For government s eyes only

For government s eyes only NIKHAT JAMAL QAIYUM
At a Jan Sunwai (people's hearing) organised at the Bisalpur dam site in Tonk district in Madya Pradesh ( mp ) on February 15, 1997, the alleged irre-gularities in the disbursement of compensation to the dam oustees and corruption in the government machinery were brought to the fore. A people's mandate on the issue was called for because the government had failed to take into account their rehabilitation needs. Though construction of the dam (on the Banas river) started in 1986 and the land acquisition started the next year, it was not until 1991 that the norms for resettlement (the dam on completion will submerge 22,275 ha of land in 63 villages) were approved by the state government. Even then, vital information about the time and extent of submergence has not been provided so far.

In Uttar Pradesh, signatures were obtained from unsuspecting ( us) villagers on a statement declaring the completion of a non-existent road connecting Nauli and Bamora villages in the Tehri-Garhwal district, and similarly for non-existent roads in the Maed, Marwarhi and Niwal villages in the same district. Seeking to expose such corruption in the adminis-tration, a core group of 12 youngsters launched a movement about two years back under the banner of Chetna Andolan. Calling for greater transparency in the government, their campaign is aimed at educating the masses about their right to information. The hill people are slowly waking up to the promise of a more informed future where their leaders - from the village sarpanch to the block officials - will be accountable to them for lapses in governance.

the above case studies of deliberate suppression of information by the governments from people who need to know the truth, are just two instances. There are scores of other such cases where people are kept in the dark or misled. And this at a time when India celebrates 50 years of independence from British imperialism. A laudable milestone for the country at large but for the ordinary citizen, nothing has changed. If it was the British government hugging all the dark secrets to itself before, it is now the Indian government.

Slowly but surely, the people are challenging the current trend of official secrecy. The right to information movement which started a decade ago in the state of Rajasthan is gaining momentum across the country (See box: Retracing footprints ).
Follow the leader The right to information campaign is being replicated in other parts of the country. A national campaign group called the National Council for Peoples' Right to Awareness including representatives from villages in states like Kerala, mp , up and Rajasthan, was formed to press for the right to information.

madhya pradesh: An experiment to honour people's right to information was launched in Bilaspur on October 2, 1996. Harsh Mandar, commissioner of Bilaspur division, issued an executive order giving the people of Bilaspur, Raigarh, and Sarguja districts the right to scrutinise government records pertaining to the public distribution system ( pds ).

The mp government has also prepared a draft bill on the Right to Infor-mation to be moved in the State Asse-mbly. Digvijay Singh, chief minister ( cm) , said at a recent seminar in Raipur, "We would like our ministers to take the oath of transparency rather than that of secrecy." However, the draft bill could now be diluted substantially after his cabinet created a furore over its provisions.

maharashtra: A private member's Right to Information Bill was introduced during the Budget Session in the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly. The Maharashtra Right to Information Act, 1997, was submitted to the legislature's secretariat on February 20, 1997.

tamil nadu: This state became the first in India to bring a bold legisla-tive initiative aimed at providing transparency in governance, by introducing a Right to Information Act. An announcement to this effect was made by the cm M Karunanidhi, while presenting the State Budget for 1997-98. The Act has been passed by the Legislative Assembly.Under the Act, the public will be able to get a statutory right to details about the schemes of the government implemented by various departments, processing of tenders for works executed by various departments, the quantity of rice and other essential commodities supplied to each of the shops under the pds and their stocks. The proposed legis-lation will pave the way for the people to question irregularities in the system.

The cooperation minister K N Nehru announced in the Tamil Nadu Assembly in April that the government will bring out a weekly 'wall paper' for the benefit of the rural people and acquaint them of the government's announcements and plans. The wall paper would be pasted in the panchayat office to serve as a guide to people on government programmes.

Everything for everybody
The debate has now shifted to the practicality of the legislation that would guarantee right to information. Evidence of success in this direction is the drafting of a bill by former Justice P B Sawant, chairperson of the Press Council of India ( pci ). A meeting of activists, lawyers, administrators, media persons, trade union leaders, civil liberty leaders and academicians was organised in Delhi by the pci , where the National Campaign was constituted to press for the right to information. The group includes representatives from villages in different states like Kerala, mp , up and Rajasthan.

The pci drafted the Right to Infor-mation Bill in October 1996, copies of which were sent to the Central and state governments for framing a suitable legis-lation. On January 1, 1997, a working group on the Right to Information and Promotion of Open and Trans-parent Government, headed by social activist H D Shourie, was set up on the recommendation of the Chief Secre-taries' Conference held in Delhi in November last year. The committee has recommended measures for an "open and transparent administration" and has proposed a Freedom of Information Act to make it obligatory for government departments to give any information sought by a citizen.

According to Shourie, the Freedom of Information Act will diminish the need for other proposed legal measures like the Lokpal machinery to check corruption. "The committee is identifying departments... where the right to information can be built into their functioning." The group will consider proposals to modify the existing legal and administrative framework to achieve a situation where disclosure of information shall be the rule and withholding information the exception. It has been noted that "there is a large area of information that should be made available suo motu."

The Parliamentary standing committee for the Union home ministry, in a remarkably erudite report recommending deletion of the pernicious provisions in the Lokpal Bill has suggested that there should be a fullfledged right to information. (No fewer than five attempts have been made, starting 1968, to have a law adjusted in Parlia-ment for setting up the Lokpal at the Centre. The Lokpal Bill, in its amended form, was introduced in Parliament on September 13, 1996.) The committee, in its 38th report, said introduction of the right to information aimed at ensuring "transparent" admini-stration, has been overdue (See box: Perestroika at the Centre ).

At the touch of a button
On May 22 this year, the H D Shourie Committee presented the draft Free-dom of Information Bill to Cabinet Secretary T S R Subramaniam. The draft bill if passed, would usher in an era of transparency, as promised by Prime Minister I K Gujral before his government won the vote of confidence in Parliament.

In a significant attempt to repeal antiquated laws, the bill proposes amend- ments to Section 5 of the Official Secrets Act, Section 123 and 124 of the Evidence Act and Rule 11 of the Civil Service (Conduct) Rules, with a view to facilitating free flow of information.

As a first step towards translating accountability into action, the Centre has decided to set up computerised 'facilitation counters' at the offices of various ministries and central agencies across the country by June 30. However, the plan is being implemented in phases. Computers will answer citizens' queries on schemes and procedures, applications, revenue records and certificates, waiting lists, payment of bills, registration and allotment of land or houses, among other things. Accord-ingly the ministries have been asked to identify all the offices with a public interface, streamline internal procedures and undertake computerisation. The counters will provide only unclassified information, against payment of fees. Similar facilities are proposed to be set up by state governments in state capi-tals, district headquarters and other towns, to carry out transparency, using the facilities of the National Informatics Centre's countrywide network, by the end of the Ninth Plan.

The Right to Information Bill proposed by Justice Sawant, which the Shourie Committee has been studying on behalf of the government, if passed, would be a first-of-its-kind legislation in the world since it recommends to extend the right of information to cover the private sector, including multinationals and business establishments.

Official secrecy today
The body of legislations pertaining to official secrecy is rich in following the law which says "the influence of the official secrets grows in inverse proportion to the number of secrets to be guarded."

The Indian Evidence Act prohibits a person from parting with any information passed on to him in his official capacity.The legal implication of section 123 and 124 of this act is that the court itself can be denied documents if it is the government's opinion that the documents relate to affairs of the State. But the courts have held that the policy statement in Section 123 is that, documents can be withheld from the court only if by scrutiny of these documents, public interest is prejudicially affected.

In 1923, India adopted the British Official Secrets Act (passed in 1911, and later amended in 1920) almost verbatim. The Act, which dates back to the colonial era, has assumed insidious and absurd proportions.

Section 5 of the Act, which deals with disclosure of 'secrets' is widely worded. Under the Section any person, be it that he is in possession or he obtains or is entrusted with or has access to any 'secrets', passes it on to any person, can be prosecuted under the Act along with the person to whom it is passed. Nowhere in the Act is the word 'secret' defined and in the absence of any definition, it is up to the government as to what it should treat as secrets. The only redeeming feature of this Section seems to be that it has been used very rarely. But what is important is that the threat of prosecution could be used to dissuade disclosure, thus keeping it in check.

Similarly, amendments made to the commissions of Inquiry Act (1962) make it possible for the committee to withhold information from the very body that it is supposed to report to, namely, Parliament.

Before any bill on Right to Infor-mation can be passed, the body of antiquated laws pertaining to official secrecy will have to be amended to remove the bottlenecks on information.

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