Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had dropped a provision to send civil servants to jail for mala fide denial of information under the Right to Information Act less than a week before Parliament passed the law in May 2005.
Singh’s last minute intervention — essentially overturned a decision taken by the Union cabinet presided by him just three days earlier — came at the instance of the law ministry, according to a fresh set of documents released by the Department of Personnel & Training (DoPT) on its website.
The change helped over 853 civil servants escape the risk of serving jail terms. The CIC had last December told activist RK Jain that it had imposed penalties on 853 public servants after the law came into force in 2005.
This is the first time that the DoPT – which handles all issues related to the civil service, RTI and vigilance — has placed files relating to formulation of a law. The initiative follows a directive of the Central Information Commission on an appeal filed by HT last year.
According to these documents, the Cabinet at its meeting of May 4, 2005 cleared the amendments to the RTI Bill driven by the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council. This version stipulated that the information commissions would have the power to file complaints with a judicial magistrate against officials who persistently fail to provide information or deny information with mala fide.
The magistrate was empowered to summarily convict the official to one year in jail and impose an additional fine of Rs. 20,000. This was a formulation crafted by a Group of Ministers headed by then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee.
The law ministry —that had been against all penalty provisions — spotted that the provision had survived all deliberations at the GoM and the Union Cabinet that Singh heads.
On 6 May 2005, the DoPT — which had piloted the proposal through the Cabinet — flagged the jail-for-babus proposal to the Prime Minister and asked him to reconsider it.
“It may, however, be submitted that most of the advanced democracies in the world have not considered it appropriate to prescribe ‘imprisonment’ as a penalty,” the DoPT note said.
The PMO responded within a day, dropping the provision for jail term for babus.