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Ignore Babu Mindset:IMBIBE SPIRIT OF RTI ACT, by T.D. Jagadesan, 2 November 2006 Print E-mail


New Delhi, 2 November 2006

 Ignore Babu Mindset


By T.D. Jagadesan

Most of the well-known right to information campaigners have boycotted the Government’s one-year of RTI celebrations in the Capital recently. It is a telling comment on the Government’s engagement with RTI.  First, the legislature and the executive tried to stall it once it was in place. Following pressure from people’s movements, attempts were made first to blunt its radical edge and later, to appropriate it. When Babus recognized the subversive potential of the Act, they decided to join the show.

Ironically, they were emboldened by the UPA Government’s attempt to amend one of its showpiece acts in its first year.  It is by design that most of the information commissions and independent appellate authorities, are packed with retired bureaucrats, even though the Act has provisions to include professionals and representatives of civil society groups in its commissions.  The argument is not to keep ex-Babus out of the information commissions, but that these bodies should have better representation from other walks of life for them to function as watchdogs of the state machinery.

The ambiguous stance of most of the information commissioners on the file notings issue has indicated that there could be a conflict of interest.  An overcrowding of ex-bureaucrats will reduce the commissions to extensions of the bureaucracy. The RTI commissions are state-funded and need to be so.  However, that should not be an excuse for the state to appropriate them.

The campaign for an RTI Act, it will be recalled, was started by grass-root movements. The idea was to empower people with a legislation and an administrative apparatus that would keep a check on the Government. The RTI Act is considered to be one of the best in the world, but it will be effectively used only if the independence of RTI commissions is maintained. The attempt to block access to file notings was defeated by a sustained people’s campaign.  A similar effort may be needed to preserve the autonomy and independence of information commissions.

Overhaul information commissions are necessary.  They have to be rid of the Babu mindset.The penalty clause meant to haul up officials refusing to give correct information has to be effectively used.  It is revealing that the Central Information Commission has not one case to show where an erring official has been penalized.

The commissions have to put in place a transparent mechanism where complaints are heard, so that decisions are not made on arbitrary or subjective grounds.  Proper reporting of the proceedings at the commissions would ensure accountability.  It is in the collective interest of the nation that RTI becomes an effective tool to ensure good governance.

Assuring all stakeholders that the Government would make a sincere endeavour to strengthen the implementation of the RTI in favour of genuine information seekers, PM Manmohan Singh said the other day that the right to information cannot be the privilege of a few.  He also cautioned against growth of “professional middlemen” in the use of the Act.

Terming the implementation of the RTI Act as an important “milestone”, in quest for building an enlightened and prosperous society, he said, “we must guard against the growth of professional middlemen in the use of this Act as seen in some other countries.

“And since it is an Act for common benefit in relation to public authority, we are all stakeholders in the Act and must guard against allowing it to become a tool for promotion of an adversial relationship between stakeholders. This can only severe to weaken the Act,” the Prime Minister said.

Speaking on the occasion of the first anniversary of the RTI, the PM did not touch the issue of proposed amendment to remove file notings from the ambit of the legislation.  “This is true of any legislation particularly those that usher in far reaching changes. In a democratic society, sometimes it takes time for new ideas to take firm root”.

“This is part of learning curve any legislation has to undergo.  We need to evolve a consensus to facilitate the effective exercise of RTI by the needy by those who are directly affected by the information,” Singh said pointing out that the right to know was the most fundamental of all rights which are critical for upholding human dignity he said, “the exercise of RTI cannot be the privilege of the few”.

Emphasizing that there was a need to balance the reqirement for information with the limited time, material and human resource available with public authorities, the Prime Minister said “vexatious demands should not be allowed to deprive genuine information seekers of their legitimate claims on limited public resources”.---INFA

 (Copyright, India News and Feature Alliance)

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