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It’s off the records

india Updated: Oct 22, 2011 14:25 IST
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The Right to Information (RTI) has been around for more than five years now. Its role in reducing corruption by enforcing transparency in the working of public authorities is well documented. But the relationship between the RTI and the archival policies of the government remains an area less studied. It took the government years to come up with an archival policy in the form of the Public Records Act (PRA) of 1993, the first comprehensive attempt to regulate and systematise the archival policy of central government institutions. The Archival Policy Resolution (APR) of 1972, framed in tune with the recommendations of the Tarachand Committee on Archival Legislation in 1959-60, gave only guidelines in record-keeping and management. While the government recognised the importance of the recommendation, it didn’t feel the amendment of the Constitution feasible in the near future.

As years passed by, the government felt it necessary to have an archival policy at least for the central government institutions. So the APR was passed in 1972. It defined the responsibilities of central government departments and ministries in managing and taking care of their records. It also provided for a department record room for semi-current records in every Record Creating Agency (RCA) and the making of retention schedules for records as well as appraisal of important records with the help of personnel from the National Archives of India (NAI) before they are transferred permanently there.

The PRA of 1993 is an improvement on the APR of 1972. The purview of the PRA not only covers central ministries and departments but also Union Territories, statutory commissions and bodies, public sector units and all committees constituted by the government and any organisation funded by it. Every RCA has to appoint a record officer (RO) whose main duty is to ensure that records of ephemeral value are destroyed and those of permanent value are retained. It’s his duty to ensure that records that are 25 years old are appraised and those deemed to be of permanent value are transferred to the NAI. After preserving and conserving the records for five years, the NAI can open it for public access from the 30th year onwards.

As per the PRA, not everyone can access an archival document. One should prove one’s credentials as a research scholar or should substantiate the purpose for which the records are being used. Besides a conservative access policy, the main defect of the PRA is that the NAI does not have the power to enforce the transfer of 25-year-old records to it. It also doesn’t specify the time limit for transfer once the records are 25 years old. Thus, we still have many untransferred records in various ministries and departments. Ideally, all the records prior to 1984-85 should have come to the archives by now. But hardly any have come. The archival policy of the government needs a serious revamp. The PRA stipulates that every records-creating agency should have a record room and a record officer not below the rank of a section officer to man it. But few ministries have met this requirement. The culture ministry, which is under the supervision of the prime minister himself, lacks a proper record room. There have also been reports of many ministries making retention schedules for their records without consulting the NAI and destroying records. The PRA is one among the few Acts in India which has the dubious record of its penal provisions having never being invoked for violation. The only reason for this could be that the violators of the Act are its creators too.

Similarly, no classified records — top secret, secret, restricted and confidential records — are to be transferred to the NAI without their declassification. Ideally, all records that reach the NAI should be open to the public. But most of the times, the government transfers the classified files without downgrading them, which means that the public can’t access them and they are not properly conserved.

In the light of the RTI, the PRA is in for a change. The RTI gives no time limit in accessing records, although Section 8(3) says that any information regarding an event or matter that has occurred 20 years before should be made available. So the PRA’s 25-year-rule should change. With the RTI, any citizen of India can access a record now. The RTI also says that the intention or reason of a person in accessing records need not be sought. It also gives the powers to the Central Information Commissioner and the State Information Commissioner as the case may be to make necessary changes to practices in relation to the maintenance, management and destruction of records.

Whether this will have any bearing on the authority of the director general of the NAI is yet to be seen. Similarly, the archival rule is not to allow access to an original record if its duplicate in the form of microfilms are available. Whether the RTI will bring in any changes to it by facilitating the access to originals remains to be seen. The RTI has complicated the PRA of 1993, the only Act governing the record policies of the central government. Most of the states have their own archival policies but largely in tune with the PRA. From the 1960s, the need to standardise the archival policies of the Union and the states has been felt. But it has not come about yet. With the advent of the RTI the PRA has to change.

It seems that access policies will be liberalised and 30-year rule will give way to a 10-year rule. A strong archival policy is vital not only to safeguard the RTI of the people but also to preserve their documentary heritage for posterity. Instead of using the RTI to weaken the already fragile archival act and archives, it must be used to strengthen them by giving them more powers to enforce the PRA of 1993. The government must not shirk from its responsibility of properly managing the records, keeping indexes, making retention schedules and transferring records of permanent value after proper appraisal to the archives.

Sarath S Pillai holds a post-graduate diploma in archives management from the School of Archival Studies, National Archives of India, New Delhi. The views expressed by the author are personal.