Sunday, September 04, 2005

Right to information

I like the following news from Indian Express of September4,2005.

> Front Page
Time running out, babus try to block your right to know
Explaining the new right to information law, Govt’s website says information you can get does not include ‘file notings.’ Law doesn’t say this at all

Posted online: Sunday, September 04, 2005 at 0151 hours IST
NEW DELHI, SEPTEMBER 3: Aware that its days of hiding behind red tape are numbered, the bureaucracy is making a last-ditch attempt to subvert the Right to Information Act which comes into force from October 12.The Act, passed with over 100 amendments that strengthened it, thanks largely to the pressure exerted on the Government by UPA chairman Sonia Gandhi’s National Advisory Council, is not due to come into force till October 12.
Flagrantly violating the law, the Ministry of Personnel has issued guidelines, also posted on its official website, claiming that Section 2(f) of the RTI Act defines information in such a manner that it ‘‘does not include file notings.’’
Incidentally, Section 8 of the Freedom of Information Act 2002, which has been repealed by the RTI Act 2005, did exempt file notings from disclosure. The misrepresentation of the new law indicates that the bureaucracy hasn’t still come to terms with the change.
File notings are invaluable information on the government’s decision-making process as these form the basis for executive decisions and policy formulations. These also help track responses of different departments and officials and identify who did what when and why.
Backdoor, because there is, in fact, no such exemption of file notings in Section 2(f) nor any other provision of the RTI Act.
On August 25, Shekhar Singh, convenor of the National Campaign For People’s Right to Information, along with Aruna Roy, member of the NAC, wrote to Suresh Pachauri, Minister of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions pointing this out. ‘‘A lot of harm has already been done by this wrong statement on the DoPT web site,’’ they wrote, ‘‘and many officers are quoting it, the DoPT immediately needs to withdraw this wrong statement.’’
No reaction has come from the Ministry so far, the website hasn’t been changed. Pachauri, despite repeated attempts, was not available for comment.

Why you need to access file notings

Bureaucrats argue that letting people see file notings may hamper frank exchanges. But right to know campaigners argue otherwise:• They show who said what, who did what, at what stage• Can be only defence for honest bureaucrats• Disclosure may show that some controversial decision was taken despite the objections of a conscientious bureaucrat.• Fixes accountability

The alleged exclusion of file notings is repeatedly highlighted on the website in the form of response to a fundamental question: ‘‘What is information?’’
The answer given is: ‘‘Information means any material in any form including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices .... but does not include ‘‘file notings’’ [S.2(f)].’’
The entire answer is a verbatim reproduction of Section 2(f) except for the gratuitous disclaimer at the end that file notings are excluded from the definition of information.
One probable fallout is that public authorities at the Centre and states may, following the Personnel Ministry’s own misinterpretation of the law, refuse to disclose any file notings, thereby frustrating an important aspect of the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
The definition of information in Section 2(f) is all-encompassing and does not exclude any form of material.
The Act only exempts certain categories of information under Section 8 and certain intelligence and security organisations under Section 24.
Thus, contrary to the Personnel Ministry’s blanket disclaimer, a lot of the file notings that are made every day by bureaucrats and ministers are not exempted from disclosure by either Section 8 or Section 24 of the Act.


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