Interview with Prithviraj Chavan, Minister of State for Department of Personnel and Training.
PRITHVIRAJ CHAVAN, Minister of State for Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), asserts that reports about the Union government wanting to introduce restrictive provisions in the Right to Information Act are highly exaggerated. According to him, the government is only trying to improve and strengthen the scope of the Act, and in the process it discussed the issue of file notings. But some people made it appear as though the Ministry had moved far ahead and later backtracked bowing to pressure from some activists. Even the Constitution gets amended, and that is in the best interests of the nation. One should have the same perspective about the RTI Act too, he told Frontline in an interview. Excerpts:
The RTI Act has been rated as an important initiative in the functioning of Indian democracy. Still, there have been a series of attacks on RTI activists in different parts of the country. As many as nine activists have been killed this year alone. How does the DoPT, which is the main Ministry driving the RTI, perceive these attacks?
We have seen newspaper reports attributing certain murders as that of RTI activists who were engaged in exposing corruption and other faults. The information we have been able to collect so far has been that in 2010 there have been eight or nine murders of people seeking information under the RTI Act. There are some cases where people have filed FIRs, too. The Ministry perceives this as a serious matter and is trying to sensitise different sections of society about how the RTI Act functions and also to protect information-seekers.
At the policy level, the Ministry is also in the process of enacting another piece of legislation, which is popularly called the Whistleblowers Act. There is already a Whistleblower Resolution. But now we are trying to give it a formal shape and legislate it so that the identity of those who disclose information on corruption and other malpractices is protected in a statutory sense.
What will be the broad parameters of the Whistleblowers Protection Act?
It would not be right for me to disclose the details at this point of time. I can only say that the government is keen to make sure that there is adequate protection for those who give confidential information on wrongdoing. The Central Vigilance Commission will be the authority to which a person can disclose information. And it will be mandatory for the Central Information Commission to protect the identity of the individual, if he so demands. The Bill will soon be introduced in Parliament and I hope it soon becomes an Act. Then it will go to the standing committee. The moment it is introduced, I intend to put it on the website.
Coming back to the attacks on RTI activists, there is also the perception that a politician-mafia-bureaucrat nexus is in operation behind most of them.
If you look at history, you will see that anybody who has tried to expose corruption has been attacked by vested interests. It is not a new phenomenon. The RTI Act is mainly being used to expose corruption and there is a possibility that it could have provoked some vested interests. The main thing to be done is to sensitise people about the nature of complaints as also about protection. As for the nexus you are talking about, I do not think there can be broad generalisations. One may have to look at cases specifically and decide. Whether a case has happened because of a nexus between politicians, bureaucrats and the mafia it is premature for me to come to any conclusion without the actual trial being conducted. But it is important that the guilty are brought to book.
There is a perception that the governments at the Centre and in the States have not responded in a proactive or positive manner to protect RTI activists. There have been complaints against various State governments of false cases being filed against RTI activists who are the victims. What is your comment?
I think there will be two practical sides to this question. We certainly do expect the law enforcement machinery to protect a person seeking information under the RTI Act. When he or she is threatened, it is the duty of the State government to ensure that he/she is provided adequate protection. There is little doubt that governments have to be proactive and provide protection to people, who fall in the category of what you call activists, who keep on seeking information and thereby create a fear of exposing corruption.
But at the same time, one should be able to distinguish between really aggrieved persons who want to know about the decision-making process in a particular case from an activist whose profession is to keep looking for nuisance activities. But I entirely agree that we need to protect genuine people who seek protection. From the Union Ministry's side, I intend to write to all the Chief Ministers emphasising the issue of protection.
But the Union government's move to amend the RTI Act and dilute some of its provisions is seen as a move towards a less open regime.
All this talk about the Union government wanting to bring restrictive provisions in the RTI Act is a highly exaggerated insinuation. It is one of the landmark achievements of the United Progressive Alliance government. Why should it try to diminish it? The government is trying to improve and strengthen the scope of the Act and in the process it discussed the issue of file notings, too. But some people made it appear as though the Ministry had moved far ahead and later backtracked bowing to pressure from some activists. Many publications, including yours, pursued this line.
See, in an ideal world there will be no need for an RTI Act. In an ideal world the government will be so proactive in giving information to the citizens that they will get it without asking for it. Ultimately, that must be the goal. From our side what we are doing now is to put more and more ideas in the public domain, even without a specific query for it.
Of course, we have to draw a line between privacy and open government. The primary thing is to strengthen the RTI Act. But to say that there should be no amendments is unrealistic. Even the Constitution gets amended and that is done in the best interests of the nation.
One should have the same perspective about the RTI Act, too. If the issues can be addressed without any change in the Act, we have no problem at all. There are situations where some issues are on the table and need to be addressed. That's all that we are saying.
What can be done without any need for amendment can be done so, but what needs amendment should not be overlooked. We have an open mind on this. We are open to suggestions in this regard.
What is your overall view of the five years of RTI, say from a historical perspective, in terms of overall pluses and minuses, deficiencies and strengths?
It has been a highly empowering move. The UPA government is very proud of it. It has helped hundreds of people gain access to information they would have otherwise not got and improved their lives. But it does not mean that it is foolproof or perfect.
For example, the RTI Act, as it exists today has no provisions to stipulate what would be the alternative arrangement if the position of the Chief Information Commissioner suddenly becomes vacant. We also need to close some legal and economic loopholes.
There are some intelligence agencies that are exempted. Why should the entire intelligence be exempted? Why should personnel matters like promotions and service matters not be open? There is also the issue of judicial independence. We are looking at situations in other countries. We want to have an open debate on them. We will try to make sure that whatever is necessary is done. So we are trying to enlarge the scope of what can be disclosed.
At the level of larger politics and social development, the RTI Act needs to evolve a new culture of transparency in terms of governance. Its not just about seeking information or exposing corruption, but about giving people power in terms of policymaking and the general functioning of the government. How far have the first five years of the Act been able to bring about this culture?
The main thing is that the awareness about the RTI Act is not as good as we would like it to be. Large parts of rural India have not yet understood the import of this Act and hence are not able to make use of it properly. The question is, how well do people understand the functioning of the government and governance?
It is about the understanding of the higher concepts of governance and independence, power and responsibility. These are difficult concepts to understand. So we have to necessarily think about those people who are not even literate and make efforts to empower them.
We have evolved several programmes to do this, involving the use of the audio-visual media, for an information campaign. There is a programme to make RTI available on telephone. These are moving ahead steadily. All that I would do is to implore the media not to sensationalise matters at this juncture.