Monday, November 24, 2008

Power & Politics / Mail Today, November 24, 2008

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.


Sanjay said...

Whenever I think of accountability, it reminds me of the famous phrase of a former US President Harry Truman - "The buck stops here".
If the most prestigious journal in India is not able to pin the buck to where it belongs, "India Today" must understand the plight of 'no-bodies' like me and all others.
Democracy in India has serious flaws, but I don't have an answer to the following question - should I be concerned about the state of affairs and stand up and do something, OR thank the stars that at least it is not an Anarchy, NOT YET, and move on, like everyone else? I would be grateful if you can share your views and possible answer.

Major Ravi said...

Of course the babus were NOT expected to take kindly to the RTI Act. And the government appointed them as information commisioners to enforce the Act. The first nail on the coffin of the Act meant to usher Transparency had already been dug. Today it is the informtion commisisons and the judiciary that are subverting the Act. Need proof? Ask any activist in this area or simply contact me.

vaghelabd said...

(1)During February-March 2008, I sent 26 emails to Dr Manmohan Singh Prime Minister of India and then asked CPIO PMO to let me know ATR on emails. CPIO said one email received and informed me of action taken. FAA PMO upheld decision of the PIO despite my giving the complete list of 26 emails. The question is where have the 25 emails gone. (2) Mr Wajahat Habibullah, despite my personal request to him at his office is still sitting on my RTI complaint (pertaining to non-disclosure by DoPT on invalid ground of File Notings) ref bdvmap2. He termed the case as simple and assured me expeditious disposal but not taking up the case for hearing last few months.

Jharkhand RTI Forum said...

Comments by Vishnu Rajgadia
Thanks to Mr. Prabhu Chawla for testing RTI for journalistic use. I am sure that the involvement of the media stalwarts like Prabhu Chawala will enrich the movement for transparency and it will also help to discuss on the merits and demerits of RTI act, as well as on the attitude of the government and the Information Commissions. It is clear that if a person like Prabhu Chawala and a media organization like India Today is facing such problems in getting the information, what about a common man.

On the other hand, the citizen of India having suffering from the Official Secrets Act 1923 for a long have got a powerful weapon for transparency. In spite of a lot of obstacles in getting information, we have a lot of success stories with our RTI.
Although the experience of Mr. Chawala is worst, most respectfully I would like to request not to conclude with a moral- “Transparency sounds a good idea but is not particularly popular with governments and IAS officers”
We, in Jharkhand have got a lot of success in getting information from TOP, including the Union Minister for State, Assembly, the Law Department, the Rural Development Department etc and a lot of exclusive news stories has been written based on the material made available through the RTI.
Therefore, I would like to request to Mr. Chawala to come forward to identify the obstacles in the path of RTI. If a magazine like India Today takes initiative, it will strengthen the movement.
In my opinion, the moral of the story is : “Transparency sounds a good idea and the Right to Information act has empowered the common people of India. We should use this right and fight to remove the obstacles.”
Vishnu Rajgadia, Ranchi (09431120500)