Modi promised transparency, but delivered secrecy

For a government which kept saying UPA’s failure was service delivery, they have done nothing. Even laws which were passed by UPA have not been operationalised; not a single Lokpal has been appointed

Photo Courtesy: CIC
Photo Courtesy: CIC

Ashlin Mathew

In the run up to the 2014 elections, PM Modi had promised a truly representative, transparent and sensitive government, which would fight corruption. Most activists had hoped that the government would proactively disclose details. But that hasn’t happened either.

“What was expected was at least more information would be made available to people, but what we are finding is, on the contrary, people are finding it difficult to access information on PM’s foreign travels.

“When the PM stated on the floor of the House that because of Aadhaar, the government has been able to weed our 4 crore bogus ration cards, leading to a saving of ₹14,000 crore, we started looking if there was any data to back that statement up. And there was no such data,” says Anjali Bhardwaj, co-convenor of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information and a founding member of Satark Nagrik Sangathan. She then filed an RTI application with the PMO only to be informed that there was no such data available with them. Her application was then forwarded to the Food Ministry, which also could not provide any matching data. Eventually the data that Bhardwaj got did not match with the data that the states provided her under the RTI Law. Eventually, the PMO changed the statement in the Parliament.

“Then what is withheld is basic information on the Prime Minister’s travels. Information on demonetisation, black money recovered and even NPAs is not forthcoming,” points out Bhardwaj.

One of the demands from the RTI activists has been an effective grievance redressal law. The Grievance Redressal Bill was introduced in the Parliament by the UPA government and it went to a Parliament Standing Committee, which gave excellent suggestions. But, before it could be passed by the Parliament, the Lok Sabha was dissolved and at that time Arun Jaitley and Ravi Shankar Prasad had stated that if they win, they would reintroduce it. But, they haven’t re-introduced it till date.

“For a government which kept saying that UPA’s main failure was service delivery, this government has done nothing. Even the laws which were passed by the UPA have not been operationalised; not a single Lokpal has been appointed. The Whistle Blower’s Protection Law hasn’t been operationalised either,” says Bhardwaj with a sigh.

Rural-Urban RTI Divide

A study was conducted in 2014 by NCPRI on who files RTI applications and what do they use it for. The study found that the RTI Law was being used extensively by the poor and the marginalised in both rural and urban areas. Almost 100 percent of the applicants from rural India were below the poverty line and 50 percent in urban areas were below poverty line. “In fact, the urban use of the RTI Act is much less than rural use. There is not enough use by middle class and upper middle class. They could use it much more. What the poor and marginalised use it for is when they are denied their basic rights and entitlements – their rations, pensions, minimum wages under MNREGA.

With the urban middle class, perhaps one could say that the use has not been as much as it should have been. It could be because they have private alternatives – if their water supply is not working, then they can afford to rely on private supply. Similarly, they are not so dependent on pensions and other government services. They could use it for more government accountability,” says Bhardwaj.

Dilution of RTI Act

According to reports in the media, the government has drafted a Bill to amend the RTI Act, in complete contravention of the pre-legislative consultation policy. The government hopes to introduce it during the Monsoon Session of Parliament. “The proposed amendments, which have not been made public, reportedly dilute the law by downgrading the status of information commissioners, the watchdogs of the transparency legislation,” stated RTI activist Amrita Johri in an article.

According to these reports, the amendment states that salaries and allowances of information commissioners will no longer be equivalent to those of a Supreme Court judge. The Central government and state governments will decide salaries of information commissioners.“The rationale provided is that treating Information Commissioners on par with functionaries of the Election Commission is incorrect, as the latter is a constitutional body while Information Commissions are statutory bodies,” stated Johri.

The salaries of Information Commissioners are similar to the Election Commissioners, which in turn are pegged at the level of a Supreme Court judge.“The status conferred on commissioners is to empower them to carry out their functions autonomously and direct even the highest offices to comply with the provisions of the law. We have now heard that state and Central governments will fix the salaries of the Information Commissioners.

Allowing governments to decide salaries of information commissioners is nothing but an attempt to undermine their independence,” pointed out Bhardwaj. In another explanation, the government stated that former bureaucrats, who retired at the level of an Additional Secretary, get elevated to the level of a Supreme Court judge when they are appointed as Information Commissioners. But, the RTI law states that Commissioners should be persons of eminence in public life with wide knowledge and experience from diverse backgrounds – law, science and technology, social service, management, journalism, mass media, administration and governance.

Despite this, almost 84 per cent of the Chief Information Commissioners and 60 per cent of Information Commissioners have been retired bureaucrats. Also, ever since the Information Commissions have been constituted, only 24 per cent of the commissioners have been women.

(Please read the first part of the article here. The write-up first appeared in NH on Sunday)

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