The alacrity with which the Modi 2.0 government pushed the Right to Information Amendment Bill through the Rajya Sabha after hastily passing it in the Lower House clearly demonstrated its urgency and desperation to withhold information from the public domain as much as possible.
What’s equally significant is the part played by parties pretending to be distant from the saffron brigade who participated with equal gusto and haste to pass the Bill, showing that the RTI Act of 2005 was as much an irritant to the governments of Naveen Patnaik in Odisha, AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, the widely perceived corrupt and inefficient government of K Chandra Sekhar Rao in Telangana and even the newly-elected YSRCP government of Jagan Mohan Reddy in Andhra Pradesh. The list even included the six members of ‘Mr Clean’ Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s party.
Also, interestingly, the four members of the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) neither voted nor participated in the debate. Perhaps it is hoping to get elected along with the Congress party to lead the Maharashtra government later this year. Equally bewildering was the role of the BSP MPs who even attended the meeting on this issue convened by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi the other day.
Coming to think of it, who needs the RTI anymore? When Sonia Gandhi, as the chairperson of the National Advisory Council (NAC) comprising of notable activists like Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey and others, pushed for bringing in the RTI Act, 2005, the BJP was the first to jump to utilise it to try to discredit the UPA government. Immediately, an RTI cell was constituted at the BJP headquarters at 11, Ashoka Road under Vivek Garg who utilised it to secure the file notings on spectrum allocation by then Union Finance Minister P Chidambram to push Chidambram into a corner and embarrass the UPA government.
Ever since Narendra Modi ousted the previous UPA government, the RTI has been used more in its dilution than action. For instance, till date, Delhi University is sitting on information about Modi’s BA degree which he claims was awarded to him by the premier university in 1978. Repeated attempts to secure this information through RTI have been stonewalled by the university and one of the Information Commissioners in CIC who ordered DU to part with the info was summarily shunted out.
Then there’s the issue of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s spur of the moment decision to demonetise ₹1000 and 500 currency notes on November 8, 2016. Till this day, it is not clear on whose ‘expert advice’ and under what compelling circumstances the RBI was forced to go for demonetisation despite several RTI applications, citing the ridiculous alibi of the disclosure of such information threatening the security of the nation.
The Modi government has also shied away from disclosing information about his singular decision to scrap the UPA-era agreement with France to buy 126 Rafael aircraft, the majority of which were to be manufactured in India by the public sector undertaking Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), and instead go for just 36 jets, apparently at the same price. Instead, when somehow The Hindudid succeed in getting out the report of the internal committee, which then came up before the Supreme Court, the government accused the daily of theft.
The way the newly-inducted BJP MP from TDP, C M Ramesh, was pressed into service to ensure others voted for the Bill, exposed the anxiety of the government to hurriedly pass the bill, thus putting a lid on all information which show any chinks in its armour.
In any case, till December last year, 11 vacancies of RTI commissioners including that of the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) were lying vacant since 2014. Then they filled up the CIC’s post and appointed four other information commissioners. Still, six vacancies are lying unfilled and, now, after this amendment, it will be easy to appoint amenable and pliable officers since they will be at the mercy of the government with respect to their tenures and salaries.
That’s what this Bill has ensured. Those parties who voted along with the BJP seem equally motivated to block as much information from the public as possible. No surprise that more than 26000 applications made in this government’s regime are still pending.