Is the NDA government at the Centre out to tweak provisions of the Right To Information (RTI) Act to water it down, like its predecessor UPA had tried to do earlier? The latest doubts have surfaced over the Centre recently making public proposed new rules under Section 27 of RTI Act, 2005 to modify it. The Department of Personnel and Training has put up the draft rules on its website, inviting views and suggestions from the people till April 15. RTI activists are now a worried lot, alleging that the proposed rules will make it much harder to prise out information from government offices, that these will end up empowering public authorities more than applicants for information. They say that the government is planning to limit RTI applications to 500 words, take the process online, and make it costlier for applicants by raising the fees for paper, photostat, CDs and government publications among other things. The postal charge for getting the information will be borne by the applicant not the government; it will be the responsibility of the applicant to send a copy of the appeal to the information officer, instead of the official or the department concerned; officials will be allowed to file documents to counter claims of false information (which is expected to make the process lengthier). The Congress has been quick to air its disapproval, conveniently forgetting its previous discomfiture with the RTI Act that the Manmohan Singh government had brought forth in 2005 — it fought hard to keep political parties out of RTI ambit (with the BJP, Left and other parties all closing ranks with the Congress), and made an abortive bid to keep notings on government files secret. Now senior Congressmen like Ahmed Patel are asking whether the rendra Modi government wants ‘Right to Inform’ citizens or ‘Right to Intimidate’ them. Information and Broadcasting Minister Venkaiah idu has hit right back, saying that the Congress in opposition is claiming the ‘Right to Disinformation’ when it comes to RTI. idu has further said that the proposed changes to RTI Act were notified by the UPA government back in 2012, and there is now no change ‘even in a comma or full stop mark’.
According to the NDA government, there is now a need to consolidate the key provisions of Central Information Commission (Magement) Regulations, 2007 and the Rules of 2012. This is because the Delhi High Court in 2010 quashed the legality of the Central Information Commission (Magement) Regulations, 2007, and the matter has been pending before the Supreme Court ever since. The Centre has assured that that no RTI application will be rejected only because it contains more than 500 words, that appeals and complaints can be filed both online as well as offline, and that there are no changes in fees or postal charges compared to rules suggested in 2007 and 2012. This essentially means that the BJP-led government at the Centre has lobbed the ball back to the Congress’ court about tweaking RTI rules. Meanwhile, RTI activists are pointing out that the proposed rule to ensure that an RTI appeal before the Central Information Commission will abate in the event of death of the appellant, will actually encourage murderous attacks on whistleblowers. Alarming figures have been furnished in this context — of more than 375 recorded cases of attacks on applicants seeking information about corruption in public offices, with 56 attacks ending up as murders. It has been argued that Right to Information being a persol right should end with the life of the citizen applying for the information, and that such a move will lessen the burden of pending applications before the Information Commissions. But questions are being asked whether this logic should apply in case an RTI applicant is murdered outright or dies under suspicious circumstances, while seeking information for a public cause. Out of the RTI applications rejected by public authorities in 2015-2016, over 40 percent were in the ‘others’ category (for reasons other than those permitted under RTI Act, like tiol interest or private copyright). The country even went without a Central Information Commissioner for long, while State Information Commissions continue to languish with poor infrastructure and idequate manpower. The doubts as to whether public authorities are at all sincere about being open to the public eye, will not go away anytime soon. For that, there has to be a sea change in the high-handed and secretive sarkari culture first.