For a government that promised accountability and transparency – “Na Khaunga Na Khane Dunga” (I will not take bribes, nor will I let others) – its conduct is best, and most politely, described as paradoxical. This government, which has shown no inclination to operationalise the Lok Pal Bill, the Whistleblowers Act or the Grievance Redressal Law, has now further harmed its dwindling reputation with the way it’s handling the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
When it passed in 2005, The RTI law was supposed to usher in an era of greater transparency for Indian democracy. The Act was meant to empower citizens with the truth and make the government more accountable to the governed. Since coming to power in 2014, the ruling government has attacked this very concept.
In the last decade, the law has almost single-handedly propelled high-level corruption cases into mainstream public discourse. It is, however, confounding that we still don’t know much about demonetization even though it affected every citizen in the country. And that’s just one example as we regrettably steer towards an era of disclosure on a need-to-know basis, not a right-to-know basis. This is precisely what the RTI was supposed to change.
The RTI Amendment Bill, 2018 is another nail in this coffin. The proposed amendment came to public notice when it appeared on the parliament’s legislative agenda for the monsoon session – which mentions it in a single line with no additional information. Our constitution mandates that any amendments be preceded by pre-legislative consultations, a condition the government will violate if it doesn’t disclose the nature of the proposed amendments. Ironically, the law that aims to enhance transparency, lacks transparency itself. Several opposition members and RTI activists have warned that the Bill will dilute the law and compromise the independence of the information commissions, but this government may not pay attention to such pushback.
This is not the first time that the ruling government has been ‘adventurous’ with the RTI. In 2017, it proposed amendments which would make filing appeals more cumbersome and also increased the types of inquiries that could be rejected on technical grounds. In other words, the proposed amendments would make the law less user-friendly – it would take people more effort to file inquiries and the government would have more leeway to dodge questions it didn’t want to answer. The most contentious provision proposed that appellants be allowed to withdraw appeals with just written communication and that proceedings would close down automatically if an appellant died.
This provision would have only served as incentive for parties with vested interests to silence RTI applicants once and for all to avoid unsavoury information coming to light. Even now, without such amendments, RTI applicants are threatened, occasionally beaten up or even killed for their efforts. These concerns are substantiated by the ‘Hall of Shame’ curated by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative which documents attacks on RTI activists across India. The site reveals staggering figures: since 2007, 65 RTI activists have allegedly been killed, 157 attacked and 168 threatened. Facing strong opposition and after sharp criticism from civil society organisations and the Central Information Commission itself, the government shelved the proposed amendments in June 2018. But the respite has been brief.
Why is it the ruling party so unhappy with the RTI in its current form?
They’re not alone in their attempts to change it. AsShailesh Gandhi, former information commissioner at the Central Information Commission, pointed out, “Almost everyone in power dislikes transparency for themselves”. Democracy, in its true sense, guarantees us the freedom of plurality and the independence to differ – and a large part of how it ensures this promise is how it allows citizens to keep the government in check.
By weakening other institutions (and other stakeholders), the executive gets to consolidate power for itself. Attempts like these are deliberately meant to keep other institutions weak and incapacitated. Such attempts should be seen for what they are – authoritarian tendencies. Who benefits from fewer RTI applications and disclosures? The answer is obvious.
One common justification for diluting the RTI is that people misuse of the law and send in large number of frivolous questions that are a drain on the government’s resources. Sifting through the kinds of things people ask through the RTI can be a good gauge for the country’s mood at any given point of time. For example, a few months after the government came to power, an RTI applicant wanted to know the due date for the ‘achhe din’ that the country was promised. You could argue that such questions are frivolous and make a strong case for diluting the RTI, but it is settled law that the scope for misusing an Act is not ground to invalidate it.
The RTI as we know it is far from perfect, but it is often the only weapon available to a regular Indian citizen. This attempt to usher in ‘secret’ amendments and water down the RTI without a proper discussion clearly shows us the ruling government’s arrogance – no doubt bolstered by its numbers in parliament and control on public discourse. At this time, we should all rally together and raise a slogan of our own, “Na pass karenge, na karne denge.” (We won’t pass it, nor will we allow others to pass it.)
Aniesh Jadhav is an Advocate practicing at the Bombay High Court.
Featured image credit: PTI