A BOUT a fortnight ago, a colleague of mine at India Today received an email from the Central Information Commissoner Wajahat Habibullah.
The brief it said — “ Received and being looked into” — took a long time coming. In November last year, following reports that several union ministers were not declaring their assets despite instructions from the PMO — nothing surprising, since I don’t expect ministers, especially those belonging to coalition partners, to take orders from the Prime Minister — India Today had invoked the RTI to find out the truth.
We filed RTI applications before the PMO and the Cabinet Secretariat seeking the relevant information. The reply from the PMO was swift but gave away nothing. It informed us that the information we sought lay within the domain of the Cabinet Secretary. A few days later, the Cab Sec wrote to us saying the domain lay with the PMO. For the next four months, we sent several reminders to both the PMO and the Cab Sec and the two kept lobbing the ball back and forth. So on March 17 this year, we wrote to the CIC detailing our experience with RTI and stating that by stonewalling our efforts, the PMO and Cab Sec were defeating the very purpose of the RTI. We requested the CIC to direct the officers in charge at South Block to make available the information we sought.
Around then, I ran into Habibullah at a social gathering and in the midst of informal exchanges reminded him about the RTI query. “ The matter is being looked into,” he assured me. Months passed and nothing happened. So two weeks ago, we sent an email reminder to the CIC. A day later came the above mentioned reply which certainly wasn’t very helpful anyway. So much for transparency.
Things are no better in the states. Last week, I was in Kolkata where a top Opposition leader told me about an RTI query he had filed before the state Information Commission seeking details about the agreement the West Bengal government had signed with the Tata group for the now aborted Nano plant in Singur. That appeal too became a victim of sabotage as a senior officer in the state IC issued a writ that all information must be first delivered to him, in sealed envelopes!!!!! In May this year, at a function to mark the UPA Government’s four years in office, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh got so carried away with his regime’s record that he declared the UPA stood for open government: “ The UPA government has set a new standard for transparency and accountability in govern- ment”. He would have fooled none. The RTI is supposed to enable ordinary Indians to seek information about the functioning of the government, its ministers and other minions.
But as the term of the government nears its end, the CIC which is supposed to address citizens’ queries on the government and governance seems to be abdicating its reponsibilities.
Of course you can get all the information you want about the truant District Magistrate in Barabanki or Jhumri Taliaya and similar small fry, but if you are looking for the big fish, you are likely to be denied.
The moral of the story: Transparency sounds a good idea but is not particularly popular with governments and IAS officers. One has much to hide, the other a lot to gain.