One of the most critical pieces of the National Advisory Council's work in the past few months has begun seeing resistance within the UPA government. With less than a month left for the winter session of Parliament to commence, the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI) has reported concerns over the NAC's progressive draft RTI Act being diluted by bureaucrats in the UPA government. NCPRI is seeking to build greater public pressure on the Prime Minister to counter this.
The civil society group's convenor Shekhar Singh wrote a letter to the internet e-egroup HumJanenge that has close to 200 citizens and activists caucusing daily over RTI laws and usage in several states of the country. In the letter, Singh refers to a meeting that NCPRI members had with the Prime Minister on Oct 21 to discuss the status of the NAC's draft law that has been widely considered as very progressive. (The PM had earlier responded with a committment to bring a progressive RTI law into Parliament this winter.
Excerpts from Shekhar Singh's letter:
I am writing to you to request you to address a letter to the Prime Minister of India on the proposed amendments to the Freedom of Information Act.
As you perhaps know, the NDA government had enacted a somewhat weak and ineffective Freedom of Information Act, that had been passed by Parliament and was awaiting notification. However, the UDF Government's Common Minimum Plan stated that "The Right to Information Act will be made more progressive, participatory and meaningful".
Accordingly, the National Advisory Council formulated a set of proposed amendments to the existing Freedom of Information Act, in fulfillment of this assurance. A copy of the proposed amendments, in tabulated form, showing the relevant clauses of the original act, is enclosed and is also available at the NAC web site: www.nac.nic.in.
The recommendations of the NAC in this regard were forwarded by the Chairperson, Smt Sonia Gandhi, to the Prime Minister with a very strong endorsement.
Penalties: The NAC RTI Amendment Act draft asks for stringent penalties (imprisonment) in dire cases where officers respond to citizens with deliberate and malafide distortion or destruction of information.
Independent oversight: The NAC draft will have the government institute Information Commissioners who will have statutory oversight, process citizen appeals and pass penalty orders on errant officials where necessary.
"The current law is unacceptable"
At this meeting the concerned secretary, who had been requested to be present, expressed doubts about various of the (sic) recommendations, but especially about the proposed penalty clauses and independent appeal mechanisms - see sections 12(1), (2), (3) and (4) of the proposed amendments.
We did argue that a mere fine, especially for a junior level functionary who has little prospects of career advancement, might not be deterrent enough when the information sought could expose misappropriation of large amounts of money, with large financial inducements for withholding or "misplacing" it. We also argued that one central information commissioner and one commissioner in each state would not severely tax the financial resources of the Government of India. Besides, the savings of public funds, in terms of "prevented misappropriations", would be many times higher than any administrative costs - once the right to information started being used.
However, we came away with the impression that a much greater effort is needed to prevent the recommended amendments from being significantly diluted. Therefore, we are requesting you to consider writing a letter to the Prime Minister, to support the amendments proposed by the NAC.
NCPRI is advocating that citizens to write to the Prime Minister asking him not to back down on key propositions of the NAC draft that bring in an independent appeal mechanism in the form of information commissioners and add stringent penalty provisions for deliberate and malafide distortion or destruction of information.
NCPRI was founded in 1996 by several well known transparency activists and experts including Ajit Bhattacharjea, Prashant Bhushan, Nikhil Dey, Prabhash Joshi, Aruna Roy, Shekhar Singh and others. The loosely knit organization advocates and organizes for greater transparency in India's public affairs. The organization is financed through individual donations.