Opinion : Covering up corruption kills transparency, RTI

One of the most effective RTIs being the outcome of people’s struggles led by the people’s political organization, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan’s struggles, in 2004, after good discussions about its provisions, and it took an All-Party Parliamentary Committee to carefully drafted.

By M Sridhar  Published on  9 Feb 2023 4:01 AM GMT
Opinion : Covering up corruption kills transparency, RTI

“If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything”, says Mart Twain. The DATA flood can the irrelevant and untruth, the mankind loses faith. Civil society is need to understand the dangers of the proposed Digital Data Provision Bill 2022 and its attacks RTI Act. The right to Information (‘RTI’) Act, effective on October 12, 2005, was one of the best transparency laws in the world, has become ineffective and diluted.

One of the most effective RTIs being the outcome of people’s struggles led by the people’s political organization, the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan’s struggles, in 2004, after good discussions about its provisions, and it took an All-Party Parliamentary Committee to carefully drafted. It was one well effective preamble that requires informed citizens and transparency in the affairs of the State. The people lost the possibility of a real transfer of power to common citizens. Many lovers of democracy made them feel like fish without water. The very empowered people will become weak without legitimate power. No chance left the democratic instrument to expose the officials’ wrongdoing and corruption.

This bill justifies the exemptions of both – Article 19(1), (2), and Section 8 (1)(j) of the RTI Act. In the name of interest of “sovereignty and integrity of India, security of the state, friendly relations with foreign states, maintenance of public order or preventing incitement to any cognizable offense relating to any of these” would seriously reduce the power of Government. The Bill seeks to deny providing any personal information on administration officials under Section 8(1)(j) of the Right to Information Act, citing the protection of “individual privacy”. This will adversely affect with the right of privacy-vis-à-vis the right to freedom of speech.

Affects RTI

Section 8 (1)(j) exempts“...information which relates to personal information the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual unless the Central Public Information Officer or the State Public Information Officer or the appellate authority, as the case may be, is satisfied that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information: Provided that the information, which cannot be denied to the Parliament or a State Legislature, shall not be denied to any person.”

The most widely used exemption cannot be used at all. As per the law, personal information may be exempt if: a) It is not related to a public activity or interest, or b) It would cause an unwarranted invasion of privacy of an individual.

The proposed Data Protection Bill says: “(2) Clause (j) of sub-section (1) of section 8 of the Right to Information Act, 2005 shall be amended in the following manner: (a) The words ‘the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual unless the Central Public Information Officer or the State Public Information Officer or the appellate authority, as the case may be, is satisfied that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information’ shall be omitted; b. The proviso shall be omitted. Thus, the amended section would read and exempt: “(j) information which relates to personal information.”

If this Bill becomes law by Parliament, neither PIOs- the officers nor the Information Commissioner who is like Judge cannot help to arrive at the right decision, whoever claimed that a disclosure was exempt under section 8(1)(j) should make a statement that they would not give this information to Parliament.

Cover up corruption

There were several examples such as File notings and minutes of meetings, without this, the government can never question the documents. The first Central Information Commissioner fought like a great war with the Government to get ‘file notings’ which will now become secrets and can be punished as “Official Secrets”. The Union Government’s Department of Personnel and Training refused to provide the “Total number of Annual Performance Appraisal Reports (APAR) of IAS officers pending presently for over one year, two years, three years and four years”, claiming exemption under section 8(1)(j).

Not only that the request for details of Member of Legislative Assembly funds was denied, saying it was personal information. Several citizens will not get details of beneficiaries of the PM CARES Fund or the instances of bogus caste certificates, education certificates, ghost employees, gross arbitrariness and corruption in selections for public sector jobs, and non-conformance to rules and laws. They can never get details about disproportionate assets compared to the declared income of public officials.

It would affect the democratic power with which verification of affidavits of elected representatives. People will not get an unfair assessment of students and job seekers in government. It will be impossible to find instances of disregard for proven corruption charges against officials.

If section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act, as proposed and amended will account for 35% of refusals by Central and State Information Commissioners and more than fifty percent Public Information Officers all over India- both in Centre and State Governments. It is a serious harm as that denied any personal information regarding officials the RTI Act's Section 8(1)(j), citing the protection of "individual privacy."

Becomes duty to deny RTI

Though the Data Bill will create an exception to the RTI Act, which will remove the power of PIOs in state and central governments. The civil persons strongly argue that this RTI Act S 8(1)(j) is being abused by officers. It helps the public interest works effectively and prevents corruption, which the state machinery does not stop corruption. Another problem is that once the RTI Act is will apply to almost all the Public Authorities under Data Authority officers, which means practically the RTI Act will be not used it. Hence the amendment or denial of this Section 8(1)(j) should be strongly rejected by the people. Instead, the political parties should allow RTI Act should be strengthened. The Bill tries to claim that RTI will remain as it was, but the removal of the such exception to RTI section 8(1)(j) will use only the DATA Bill so that RTI Act will in effect not exist at all.

An example: New abuse of the RTI of S. 8(1)(j) is in the Agnipath scheme concerning ad hoc military recruitment, which was classified as ‘secret’. This is an example of totally removing Sections 8 and 9 of the RTI Act, including Section 8(1)(j). In effect, it allows the Right to Information Act to become a Right to Deny for public information officers.

One of the most powerful duties of public authorities would make Section 4(1)(b) of the RTI Act requires to do makesuomotu disclosure of salaries of public servants, details of beneficiaries of subsidies, and particulars of recipients of concessions, permits or authorizations granted. This power becomes not necessary. All these would have to be stopped suo motu disclosures. The ability of the law to uncover corruption or wrongdoing would be effectively finished. With this, it becomes a duty not to give information.

Earlier powerful Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi said: Equally painful for me is that none of the lawyers or media persons raised any issue about the proposed damage to citizens’ fundamental RTI under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution. Citizens have not realized the implications of this proposal as yet. They must discuss this proposed regression in their fundamental rights under Article 19(1)(a). I am finding even serious lawyers’ groups unwilling to discuss these.

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