How many cooking gas cylinders did Prime Minister Narendra Modi use in October 2014? What’s the speed of his Wi-Fi? And the number of sick leave prime ministers took in the last 10 years?
A raft of barmy queries under the Right to Information (RTI) Act has swamped Modi’s office, underlining the often frivolous use of an otherwise empowering tool that helps hold the country’s vast and powerful bureaucracy and politicians accountable.
One applicant sought documents to prove Modi was the “Prime Servant of India and not the Prime Minister”, referring to a descriptor he often uses in political rallies. “There is no proposal to change the official designation of the PM,” his office replied. Other inquiries have ranged from Modi’s kitchen expenses and whether he has read the Constitution to the educational qualifications of his personal assistants and if his principal secretary had ever planned to take his subordinates on a picnic.
But such frivolity masks a serious debate over allegations that the government is seeking to weaken the RTI law by delaying appointments of information commissioners or stonewalling uncomfortable questions.
#HTPoll | 'Frivolous' RTI applications keep PMO busy: Does the progressive legislation need to plug loopholes?— Hindustan Times (@htTweets) February 7, 2016
Inquiries about Modi’s staff, salaries and overheads have gone unanswered. His office refused to reply to a query about visitors at his home and office, saying an answer would have a “prejudicial effect” on India’s sovereignty and integrity.
Some 35,000 appeals under the RTI Act remain pending before the Central Information Commission which faces chronic staff shortage. Last month, the Supreme Court asked the government to fill the vacancies of commissioners quickly.
But an overwhelming majority of RTI queries before the prime minister’s office appears to be the product of idle minds. “How many sick or casual leave or health leave is availed by the PM in last 10 years?” asks one. “No leave has been availed by PM Modi ever since he assumed office.”
What’s his education qualification? “PM’s highest qualification is MA in political sciences.”
What’s the speed of the internet in the PMO? “34 MBPS,” is the reply.
A few years ago, then chief justice of India SH Kapadia had observed that a “very good law” like RTI was being “misused to ask irrelevant and intrusive questions”.
But RTI activist Nikhil Dey said frivolous queries did not undermine the powerful law.
“India is a big country. There may be harmless queries,” he said. “What’s wrong in giving the replies in a routine way?”