now a booming drumbeat. Powerful senior ministers are asserting that the Right to Information Act (RTI), till now flaunted as one of the UPA government’s biggest gifts to the aam aadmi, is “transgressing into government functioning”. Similar misgivings are being voiced on another constitutional body that has been in the news lately—the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG). Put together, this has raised fears of a possible attempt to muzzle the proverbial messenger.
“The government has not made it clear what can or cannot be made public, which is what’s leading to controversies.”Sudha Pai, Professor, JNU
“Both (RTI and CAG) are messengers that bring to people something that has been stolen or gone wrong,” says former CAG T.N. Chaturvedi. But that’s not how a beleaguered government is seeing it. Facing varied governance scandals, it says that RTI is being misused for political and business ends. Over the past few weeks, one RTI response brought to fore the rivalry between Union finance minister Pranab Mukherjee and home minister P. Chidambaram. Another RTI reply has cast doubts on the CAG’s assessment of losses to the exchequer in the 2G case.
Are they really hampering government functioning? That’s arguable, feels former chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah, pointing out that if government agencies share information or store it well in the first place, no time would be lost in retrieving and giving RTI responses. “The apprehensions,” Habibullah stresses, “arise due to the fact that we have been an insular government and very secretive so far. The use of RTI is not to impair law or government functioning.” On concerns over leakage of sensitive information, he cites the example of the army, which has streamlined the system with adequate checks.
Civil society, meanwhile, is happy that RTI is now helping improve services by generating, for instance, public debate and action in Tamil Nadu and Chhattisgarh for monitoring nrega and better supply of subsidised foodgrains, respectively. Voicing civil society’s fears, Nikhil Dey of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information says: “We’re worried that the government will dilute the RTI on some pretext. If at all we need to rethink, it’s only about better implementation.”
Till now, civil society has managed to thwart attempts by the government to impose many new conditions—like word limit or multiple questions in an application. So far, the government has promised there would be public consultation for any amendment.
“The CAG is not interested in running down the government or the PMO. Its report can only hold a mirror to events.”T.N. Chaturvedi, Former CAG
“Why should there be any rethink on RTI? Nobody can fully cleanse the system, but at least RTI is helping to do so in bits and pieces. It has put some fear in the system,” says former chief election commissioner J.M. Lyngdoh, who still lends support to various anti-corruption movements. The general consensus is that despite the odd misuse of RTI for political ends, it has only helped improve government functioning. Unfortunately for the government, the full potential of RTI is still being unravelled.
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