Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Right to Convenient Information Act

On 12th October 2012, The Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh, made a speech to the annual Convention of Information Commissioners. The speech had the usual platitudes expected from the Prime Minister of the largest creakily functioning democracy in the world. What made people get up from the somnolence brought about by these type of speeches was an ominous part which, interestingly, had words like frivolous and vexatious in it. Reproduced below:
There are some obvious areas of concerns about the way the Right to Information Act is being used presently, and I had flagged a few of them when I addressed this Convention last year. There are concerns about frivolous and vexatious use of the Act in demanding information the disclosure of which cannot possibly serve any public purpose. Sometimes information covering a long time-span or a large number of cases is sought in an omnibus manner with the objective of discovering an inconsistency or mistake which can be criticized. Such queries besides serving little productive social purpose are also a drain on the resources of the public authorities, diverting precious man-hours that could be put to better use. Such requests for information have in fact come in for adverse criticism by the Supreme Court as well as the Central Information Commission.
 There are so many things wrong with this paragraph that it needs to be analyzed in detail. The worrying part is that the things wrong with the paragraph are wrong in principle.

Frivolous and vexatious, not possibly serving any public purpose:

Frivolousness and vexation are judgement and opinions of the Honourable Prime Minister, or more likely, of those who conceptualized this speech. Government, in this regard, has no business classifying RTI queries in this manner. An RTI query is an RTI query and it is the Government's duty, since it has been entrusted by the people of India to run the country on their behalf, to answer the query posed by its masters. The only reason for refusing an RTI query is mentioned in Sec 8. of the Act. 

(You can ignore the quotes if you are in a hurry).

8 (1)
Notwithstanding anything contained in this Act, there shall be no obligation to give any citizen,—
(a)information, disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign State or lead to incitement of an offence;
information which has been expressly forbidden to be published by any court of law or tribunal or the disclosure of which may constitute contempt of court;
(c)information, the disclosure of which would cause a breach of privilege of Parliament or the State Legislature;
(d)information including commercial confidence, trade secrets or intellectual property, the disclosure of which would harm the competitive position of a third party, unless the competent authority is satisfied that larger public interest warrants the disclosure of such information;
(e) information available to a person in his fiduciary relationship, unless the competent authority is satisfied that the larger public interest warrants the disclosure of such information;
(f) information received in confidence from foreign Government;
(g)information, the disclosure of which would endanger the life or physical safety of any person or identify the source of information or assistance given in confidence for law enforcement or security purposes;
(h)information which would impede the process of investigation or apprehension or prosecution of offenders;
(i)cabinet papers including records of deliberations of the Council of Ministers, Secretaries and other officers:
Provided that the decisions of Council of Ministers, the reasons thereof, and the material on the basis of which the decisions were taken shall be made public after the decision has been taken, and the matter is complete, or over:
Provided further that those matters which come under the exemptions specified in this section shall not be disclosed;
(j)information which relates to personal information the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual unless the Central Public Information Officer or the State Public Information Officer or the appellate authority, as the case may be, is satisfied that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information:
Provided that the information which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature shall not be denied to any person.
Notwithstanding anything in the Official Secrets Act, 1923 nor any of the exemptions permissible in accordance with sub-section (1), a public authority may allow access to information, if public interest in disclosure outweighs the harm to the protected interests.
(3)Subject to the provisions of clauses (a), (c) and (i) of sub-section (1), any information relating to any occurrence, event or matter which has taken place, occurred or happened twenty years before the date on which any request is made under secton 6 shall be provided to any person making a request under that section:
Provided that where any question arises as to the date from which the said period of twenty years has to be computed, the decision of the Central Government shall be final, subject to the usual appeals provided for in this Act.

Yes, that is 3 sub-sections and nine sub-sub-sections which state the nature of information that will not be provided. Rather, the Government is not obligated to provide. Humility, apparently, isn't exactly our lawmakers' strength.

Sometimes information covering a long time-span or a large number of cases is sought in an omnibus manner with the objective of discovering an inconsistency or mistake which can be criticized:

That, I believe, is the essence of RTI.  Is our almighty Government (politicians and bureaucrats) afraid of being criticized? Aww, the poor babies!

..Serving little productive social purpose are also a drain on the resources of the public authorities, diverting precious man-hours that could be put to better use. 

I do not know which Supreme Court observation is being referred to here, but I think it is unfortunate that RTI is only looked at from a prism of 'productive social purpose', whatever that term means. Perhaps it is time that State agencies revisit the 'Right' part of RTI, rather than focusing on the 'Information' part. A socially non-productive request for information can be just one iteration of analysis away from being relevant. 

Coming back to the 'Information' part, it is further unfortunate that the focus of the State is not on making reforms to the organization of the various agencies and departments, both from a perspective of the organizational structure and more importantly, from a perspective of information flow. Simply put, if the arms of the State embrace IT systems and better record-keeping, information will be easily available to the State as well as the citizens. There seem to be no efforts in streamlining decision making and making it transparent, which many Governments did ages ago. 'Precious man hours' of Government agencies is a laughable concept if you ask most 'Mango' Indians. 

What is most shocking, however, is the lack of realization in the upper echelons of the Government that RTI cannot exist in a vacuum; the deaths of RTI activists are a grim reminder of this.  In case there are threats received for raising RTI queries, there is very little an ordinary Indian can do. And nothing that Government does. A basic 'witness protection' type of program is required. 

It is shocking and painful to see the Prime Minister ignore the sacrifices made by ordinary Indians to get information and focus his speech on so-called frivolous queries. 

The deeper issue, as mentioned earlier, is this: Government still considers itself as a benevolent, paternalistic provider of handouts to us simple folks. Almost every program, every initiative, reeks of paternalism. Like US President Lyndon Johnson, who, on his daughter Lucy's request, ensured that Indians don't starve at Christmas, our Government has created an elaborate mechanism of rewards and punishments for even the most basic things that should be - and are- our rights. Sadly, Governments all over the world are being dragged by their hair into the 21st century. The question is, can our Government wake up to the realities?

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