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No room for marginal error

File notings are soon to be made public. This is necessary in order to make the Right to Information Act an effective tool in ensuring transparency in governance, writes Kiran Bedi.

india Updated: Aug 23, 2006 02:34 IST

The acceptance of, and need for, the ‘right to information’ is inescapable. The sooner we digest this, the better. It marks a unique opportunity for all of us to participate in nation building. A level playing field is within reach. ‘We the people’, now need to know and practise the rules of this responsibility with perseverance and right intentions. Rewards are plenty — prosperity and good governance the most valuable.

This development is the culmination of very painstaking, thoughtful, dogged and relentless effort over the last 16 years by concerned citizens. Initial efforts to formulate the legal right to information began in 1989. The first draft of the ‘Right to Information’ Bill was attempted in 1995. It brought together all sections of society — rich and poor, rural and urban, men and women, educated and illiterate — to stand up and be counted. The media played the role of catalyst and campaign managers with persistence.

In the process, the movement for the right to information brought to India many more Magsaysay Awards. Arvind Kejriwal is the latest. He joins other Magsaysay awardee Sandeep Pandey, Aruna Roy and Anna Hazare, who spearheaded a fast unto death for file ‘notings’ to be integral to the right.

I wonder how many of us fully appreciate the significance of file ‘notings’. By and large, the process in our offices runs something like this: When an idea is conceived or a letter received in a government department, first and foremost, it is placed on record and the file is given an index or a reference number. This document is called a fresh receipt (FR). The office then examines the contents to see if the issue mentioned is already under consideration. Either way, it is either linked with an existing file or a new file is made.

Every file, along with the new/old papers,  must be accompanied by the ‘note sheet’ papers (ideally, numbered). All notes made must be duly paragraphed for easy reference. The file’s note sheet records the reference to the new receipt with the dealing hand’s opinion — which may either be typed or handwritten.

Now a file can, and does, move to more than one officer. They make their individual observations — these are the all-important ‘notings’. A file can involve many officers in multiple layers — spanning the range of ranks and departments. They all make their notings by way of putting their initials, concurring, disagreeing, advising, seeking more information, directing, ordering or approving, as the case may be. The views of all officers who deal with the issue are on record in the form of file notings. Thus, it is the notings that reveal the observations of all officers who have examined the file. Considerations and decisions are all on the note sheet. Who said what, when and why, is recorded. The persons may go or retire but the reasoned file notings speak for themselves, years on.

Smart office-hands play smart games with the not-so-smart seniors. They may manoeuvre and put up only part files or not quote the rules correctly. They may not enclose annexures or make incomplete notes omitting references to earlier decisions or the original rule or prevailing policy. They may omit to duly flag the notes. They may even suppress information to ensure a contrived decision — as the senior will make any decision based on available information which may be inadequate.

This happens all the time. Seniors, hard-pressed for time, tend to rely on notes and proposals to base their decisions on. Alert ‘reading’ is essential to be able to ‘read between the lines’. What file notings really reveal is the manner in which a given case is disposed of. How long each person takes to initiate the file; who sits on it for how long; who disposes of it quickly. These notings are valuable information for vigilant citizens as well as efficient managers.

If this information is made available to the public, it will pose a great challenge for any manager. He will not be able to get away by merely pushing files. Notings will clearly reveal the intent and will of the various managers. Who procrastinated or was decisive; who stuck to the rules and who chose to ignore them. Was a manager being dynamic or a mere pen-pusher, was justice being done or was the manager merely endorsing without applying his mind? This information lies in file notings.

Access to information is both a responsibility and a right. The days of fault-finding and helplessness should be left behind. Responsible and accountable governance is possible. It depends on either side’s maturity. But both will need to exercise this newfound responsibility  as partners and not adversaries.

The activists are impatient while the government is in a bind, for it needs a whole new mindset. Let’s see what direction the movement takes. What is clear is that what we write on files, as long as they do not fall in the realm of sensitive security issues, will soon be in public domain. The days of ‘file notings’ which merely say ‘speak’, ‘as discussed’ and ‘issue’ may be numbered.

The writer is an IPS officer and winner of the Magsaysay Award