More teeth to the law

Published : Sep 24, 2004 00:00 IST

THE National Advisory Council (NAC), chaired by Congress president Sonia Gandhi, approved recently amendments to the existing Freedom of Information Act, which was passed by the National Democratic Alliance government in 2002. The NAC was set up by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) as an interface between the government and the alliance partners. One of its main functions is to help implement the Common Minimum Programme. The amendments to the Freedom of Information Act, if legislated upon, will help the government fulfil its commitment to provide a government that will be `corruption-free, transparent and accountable at all times'.

The Freedom of Information Act, passed in December 2002, was seen as a milestone in the campaign for the right to information. The intention of the legislation was to give citizens full access to public information. Aruna Roy, a member of the NAC and a leader of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS),which pioneered the campaign for the right to information, said: "The Council has recommended a significant reduction in the scope and number of exemptions to be allowed under the Act, consistent with constitutional provisions. Even those agencies covered by blanket exemptions will be required under the amended provisions to provide information on matters of human rights and corruption." She added: "The Council also unanimously recommended provisions of strong penalties for non-compliance of provisions of the Act. Public servants who deliberately withhold or delay the furnishing of information will be liable to pay penalties deductible from their salaries and in case of providing false information will be liable to financial penalties, departmental action and even criminal prosecution. The amended Act provides two levels of appeals - the first within the department and the second an appeal to an appellate authority of information commissioners at the State and national levels."

THE history of right to information laws can be traced to the campaign initiated by the MKSS, an organisation of peasants and rural workers in Rajasthan. Their campaign focussed on public audits of development expenditure in panchayati raj institutions. Tamil Nadu and Goa were the first States to enact right to information laws, in 1997. Other States that followed suit include Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Karnataka, and Delhi. Some States such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have passed executive orders on access to information. However, the Central legislation, the Freedom of Information Act, passed in 2002 by the NDA government, is a watered-down version of existing pieces of State legislation and has many loopholes. It has no penalty provision and does not include private bodies in its purview. Nor does it provide for an independent appellate authority.

According to Neelabh Mishra, a journalist who has been associated with the campaign for a long time, grassroots experience with the Rajasthan Panchayati Raj Act, 1996, shows that a law without a penalty provision for non-compliance and provisions for an independent appellate mechanism outside of the government and bureaucracy cannot ensure the compliance of an obstinate system. He said: "The most blatant of these exemptions in the Freedom of Information Bill, 2002, is the list of defence and security organisations tagged onto the end of the Bill that are out of the purview of the proposed law. Even the States have been given the option of adding their own security and police organisations to this list. It is an irony that while on the one hand the Bill provides for giving information in 48 hours where the life and liberty of a person is concerned, on the other, it exempts from the purview of the proposed law those organisations that are most often accused of violating civil liberties and human rights, including the right to life. Moreover, it is ridiculous to exclude [such] organisations as vigilance and anti-corruption bureaus and revenue enforcement agencies from the purview of the proposed Act."

The amendments passed by the NAC are expected to take care of many of these concerns. If implemented by the UPA, it will address the concerns of citizens who are increasingly using the right to information to stake a claim in the process of governance.

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