One after the other, amendments to existing laws, laws that were the crowning glories of the Indian civil society and rights lawyers’ tireless, decades-long efforts, are being delivered with sinister precision to crumble and weaken from within the solid civil rights and government accountability infrastructure of the country.
After the bodyblow of a slew of no less than 40 different amendments to different laws, poached in as the Finance Bill, 2017, the Narendra Modi government is now trying to tweak the Right to Information Act, legislated in 2005, and once amended in 2012 to provide rules to filing RTI applications.
Modi government at the Centre seeks to amend and replace the existing RTI Act, and in this regard it has already announced that it would increase the RTI application fee to Rs 50.
On the issue of word-count, contradictory reports are coming in, with some saying new rules would limit the word-count of the applications to 500 words, while others saying that’s the existing limit and would be deleted.
While the government has proposed a new set of rules for the RTI applications, complaints and appeals, it has also, via the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), sought suggestions, comments and recommendations by as early as April 15, 2017.
But the biggest issue with the new set of possible rules is the intention to close an RTI application file in case of the death of the appellant. This move, not yet fully legislated but being considered at present, has been widely panned by RTI and political transparency activists, saying it would hugely aggravate the threat to life of an RTI applicant, since death in any circumstance, whether natural or unnatural, would be tantamount to effect the closure of the pending RTI application, creating enormous hurdles to accessing information or applying this law to the benefit of the citizens.
RTI under Dr Manmohan Singh as PM was Right to Information. RTI under Narendra Modi as PM is Right to Intimidation.— santosh (@imPundit) April 3, 2017
What are the possible changes to RTI?
According to PTI and the governance portal Bureaucracy Today, nine suggestions have so far been laid down by the DoPT, as it seeks to update on the draft rules for Right to Information to be notified under the provisions of Section 27 of the RTI Act.
1. Raising the prescribed fee to Rs 50, with a provision of providing first 20 copied pages free of cost inclusive of postal charges.
2. Deleting the word limit of 500 words in a petition, since that it contradicts the first paragraph of the RTI rules.
3. Restriction on the number of free copied pages to be provided to a BPL person (below poverty line). The reason given in this regard is to avoid the “misuse of the provision by big contractors filing RTI petitions through casual labourers of the BPL category”.
4. Mode of payment of RTI fees to include RTI stamps, to be issued in denominations of Rs 2, 10 and 50 as per repeated CIC verdicts. The reason furnished is “to abolish the enormous handling charge of postal orders costing Rs 39.99 to the postal department alone apart from clearing operations”.
5. Draft Rule 16 should be completely changed followed by a last hearing date for better compliance of CIC verdicts. Adding that the post-lunch sessions on the last working day of every week can be reserved for hearings as well.
6. Making it “compulsory for a public authority to submit a written explanation at least 15 days in advance with a copy to a petitioner”. Also, recommendation to make it compulsory for the CIC to “dispatch a hearing notice at least 30 days before the hearing date”.
7. Compulsory to file identity proof with every RTI petition filed with a public authority to “avoid mischievous petitions filed in names of others or non-existing persons”. Anonymous RTI petitions can be filed through post box numbers.
8. RTI petitions addressed to Central public authorities should be accepted post-free at all the 1,60,000 post offices in the country rather than just about 4,500 as at present.
9. Pending cases of RTI petitions be closed in case of the death of the applicant.
What’s the big deal?
Not all suggestions are liable to misuse: in fact, some of them, such the response deadline for public authorities, making RTI to central public authorities free of postal charges, etc are downright fantastic.
However, the key suggestions, including closure of the pending cases following an applicant’s death, or increasing the RTI fees, are important hurdles in ensuring a radically transparent governance and government in the country.
Already, political financing has been taken out of the ambit of RTI via the legalised anonymity of limitless corporate funding. Adding the revised RTI rules, in case they fructify, would certainly increase the degree of governmental opacity and discourage more RTI filings for the possible threat to life.
It would also greatly slow down an ongoing case as a fresh RTI would be needed to be filed, in case an applicant passes away in the middle of an RTI hearing.
Rule 12 on “Withdrawal and Abatement of appeal” of the draft says: “The Commission may in its discretion allow a prayer for withdrawal of appeal if such a prayer is made by the appellant on an application made in writing duly signed or during hearing... The proceedings pending before the Commission shall abet on the death of the appellant.”
Not would these greatly aggravate the threat to life and belongings of an RTI applicant, it would mean intimidation tactics, abuses, harassment etc, would also sky-rocket, as compromising RTIs on political-corporate nexus would not be allowed to see the light of the day.
Carpet-bomb DoPT with good suggestions
Since the DoPT has invited suggestions on this regard from citizens of India until April 15, we need to rain comments that vehemently disagree with the problematic clauses in the draft rules of the RTI.
Unless, citizens come together in a bipartisan manner, we can very well bid goodbye to solid transparency laws in the country.
RTI is both a right and an asset, which must not be diluted at any cost.