The year 2006 will go down in history as the year when democracy became an actuality in India, when the equation between governor and the governed altered. It was the year that the innermost defences set up by an entrenched bureaucracy to protect their ultimate source of power — secrecy — were breached. The flag was lowered, surreptitiously and unannounced, towards the end of the year when their remaining missile, an amendment to the Right to Information Act, designed to be fired in the winter session of Parliament, misfired.
The last defence line was thrown round the most precious bureaucratic privilege, anonymity. The Official Secrets Act, imposed before Independence, had enabled officials to recommend or endorse any decision or action, secure in the knowledge that their role would not be exposed to public gaze. With increasing criminalisation of politics and administration, pressures to twist the rules were mounting. This could be done safely as long as the notes they initialled on the relevant files were treated as sacrosanct.
So, moves to enter this privileged ground under the protection of the Right to Information Act had to be resisted, leading to the great ‘Battle of the File Notings’ of 2006. Defence strategy was devised by the highest bureaucratic command, disguised as the Department of Planning and Training (DoPT). The defences were manned by the cream of the Indian Administrative Service, but their ranks had been undermined from within by renegade bureaucrats who took their pledge to serve the public seriously. The battle was joined early in the year when retired officials, placed in the crucial Central Information Commission, let down their side. They ruled that the right to seek information contained in file notings could not be denied under the existing provisions of the Act.
The DoPT took up the challenge the way it knew best, by trying to change the rules of the game, the existing provisions. A comprehensive amendment to the Act was drafted. Two of its provisions were designed to protect file notings; two others catered to other administrative anxieties. Disclosure of file notings, except in social and developmental issues; and disclosure of the identity of individuals who put down file notings, were specifically barred. So were disclosure of information pertaining to any examination conducted by any public authority and disclosure of ministerial decisions ‘till the matter is complete or over’.
Details of the counter-offensive leaked out after they were circulated to secure key allies. Among those roped in was the Prime Minister. He was persuaded to endorse the proposed changes as designed to “promote even greater transparency and accountability in the decision-making process”. But the ammunition DoPT procured had a built-in defect; it exploded on the defenders. It was based on the strange argument that honest officers might suffer unless shielded by the amendment. The public saw it as a means to protect the dishonest.
Originally planned for the monsoon session of Parliament, then for the winter session, the amendment disappeared without trace. No reference to file notings was made by the President or Prime Minister when they addressed the National Convention to celebrate one year of the implementation of the Right to Information Act in October. It was mentioned by the keynote speaker, PC Alexander; a seasoned bureaucrat, but only to ridicule the suggestion that honest officers could be deterred by transparency.
Unwittingly, the DoPT had done a great service to right to information (RTI). The chain of angry statements and demonstrations it sparked demonstrated that the movement was unstoppable. The print and electronic media entered the fray. It also helped to publicise the campaign to expand the ranks of the movement with intensive two-week training sessions in cities and towns throughout the country to educate the public on how to deploy the RTI Act to check bribery.
The Battle of the File Notings was the most notable, but it was not an isolated victory. Successful skirmishes were reported throughout 2006. One of the most heartening came from Naraini block of Banda, one of the most backward districts in Uttar Pradesh. No electricity, no roads, no bridge over flooded rivers, the villages were cut off. Conditions had not changed since Independence. But an application filed under the RTI Act demanding information about the District Magistrate’s visit and the orders he had passed, and details of how the money allocated to the area had been spent, initiated action for the first time.The application was filed on July 1. Within a month, work began on an approach road, a bridge and on electric connections. A group of NGO volunteers had educated the local villagers on the procedure of utilising the RTI Act.
The Act came too late to help poor tribals of the backward areas of Orissa. But details of their plight in previous years, extracted by the RTI Act and reported in the press, revealed a high level of official persecution. Some tribals were fined for pilfering fruits and forest produce valued as little as Rs 2 Bullock carts and bicycles were seized for theft of produce valued at Rs 10. Such disclosures led to the framing of laws to protect forest dwellers.
The poorest of the poor are getting some protection under the RTI Act. Applications for detailed disclosure of expenditure under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act are discouraging the practice of expanding the number employed and reducing the wages paid.
Elements in the bureaucracy are fighting a rearguard action to counter the transparency offensive. Applicants are being deterred by levying exorbitant fees for processing information. Penalties for delay are being overlooked. The biggest hurdle is for state governments to ignore their obligations under the RTI Act.
In this, ministers are involved. They, too, fear transparency. Information Commissioners are not appointed, or filled with retired bureaucrats known for lack of independence. Public Information Officers, the key officials who receive applications, are not designated. Adequate office space with secretarial assistance is not provided.
A crucial battle was won in 2006 but the war is not over.
Ajit Bhattacharjea is former Director, Press Institute of India