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RTI harassment: Nitish asks DGP, Chief Secy to probe
Four days after an Indian Express report on the alleged framing of false cases against RTI applicants in Bihar, Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has asked the Chief Secretary and Director General of Police to look into the cases and initiate departmental proceedings against information officers if they are found guilty of “harassing” RTI applicants.
Nitish, who called a meeting of Chief Secretary Anup Mukherjee, DGP Anand Shankar, as well as principal secretaries and senior police officers, asked Mukherjee and Shankar to ensure that RTI applicants were not harassed. Asking the DGP to “identity errant information officers”, he also instructed the Chief Secretary to initiate departmental inquiries against those found guilty.
“Let RTI applicants call Jankari call centre to register their complaints against information officers. We will soon have a devoted helpline to take up RTI complaint cases soon,” said the Chief Minister. Bihar, incidentally, is the first state to start an RTI call centre.
Nitish said that any laxity in dealing with RTI complaints would not be tolerated and has also asked Chief Information Officer Ashok Choudhary to personally supervise such cases.
The Bihar Human Rights Commission on October 29 had asked the state government to explain why information officers should not be suspended for “framing false cases” against 42 RTI applicants. The state government has to reply to the BHRC by mid-December on its action taken report on RTI harassment cases.
Villagers, activists up in arms over proposed RTI changes
"The discussed amendments will take out the 'Atma' of the act. We will be at the mercy of the public information officer for extracting even the most relevant information. They can reject our applications, saying its `frivolous', if the changes materialise,'' he said.
Ram's views find resonance among a cross section of intellectuals, social workers, politicians, farmers and RTI activists. Opposing the proposal to "weaken'' the Act, people from 10 states across the country gathered at Jantar Mantar on Saturday for a day long dharna.
Several civil society groups and organisations, individuals and users of the RTI Act assembled at the dharna organised by the National Campaign for People's Right to Information. Amongst those present were information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi, social activist Aruna Roy, economist Jean Dreze, CPI General Secretary D Raja, RTI activist Shekhar Singh, renowned theatre personality Tripurari Sharma, Nikhil Dey and Swami Agnivesh of the Bandhwa Mukti Morcha. A collective demand was made to not amend the Act but to implement it properly.
Magsaysay award winner Aruna Roy, who played a crucial role in shaping the RTI movement in the country, lamented that instead of ensuring better implementation in crucial areas like proactive disclosure, the government is now looking to enfeeble the Act.
"The act has proved itself among the masses and people have benefited from it. It is wrong to suggest changes in it at this stage. The effort should be to ensure its full implementation in letter and spirit,'' Roy said.
Another RTI doyen Shekhar Singh said the manner in which these changes have been put forward has raised concern among people who are using it. "Government had spent Rs 70 lakh for a study by a private body. The report does not even say vexatious or frivolous applications are a problem for the system. Information commissioners from across the country have also opposed any changes in the Act,'' Singh said, wondering why there is talk of amendments.
RTI activist Commodore Lokesh Batra said it is too early to bring any changes in the Act. "The proposed changes will give powers to the public information officers to reject applications if they feel it is vexatious or frivolous. It will leave scope for misuse," he said.
Later, a representative delegation of 7 members, led by Aruna Roy and Shekhar Singh, went to meet the DoPT secretary Shantanu Consul to discuss the current proposal regarding the amendments. The secretary confirmed that a set of amendments are under consideration, but before they are approved, the DoPT will follow a transparent and open consultative process. All further proposals for amending the law will be put up on the DoPT website and affected parties and stakeholders will be consulted before the government considers any amendments to the law. The secretary further assured the group that the minutes of the meetings held with the information commissioners in October 2009 will also be made available on the DoPT website soon.
Since June 2005, when Right to Information Act, was passed, it has been hailed as the hallmark of democracy for the reasons that it purports to make, as regards government information, disclosure the norm and secrecy as the exception. Experts feel that as the Act aims at making the government transparent and more accountable, the effective use of it would, in a long run, curb corruption.
The ideal status the right to information deserves is that of a fundamental right under our Constitution .With the Constitutional guarantee to conform to, the Act could have been used as an instrument constituting the requisite authorities, apart from laying down the quintessential exceptions to granting information, such as national security and parliamentary privilege.
At this juncture, it is imperative to note that the Supreme Court, in State of U.P v. Raj Narain - a 1974 case, recognized the ‘right to know’ as a right inherent in Fundamental Right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed under article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. Following this, a plethora of cases the right to information was recognized as a right implicit in the article 19(1)(a) and in article 21 (fundamental right to life and personal liberty).
Right of information is a facet of the freedom of ‘speech and expression’ as contained in Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution of India. Right of information, thus, indisputably is a fundamental right.
The nature of problems the Act has faced till date ranges from administrative interpretation against the grant of requested information, to ordinary and easy amendment to reduce the scope of the Act. I feel, the above problems would not have arisen had the right been a fundamental right. Let us now analyse the problems case-wise to understand my reasoning.
In December 2005, the Central Government, for the first time, floated the idea to excluding ‘file notings’ from the scope of the Act by bringing about an amendment to the Act. File notings is an important public document containing details of the decision making process in any public matter - such as who said what and who rejected whose view and on what grounds before a decision was reached in government. It also includes the official correspondence between officers in pursuance of a government scheme or project.
Again in December 2005, the Indian Army refused to provide information to an applicant on the ground that issues of national security were involved in the requested information. This was in spite of the Army not being one of the eighteen agencies that are exempted under the Act, by virtue of section.24. But when the PM intervened and insisted that Army cannot refuse until a government notification to that effect, the army retracted its stand.
The above mentioned controversies has brought out into the open, the hard facts. The spineless politicians are going to amend the Act as and when they like it, suiting their needs of the day; the officers are going be complacent and hesitant in giving the information. Had right to information been a Constitutional provision, the fear of PILs would have kept a check on the notoriety of the parliamentarians and authorities.
Thus, it is evident the issues such as those illustrated above could have been avoided had right to information been a fundamental right under the Constitution. Ideally, the legislature should have brought about a constitutional amendment to include the right to information as a fundamental right and the Act should have merely constituted the Information Commissions and appointed the Public Information Officers. With the separate government agency to tackle the problems relating to the fundamental right to information, the evils of bureaucratic pressures and whimsical administrative interpretations could have been kept at bay and democracy celebrated.
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