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Telling tales

The RTI Act must not be touched for at least five years, writes Ajit Bhattacharjea.

india Updated: Aug 29, 2006 03:08 IST

A small stretch of pavement, protected from the sultry August sun with canvas awnings, durries to sit on, a few plastic chairs and wooden tables. The place could have been a wayside stall, easily missed on a side street near New Delhi's Jantar Mantar. But, identified by the flapping banners of the right to information movement outside and hectic activity within, it was the nerve centre of the 10-day peaceful, countrywide campaign that brought the Union government to its knees.

Not even the organisers anticipated such a wide-ranging, largely spontaneous, response to the call to protect the RTI Act, 2005, from being blunted by a proposed amendment. It showed that, a year after being passed by Parliament, the Act has gripped popular imagination as an effective device to check governmental inefficiency and corruption. The curious argument that access to file notings will embarrass honest officials has found few takers.

However, the struggle is far from over; in fact, it is showing signs of intensification. After the government's announcement that the amendment will not be placed before the monsoon session of Parliament, the Jantar Mantar camp was dismantled. But there are signs that the senior bureaucracy is devising a stronger counter-offensive. It sees the Act as posing the ultimate threat to its long-established dominance of the administration.

The anxiety of the bureaucracy has deep historical roots. Since Independence, the country has been governed by the civil services, led by the IAS. For a variety of reasons, the colonial 'steel frame' pattern of administration was retained. The privileges of the civil services came to be inscribed in the Constitution on the assumption that they would provide objective advice to politicians in power and constitute a barrier against partisan and corrupt decision-making.

Over the years, however, the barrier has itself been corroded, primarily by the practice of ministers appointing and transferring officials at will. Officials willing to toe the line have been rewarded with plum postings; those insisting on following the rules have been despatched to insignificant postings or transferred repeatedly. The diversion of funds meant to alleviate the distress of the poorest sections of society in the administrative chain is no secret and was endorsed by Rajiv Gandhi's admission that they received 15 paise of every rupee sanctioned for them.

The corrosion is not limited to the states. At the Centre, too, ministers are free to choose their secretaries, irrespective of the dislocation caused. Officials known to go by the rules are not favoured. People would have more confidence in the system if they knew that official advice accorded to the rules. But frequent changes at the secretary and other senior levels leave room for doubt.

This underlies the resistance by the bureaucracy to the access to file notings allowed by the Central Information Commission (CIC) and from their ministers. Access would reveal whether rules had been twisted to suit ministerial preferences. Alarm bells were rung when the CIC forwarded an application for information on changes in the posting of senior bureaucrats, and their competence for the job. It was turned down by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), but indicated what was possible if the Act wasn't amended.

Additional Solicitor-General Gopal Subramaniam was drafted to object that the rulings are in excess of CIC's authority since they were passed by one member. This has been the CIC's practice to deal with the large number of applications coming before it. He didn't care to dispute the cogent reasons given by the CIC for allowing access to file notings.

DoPT is not limiting its operations to defending the bastion of file notings. It is attacking the CIC headquarters itself by seeking to reduce its independence. A less publicised, but more damaging, clause of the amendment provides that CIC decisions on complaints will not be final. They will be treated as recommendations to government, which will be free to act on them or otherwise. In other words, nothing need be disclosed if inconvenient. Another provision seeks to safeguard the identities of officials.

The discomfort of many MPs, across party lines, with the proposed amendment came through at a recent informal meeting to discuss it. They were aware that the Act may become an electoral issue and revealed that around 80 MPs had signed a letter opposing the amendment when the text was made available to them. They were not keen on being identified because they were defying the party whip but their opposition contributed to the withdrawal.

The volunteer groups organising the RTI movement have found many allies, from retired judges and bureaucrats among others. But the foot-soldiers in the long campaign leading up to the next session of Parliament, when a revised amendment is expected to be introduced, are the young volunteers whose enthusiasm was so evident at the Jantar Mantar camp and at the 14-day campaign in July to instruct citizens to use it. They're rallying to the call for a renewed countrywide campaign.

The line drawn for the defence of the RTI Act, 2005, is that it must not be touched for at least five years. Only then would sufficient data be available to assess its working. This is obviously unacceptable to DoPT for too much may be revealed by then. The battle promises to be hard and unremitting.

The writer is former Director, Press Institute of India