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Siddharth Srivastava explains why Act should not be repealed even though certain government officials feel harassed by queries
Thursday, August 31, 2006
By Siddharth Srivastava
New Delhi --- Lost in the din of the Indo-U.S. nuclear deal and reservations for backward classes in higher educational institutions, has been a change that will likely overhaul the relationship between the government and the people of India forever.
In the few months of existence, the Right to Information (RTI) Act has already engendered mass movements in the country that is bringing the lethargic, often corrupt bureaucracy to its knees and changing power equations completely. Some say, the RTI, more than the nuclear pact, will perhaps be the one rule of law that the Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi combine will be remembered most in history, though the duo may not have actually realized the difference it can make to the lives of the common man.
From issues related to ration cards, passports, driving licenses, civic problems, government aid money for poverty alleviation to flood relief, notices are being filed across the country, with government officials, for a change, at the receiving end. If they do not reply satisfactorily within a month, their salaries are liable to be cut, as per the new law. Many have already faced the worst.
Some officials have complained of being victimized, but there is no sympathy for them, as it is the large number of the masses who have had to kowtow to dictates and non-performance for so long.
The legislation gives Indians the power to ask officials about almost anything, except issues of national security, cabinet papers and information protected by the courts. For a nominal fee, officials have to deliver reports on the progress of applications for voter's ID card, water and electricity connections.
As this correspondent has noted, there are only two opinions about the Act that came into force last winter. A senior government official said that he has never felt as harassed in replying to queries, while the head of a resident's welfare association said that the RTI is the biggest boon.
The concerned residents have ensured that a local road, that on paper was supposed to be functioning very well, is fixed, via a RTI appeal. Arvind Kejriwal, who founded Parivartan (Change), one of the organizations that fought for the law, is among this year's winners of the Manila-based Ramon Magsaysay Award for his RTI grassroots campaign.
"This law has instilled a fear among the officials," Manish Sisodia, a campaigner with Parivartan as been quoted. "In a democracy, we say the common man is the master but it is rarely so. RTI gives them this power -- to open any file, any document and any door. It's proving to be a very effective tool to fight corruption, though corruption can never go from India."
Predictably, elements in the higher echelons of the bureaucracy have been seeking a dilution in the Act and almost succeeded in convincing their political masters of the need to exclude file nothings, a move that would have substantially turned the tables in favor of the government servant (referred colloquially and sometimes pejoratively as babus).
The original Act covers a wide range of information defined as "any material in any form including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advises, press releases, circulars, orders, log-books, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force." Obviously, the babus were not happy and wanted more protection.
Following a furor, the government has retracted the move that was cleared by the cabinet, at least for now. The government has more or less given up the idea of bringing the RTI (amendment) Bill that seeks to keep file nothings out of the purview of the Act this monsoon session of Parliament, reportedly at the instance of Sonia. "As far as the amendment to the RTI Act is concerned, officially we are not saying that we are dropping the cabinet decision on file nothings, but it may well be that the amendment is not brought at all," a senior union minister has been quoted.
RTI activists who conducted a referendum reported 98.7 per cent of people, including those in Delhi, voted against the proposed amendments. Armed with the new law, about 700 pressure groups and charities have jointly launched a nationwide drive to make people aware of their rights in early July. About 1,500 volunteers set up information center camps at key government offices in 47 cities, resulting in over 14,000 RTI applications being filed. Ironically, several of the petitioners include government servants questioning service conditions such as transfers, suspensions or promotions.
Four RTI activists, including Kejriwal, have said: "We urge the government to leave the RTI Act 2005 as it is for a few years. This is a historic legislation and this government deserves to be congratulated for this. Let some people within the bureaucracy not be allowed to undo the good work of the government."
The Central Information Commission (CIC) that monitors the RTI has also been involved in its own battle on the issue with the government, speaking against the proposed amendment.
This correspondent too has filed a petition under the RTI seeking status of refund of security deposit (US$350) for a telephone connection, the service provided by a government owned firm. The phone has been disconnected for four years now, with no sign of the money. A reply should be due soon.
It may be recalled that India ranks among the most corrupt nations in the world. Studies by the Berlin-based Transparency International and other indices such as the Corruption Perception Index have consistently ranked India as one of the worst as far as corrupt practices go. As per Transparency, India has secured a lowly spot at number 88 (out of 159 countries surveyed) of the most corrupt places on the planet, along with unlikely companion countries such as Gabon, Mali, Moldova, Tanzania and Iran.
Earlier this year, the World Bank (WB) decided to hold back over $1 billion meant for health programs in the county due to allegations of fraud and corruption. India, keen to project itself as an economic powerhouse, thus joined the ranks of countries such as Bangladesh, Chad, Congo, Kenya and Argentina against whom similar action has been taken.
There have been various attempts to put a figure to the dimension of corruption: government loss of $50 billion due to tax evasion; $10 billion due to delay in projects due to bureaucratic red tape; corruption costs the Indian taxpayer nearly $7 billion a year. Former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi famously said that for every rupee spent by the government for development less than a tenth of the amount actually reaches the beneficiary and this too is an exaggerated figure.
The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Date Posted: 8/31/2006
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