Right to Information: File Notings In, Amendments Out!
US Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis famously said “sunshine is the best disinfectant”. Right to Information laws or “sunshine” laws, by opening up government decision-making to public scrutiny, bring a much needed dose of sunshine to the otherwise opaque dealings of governments. The last decade has seen an explosion of information laws around the world as governments and civil society recognise the value of providing citizens with access to information. Today there are some 90 countries with laws and regulations that provide citizens with a legal right to access information and records held by government departments. Closer home, the Indian Right to Information Act (RTI Act) of 2005 recently celebrated its 4th birthday. Since its enactment, the RTI Act has been used by a range of people including activists, civil servants, NGOs, lawyers, doctors, students and ordinary citizens. According to a recent study conducted by RAAG (Right to Information Analysis and Assessment Group), in the first two and a half years of the RTI Act, 1.6 million applications were filed in urban areas and an estimated 400,000 applicants from villages made requests for information. Overall, RAAG estimates that in the first 3 years of the RTI Act some 2 million RTIs were filed across the country. This number alone speaks about the value of the law in providing citizens with an avenue to approach and seek answers from governments.
“An amendment in the Act would be an obviously retrograde step, at a time when there is a popular consensus to strengthen it through rules and better implementation and not introduce any amendments.”
Despite the wide usage of the law there are currently efforts within government to amend the law to exclude key provisions from public access. The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), the nodal agency responsible for implementing the Act, has recently confirmed that the government is considering amending the law to exempt “file notings” and “frivolous and vexatious” requests for information. File notings are essentially the opinions and notes of civil servants on government files that sum up the decisions taken on a particular matter. You don’t have to think too hard about why bureaucrats do not want you or me to have access to these! As for “frivolous and vexatious” requests, it is really anybody’s guess what such requests may be. Presumably, if I want to know how much money the Municipal Corporation of Delhi spent last year on repairing roads– it may be considered vexatious by the Public Information Officer who has to gather the information but it would certainly not be frivolous.
The key question is who gets to decide what is or is not frivolous or vexatious? In the UK, government departments get a fair number of the so called ‘frivolous’ requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. In 2006, the Hampshire Police received a request from “ilikemeninuniform” seeking information on the "eligible bachelors within Hampshire constabulary between the ages of 35 and 49 and details of their email addresses, salary, and pension values". Taking the request in their stride - and with a big pinch of salt - the office replied that they did in fact have 210 eligible bachelors on the rolls but sadly could not give out their personal information! In another case the Ministry of Defence got a request from an ex-sailor wanting to track down "an old Royal Navy recipe for sauteed kidneys and curried meatballs"! There are undoubtedly similar requests in India (which sadly we do not get to hear about) and I imagine they can be annoying but do we really need to amend the Act to deal with them?
These are some of the concerns that were voiced at a dharna organised last weekend in the capital by the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI). In a strong letter to the Prime Minister, activists have affirmed that the “... amendments are not to strengthen the law or improve its implementation. On the contrary...the proposed amendments, if introduced, will emasculate the RTI Act....". “An amendment in the Act would be an obviously retrograde step, at a time when there is a popular consensus to strengthen it through rules and better implementation and not introduce any amendments.” The Department of Personnel and Training has recently said that it will follow a process of public consultation before any amendments are passed. But the question remains as to why these amendments are even necessary? Amendments per se are not bad - if carefully considered and well drafted, amendments can in certain cases improve the implementation of laws, rules and regulations. But amendments designed to fundamentally water down the essence of one of the strongest information laws in the world is simply retrograde. The government would do better to take on board the findings of the recent RAAG study which shows that more than file notings and vexatious requests – weak implementation, lack of training and capacity building and poor records management are the major constraint faced by the governments today.
Amendments to the RTI Act have been on the government’s agenda for quite some time. As early as 2006, civil society groups and leading RTI activists rallied against government attempts to amend the law. Round one went to civil society and to the RTI Act, as the “Save the Right to Information Campaign” caught the attention of the media and successfully stalled the Union Government from pushing through the amendments. The outcome of round two still hangs in the balance. But surely, we can all agree that what we really need is more sunshine not more darkness.
Mandakini Devasher Surie is a Research Associate with the Accountability Initiative.