Wednesday, April 05, 2017

RTI debate: Don’t scare citizens

Times of India: New Delhi: Wednesday, April 05, 2017.
A controversy over the government’s proposed rules and procedures for the Right to Information (RTI) Act overlooks the simple point that the goal right now should be to move on to a Duty to Publish rather than clean up the working of the RTI Act. The government says that the changes it has proposed were formulated by the previous UPA government and that it is merely taking forward the process started by its predecessor.
Certain of the proposed changes have caused alarm among RTI activists. The provision that an RTI query would lapse if the questioner passes away while the query is being processed certainly could have ominous implications.
The surest way to prevent uncomfortable information surfacing on account of an RTI query from a pesky interlocutor would, indeed, be to bump him off. While this certainly could not have been the intent of either this or the previous government, the possibility cannot be dismissed out of hand, given the reality of repeated attacks and killings of RTI activists in different parts of the country.
At the same time, the proposal to limit the size of the question and to raise the RTI fee to Rs50 do make sense, to make the process more efficacious and not a burden on the exchequer. But the real reform called for in relation to the citizens’ right to know is to move forward on a conceptual rather than merely procedural plane. Once a government decision is taken, there is no reason why every file noting relating to it should not be placed in the public domain. Of course, information that might compromise national security and is thus outside the purview of RTI even now can continue to be kept confidential.
But there is no reason why the government should sit on the details of public decision-making till someone puts in a query. It should proactively publish on its website all its paperwork on the matter in a way that is easily accessible. Information on the working of the government is a powerful source of citizen empowerment. As India’s democracy matures, citizens ought to have greater and easier access to that information.