Monday, August 17, 2009

Snippets/ Mail Today, August 17, 2009

Half- baked information from the Act
I HAVE in the past written about the sham that is the Right to Information ( RTI) Act. I still stand by it and here’s why. India Today , the magazine where I am editor, had nearly two years ago used the RTI route to seek information from the PMO and the Cabinet Secretariat about the many Groups of Ministers ( GoMs) set up to look into various issues.

Roughly, I knew there were more than a 100 of them and had sought details about the names of the chairmen and members, the number of times each has met, original deadlines set and dates set for submission of reports for each of the GoMs. After about a month came the first reply from the Cabinet Secretariat which said, “ Issue of providing information of this nature is under consideration.” Later, we filed an appeal to the Appellate Authority. No reply. Three months later, we approached the Central Information Commission. Still no reply.

Then last November, we again wrote to the CIC Wajahat Habibullah who was kind enough to inform us that the matter was “ being looked into”. For the next three months, each reminder from us saw the ball being lobbed into yet another government court and we had almost given up hope when last week, we were surprised by an thick dossier from the director, Cabinet Secretariat which informed us that there were 141 GoMs in all and gave the names of their chairmen and members but provided no further details.

“ You may, if so desired, obtain the information with the concerned ministry/ department who is servicing the GoM.” The stipulated time to provide the information sought under RTI Act is 30 days, but when the Cabinet Secretariat itself takes 22 months to give a answers that are half- baked and incomplete, I am left with no option but to conclude that the UPA’s crowning achievement is sought to be undermined by highlevel bureaucrats. Last week, the government set up three more GoMs to look into the mess in the aviation sector, the sibling war over oil and the drought induced food situation. So I guess I will start all over again.

TODAY, state chief ministers will attend a conclave in Delhi to again talk about the many common threats they face from extremists and the many differences that keep them from evolving a unified policy to deal with them.

How many of us know that surrender policies for insurgents have varying yardsticks in different states? The money goes from secret funds but I am told that a terrorist surrendering in Kashmir is given a one- time payment of Rs 20,000 to Rs 50,000 and is eligible for a Rs 3- lakh payout if he abhors violence for three years. A Naxalite laying down arms in Jharkhand doesn’t get such bounty: he is entitled to Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,500 every month until he reaches the age of 45. Other states have their own varying policies.

Law and order is a state subject, but the Naxalite menace or fundamentalist violence are phenomenon that require a uniform policy across the country.
Today’s conclave is expected to conclude with a closed- door session where the CMs will be joined only by Manmohan Singh, P. Chidambaram, the director of the IB and the home secretary. Singh will lay bare the facts and seek some give and take from the chief ministers. Hopefully the latter are as aware of their responsibilities as much they are of their rights

Rules are meant to be broken
A MONTH ago, the Department of Expenditure issued an extraordinary “ office memorandum” noting that henceforth “ the provisions of air- conditioned ( a/ c) cars may be extended to officers of the level of Joint Secretary and equivalent”, with a rider that “ as far as possible hiring of a/ c taxis may be resorted to”. It seemed a bit odd because I have seen junior officers of the level of directors or even under secretaries being driven for their morning round of golf in a/ c Ambassadors with red beacons.

My mind went back to 1985 when the police in Delhi busted an international spy ring and the kingpin of the espionage network spilled the names of several bureaucrats who were on the take. I did a story then in India Today magazine on the government’s pathetic wage structure that forced many bureaucrats to look for something on the side. A secretary’s salary then was Rs 3,500 a month ( it is Rs 80,000 now) Rs 500 less for an additional secretary and a joint secretary took home Rs 2,500.

The very people who had the power to sign files sanctioning crores of rupees were not given funds to offer coffee and biscuits to visitors in their offices. Today, under secretaries are driven around in official cars, but nearly a quarter century ago, even joint secretaries had to drive to work or use public transport.
Rajiv Gandhi, then prime minister, had set up a committee under K. P. Singh Deo, then minister for personnel to look into the issue. Before the year was through, based on the panel’s report, bureaucrats salaries were more than doubled.

The benign Rajiv seemed to have had a soft corner for the poor overworked babudom, for it was he who ushered in the five- day week for all central government employees. Which brings me back to last month’s “ office memorandum”: if only joint secretaries and above are entitled to a/ c cars, how is it that we see so many junior level officers going to work and to play golf in these? It’s because babus know that rules are meant to be broken.

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