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Thursday, October 22, 2009

Shailesh Gandhi Highlights Unnecessary & Dangerous Amendements to RTI Act

Mumbai: A meeting was organized by leading activists Narayan Varma (BCAS Foundation & PCGT) & Bhaskar Prabhu (Mahiti Adhikar Manch). It was well attended by over 50 activists and mediapersons.
Shailesh Gandhi began his talk with a brief report of his own performance. He said that he had cleared 5,381 cases over the 13 months that he had been Information Commissioner. This was a new benchmark, considering that the best that any other Information Commissioner had been able to do over a 12-month period was about 3000 cases (CIC Annapurna Dixit). “We need to show with our actions that judicial delays are no longer acceptable,” he said.
He had also imposed 41 penalties, amounting to Rs 8-9 lakh, Shaileshbhai added. “But more importantly, I have started issuing orders to the public authorities in my jurisdiction to comply with Section 4,” he said. “For instance, I have asked for new ration-card applications, as well as their acceptance or rejection, to be put up on a website within a week or two. I have also asked for all disbursals to municipal school students to be displayed on school notice boards, so that they can be verified by the beneficiaries – the pupils and their parents. And to ensure compliance, I have requested NGOs working in the areas to act as volunteers and check these notice boards periodically.
“I request Indians throughout the world to spend a couple of hours every month applying their minds to the websites of a few public authorities,” Shaileshbhai said. “Please revert with comments and suggestions for making these websites more compliant with Section 4 requirements.
Five unnecessary amendments
Speaking on the topic of proposed amendments to the RTI Act, Shaileshbhai said, “The first signal was in the President’s speech on June 4, where she mentioned that the RTI Act would be ‘strengthened through suitable amendments’. This was strange because there is no demand for change from any quarter – even from public authorities.
“Last week, DoPT had a meeting with Information Commissioners, where they unveiled the proposed amendments, which were as follows:
1) Constitute 2-member benches. DoPT held that the present constitution of benches, where cases are heard by a single Information Commissioner, is not legal. We argued that even if this is true, there was no need to amend the Act. At best, a change of rules was required.

2) Remove about 10 exempted public authorities from the list in Schedule 2. But there is no need for an amendment, as they have already included a couple of public authorities to the list simply through a notification.

3) Include Citizens Charter in Section 4 declarations of each public authority. Here again, there is no need to amend, as it can be included under Sec 4(1)(b)(xvii), which says, ‘Such other information as may be prescribed’.

4) Define what is meant by ‘substantially financed’ under 2(h)(d)(ii). But why change the Act for this? Already, it is being judicially defined by Information Commissioners. At the most, it can be done through a change in the RTI Rules.

5) Facilitate Indians abroad to use RTI Act through embassies. Again, this at best calls for a change in the rules, not an amendment in the Act.

“Information Commissioners at the meeting with DoPT said in one voice that to carry out the above five proposed changes, it was not necessary to amend the Act. These changes could easily be carried out by other means, such as a suitable change in RTI rules. However, it seemed that the next two proposals were what the government was really aiming for,” said Shaileshbhai.
Two dangerous amendments
6) Adding ‘frivolous & vexatious requests’ to the list of Section 8 exemptions. Who is to decide what exactly is ‘vexatious’ or ‘frivolous’? The PIOs? This is a flawed definition that completely ignores the fact that the citizens are the natural owners of all the information in the country. (Admittedly, 10-12% of the RTI applications filed do fit into the ‘vexatious’ category. It is true that some people seem to file RTI applications only to cause an obstruction in governmental functioning. However, we must bear in mind that some people will find ways to misuse every law, eg. The Dowry Prohibition Act, or the CrPC provisions dealing with assault. Moreover, Information Commissioners themselves have devised ways to deal with this problem, and therefore, there is no need of a legislative fix.

7) Excluding discussions / consultations that take place before arriving at governmental decisions. In other words, exclusion of file-notings, which would render the workings of the government completely opaque to citizens. If this amendment is carried out, it will be effectively like telling citizens to cast their votes and then stand aside, leaving all decisions to the powers-that-be.
“Most of us strongly opposed all the amendments. However, there was a minority opinion among the gathered Information Commissioners in favour of the last two.
“I am sometimes asked how I, being a government servant, can speak against the government,” Shaileshbhai said. “But I point out that I am a public servant, and not a government servant. So, rather than entering into a debate on the merits or otherwise of the proposed amendments, I would urge you to oppose and resist any attempt to change the Act at this juncture. If they amend, we will have no way of controlling the exact wordings that they introduce. Moreover, even if such amendments are justified, they will continue to cause confusion over the next few years, as it will take time for applicants, PIOs etc to fully understand these changes and act accordingly.
“We got our freedom from the British in 1947. But if we fail to defend the RTI Act at this juncture, I don’t think we deserve our freedom and independence,” Shaileshbhai concluded.
During the question-answer session, Shaileshbhai elaborated what he meant by resistance. “If the government does not rethink in 10-15 days, please organize some form of protests. Please mobilize, hold meetings in every neighbourhood and forum, and also speak to elected representatives and political parties to make your opposition known.
“In 2006, a number of us had held a demonstration outside August Kranti Maidan where we all wore black capes,” he reminisced. “The police arrived on the scene, and just it seemed that we would be detained, Julio Ribeiro joined us, making it difficult for them to take any action.
“Also, Anna Hazare had gone on a fast-unto-death. However, I personally feel that it is not correct to undertake fasts against our own elected government, and therefore, I recommend that we should look at other varied forms of protests. There is no single way that will work. We will have to try out a wide variety of things to have the necessary catalytic effect,” he advised.

Courtesy: Krishnaraj Rao , Cell: 98215 88114

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