Firstpost: New Delhi: Wednesday, April 05, 2017.
The NDA government has proposed a new set of rules for processing Right to Information (RTI) applications, complaints and appeals and has sought suggestions from the public by 15 April. The proposed rules, aimed at replacing RTI rules of 2012, have been placed by the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) on its website for comments from public.
Among many provisions, one says that the proceedings before the Central Information Commission (CIC) will abate in case of death of the appellant. In the Draft RTI Rules 2017, on which comments have been invited from the public, Clause 2 of Rule 12 titled Withdrawal/Abatement of Appeal says: "The proceedings pending before the commission shall abate on the death of the appellant," PTI reported.
The new draft rules also allow the commission to use its discretion for allowing withdrawal of appeal or a complaint if appellant requests but such requests cannot be entertained once the matter has been decided by it. Some RTI activists have objected to such suggestions by the government in the past saying information seekers may be coerced by people with vested interests and may even be killed as the information against them cannot be ordered to be disclosed in such cases.
Speaking to The Indian Express, RTI activist Subhash Agrawal said, "There have been past pronouncements by the CIC and other bodies that in case of death of an appellant, the information would be displayed on the website. This new clause effectively puts an end to that. So killing an RTI activist would be a sure way of killing his fight for a particular query."
Speaking to Firstpost, lawyer Ajay Kumar said that instead of a blanket rule on the abatement of proceedings, it would have made sense if the government had created a test or evolved a criterion laying out the circumstances under which certain applications could continue to be prosecuted. "A blanket rule on on the abatement of proceedings is arbitrary and will only serve the interest of the party that seeks to gain from the non-disclosure of information rather than the broader public interest."
Another RTI activist Commodore Lokesh Batra (retd) told PTI that there have been several deliberations have been held earlier between the government and civil society activists. "The time given is too less. There is no official press release in this regard as well. How will people know that something like is placed on website for them to give opinion," Batra was quoted as saying by PTI.
The BJP-led NDA government has been criticised severly for the move with the Congress alleging that the Narendra Modi government is subverting the RTI Act. The Congress added that the new draft rules give power to an authority to reject an application if it is beyond 500 words and also force a steep hike in charges on the applicant to get a reply. Party spokesperson Manish Tewari told reporters on Monday that the Centre has been displaying an attitude of "active neglect towards RTI" and it finally seems to have decided "to formalise the process of subverting the RTI".
"The entire RTI regimen is sought to be constricted, suffocated and finally subverted," he said.
Citing the abatement of proceedings if the applicant dies, Tewari said: "RTI activists are extremely apprehensive that this will increase the number of attacks which are taking place and which have resulted in the unfortunate death of many RTI activists." He said there is also a provision which allows the public authority of the first appellate to file counter appeals which essentially means that it becomes a judicial proceeding.
According to Delhi-based NGO Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), last year the countrywide death toll of RTI activists on account of murder or other suspicious causes was 56 between 2005, when the transparency law came into effect, and mid 2016. Of the 56 deaths, 51 activists were murdered and five committed suicide.
CHRI Venkatesh Nayak told The Times of India, "By legally permitting withdrawal of appeals vested interests will feel emboldened to pressurise RTI users to withdraw their appeals before the CIC. If this proposed rule becomes law at the Centre, most other states will make similar amendments, thereby unwittingly jeopardising the life and safety of RTI users. These amendments must not be allowed to go through when the Whistleblower Protection Act, 2011 has been put in cold storage."
Speaking to The Economic Times, Anjali Bhardwaj National Campaign for People's Right to Information said, "This is a rule which would be misused. In any case if an RTI user is attacked and killed, the Commission should not stop its work. We have repeatedly said in such cases the sought information should be proactively disclosed. RTI is being used by people who are on the margins. Any requirement by the Commission should keep these people the poor in mind. The formats prescribed are very intricate."