April 30th, 2016
MPs cutting across party lines raised concerns about the ‘misuse’ of RTI act among other issues. One of them wondered if the act was passed under pressure by the USA while another felt that state secrets were being leaked using RTI. But are their concerns valid?
It is very rare to see Members of Parliament (MPs) from various parties agree on a specific issue. In the Rajya Sabha, on 28th April, 2016 MPs from various parties spoke about the ‘misuse’ of Right to Information (RTI) by citizens and even wondered if the act was passed in haste. One particular MP went to the extent of asking the government if the RTI act was passed because of the pressure from the United States.
The tag ‘RTI Activist’ is being used as a designation
It all started with the BSP MP, Salim Ansari’s question about a study report by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI). He asked whether various government ministries are reluctant and unwilling to share basic information under the RTI act and sought to know if the government is taking any action to strengthen the implementation.
The question was answered after a prolonged discussion involving Salim Ansari and the Minister in charge Dr. Jitendra Singh. At this point, Congress MP & IPL Chairman Rajeev Shukla intervened and said that the idea behind enacting the RTI legislation was to solve problems and grievances of the common man. He then went onto say that RTI is being misused and a few people are printing ‘RTI Activist’ on their cards as if it’s a designation. He also said that people are blackmailed and money is being earned in the pretext of using RTI.
The minister then said he was glad that the issue is being raised across the lines.
RTI Act passed under US Pressure?
It was then the turn of MP from SP, Naresh Agarwal. He asked the minister if the RTI act was passed in 2005 under pressure from the USA. Congress MP Jairam Ramesh kept saying that there is no truth to this. The Chairman of the house then intervened to say that the Parliament has enacted the law and hence it has to be left at that.
It turned from bad to worse. Mr. Naresh Agarwal said that PIL & RTI have turned into the biggest problems in the country. He also asked the government if more and more government departments are requesting to be exempted from the RTI act and if they felt that many secrets of the country were getting leaked because of RTI.
Dr. Jitendra Singh responded by saying that there must have been a noble intention behind enacting the legislation and that a constant review is being done. He also quoted various safeguards in the RTI act.
Naresh Agarwal also sought to know if our neighbouring countries Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh & Sri Lanka have a similar legislation to which Dr. Jitendra Singh said that he is only assigned to talk about Government of India and not other governments.
Praful Patel’s turn to complain
Praful Patel, MP from NCP and the former Minister for Civil Aviation went a step ahead and shared the plight of officials. He said a sense of objectivity is lost because officials have to now think about what will come out of RTI later. He also wondered if the act was passed in haste. He said that amendments should be made to the act to the extent of asking locus standi of those who seek information. He said with ten rupees, even a chaiwallah or a panwala is asking who made the missile etc. He also said there must be some restriction.
While there was no assurance from the minister about considering an amendment, he did say that there should not be anything done which cuts down or intimidates or causes unnecessary harassment to any officer or reduces his initiative.
Why are the MPs wrong?
All the concerns raised by MPs have no basis whatsoever. Adequate safeguards are already present in the RTI act for some of the concerns while the others have just no basis. Let’s address their concerns one by one.
Has the act been passed because of pressure by the US?
Naresh Agarwal should have googled about the history of the RTI act to understand that the legislation was a result of a 20 year struggle and not because of the pressure by US. By the way, India is not the only country to have this legislation. By last count, 109 countries across the world have similar legislations.
What about Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh & Sri Lanka?
Again, a simple google search would have helped Naresh Agarwal get the answer. Pakistan, Nepal & Bangladesh have an operational legislation similar to RTI while in Sri Lanka, a RTI bill was tabled in the parliament last month. Pakistan passed this law in 2002, Nepal in 2007 and Bangladesh in 2008.
Are State secrets, information on international relations being disclosed?
Praful Patel, being a minister in the previous regime should have known that the RTI act has an inbuilt Section 8 that deals with exemptions. The first clause of section 8 clearly states that information which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign State or lead to incitement of an offence is exempted from disclosure. All the concerns of Praful Patel are taken care of in the very first clause of Section 8 of the RTI act.
But expecting our MPs to read before making their arguments is probably a little too much.