ITS MANY achievements — and failures — notwithstanding, the Right to Information Act which came into effect during the early days of UPAI was truly a feather in the government’s cap. Yet, take a closer look now and you will see that just five years after the landmark legislation was enacted, the RTI is more a whimper and less the bang that the government promised.
The rot begins at the top. The provisions of the RTI Act are diluted or blatantly ignored to ensure that the political class doesn’t come under the scanner. The readiness of the government to reveal the assets of ministers seems to be inversely proportional to the public curiosity to know the same.
Here are the rules. The Code of Conduct for ministers says that a person, before taking office as a minister, shall “ disclose to the Prime Minister or the chief minister ( as the case may be) details of the assets and liabilities and business interests, of himself and members of his family”. Similar rules exist for MPs of both Houses. While contesting polls, candidates have to declare their assets before the Election Commission, the details of which are then made available on the commission’s website. Later, MPs file declarations to the presiding officers of the two Houses. These, too, can be accessed via the RTI route. But when it comes to ministers, the goalposts are shifted. I am told that most ministers regularly comply with the prime minister’s directive to file annual declarations, but for reasons unknown, the PMO doesn’t place these in Parliament.
Two weeks ago, as a result of an RTI query, the Lok Sabha secretariat wrote to the PMO to say that since ministers’ declarations are made directly to Prime Minister, “ it is felt that the instant reference is not required to be placed before the Hon’ble Speaker, Lok Sabha”. A similar letter went to the PMO from the Rajya Sabha. Shorn of ‘ bureaucrat- ese’, what this means is that the presiding officers of the two houses are not privy to information about ministerial assets. It’s easy to guess why someone wants to hide something. The question is: Who?
Ask Wajahat Habibullah, who as the Central Information Commissioner is the custodian of RTI. He put the ball into Parliament’s court. There are more RTI applications on the subject of ministerial wealth than anything else, but RTI activists — the media, lawyers and public — spirited citizens are constantly being stonewalled by the PMO and the Cabinet Secretariat, both of which maintain that details of ministerial wealth are personal matters and therefore cannot be divulged. So much for transparency in government.
As if that weren’t bad enough, here is more proof to show that the RTI is as good as dead. Incredible as it may seem, the W. Habibullah R. PRASAD government has no idea of the number of people who enjoy the perks and comforts of ministerial office while not being ministers in the government. You’d think the CabSec will know, but ask and you will be told to knock on the doors of the Ministry of Home Affairs. India Today magazine filed an RTI in July 2009 seeking to know the number of such people and details of offices they held and their perks.
The CabSec forwarded the application to the ministry of home affairs ( MHA). The MHA in turn sent us a reply saying that “ the status of Union cabinet minister on a person, is processed by individual administrative ministries/ departments for approval of the Prime Minister directly. A centralised list is not maintained by this ministry. You may approach the individual ministries and departments in respect of organisations under their administrative control.”
Earlier this year, we tried our luck again. Once again, the Cab- Sec forwarded the application to MHA. Last month, the home ministry informed us: “... the status of union cabinet minister on a person, is processed by individual administrative ministries/ departments for approval of the Prime Minister directly. A centralised list is not maintained by this ministry.”
A year later, nothing changed, not even a comma. Well placed sources tell me that there are as many people enjoying ministerial perks as there are ministers in the Union council, which at last count was over 75. All of them are allotted bungalows in Lutyens Delhi, driven around town in official cars with a red beacon light and entitled to official staff of nine, whose salaries are paid by the government.
Considering that each MP costs the country nearly ` 40 lakh a year, the cost of these ministers- without- ministries can be imagined. That’s perhaps why the government exercises the Right to Conceal.