Rules for Strengthening RTI : Part I
Any outsider reading the news –paper items which appeared on 4th January, covering a Cabinet meeting decision approving Rules framed under the RTI Act 2005, would be left with the impression as if the State Information Commission and the Government of Uttarakhand have a relationship which could be termed, worst as an adversarial one, at best an uncomfortable one. This writer having been involved with the creation of this unique institution, i.e. Uttarakhand Information Commission, for the first five years right from its inception, reads this development as a stage where the State Information Commission as well as the Government of Uttarakhand, the latter as the “Appropriate Government”, both have a duty to get engaged in a consultation process, where the “common man” represented through the civil society has also to be heard. Both have to realise that the RTI Act 2005 was brought into existence by the Indian Parliament on 15th June 2005 “as a practical regime of right to information for citizens to secure access to information under the control of the public authorities”. The basic objective was “to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority ”. The various statements which have accompanied the details of the Rules which have been approved by the Cabinet said to have been made by certain officials somehow fail to underscore this basic spirit which underpinned the need to have any such legislation, in a country which is already bemoaning the fact that here is a country where laws get enacted only to be flouted openly. The Chief Justice of India has publicly gone on record to say so in so many words while inaugurating a Fast Track Court only the other day.
Practicing Transparency & Accountability
One just looked in vain going through various news-paper items appearing on these Rules for the slightest of a hint whether there has been a process of consultations followed by the State Government before going ahead with a Cabinet decision which could later prove to be debilitator rather than a facilitator, in so far as the achievement of the objectives of a law is concerned, especially when the political party at the Centre and the State are one and the same. One was under an impression that as the Dr Manmohan Singh Administration allows no opportunity to pass by in claiming the great benefits that have accrued to the common man and the civil society through the enactment of the RTI Act, the very burden of the just notified Uttarakhand Rules seem to drift in the directions just opposite to those claims !
The very first question that arises and are needed to be asked whether the officials who have been responsible in pushing through these Rules ever felt any need to consult the civil society, subject matter experts and those who could have provided sound counsel ? Surely, merely going by the common perceptions which has been spread out by most of the civil servants from the very beginning, and which is by and large not borne out either by fact or statistics, could not be the sole rationale behind bringing out any Rules, which prima facie appear more of adversarial in tone and intention. The question that is quite legitimate in being asked is what process has the concerned Department followed in seeking views of all stake-holders, other than the state departments ? On record, the State Information Commission, seems to have been taken by surprise, meaning they have not been consulted either. One hint that has appeared in defence of these Rules is that the practice of the Central Information Commission and the RTI Act provisions have been followed ( Secretary, GAD, Surendra Singh Rawat ). One thought that it is quite obvious from the architecture of the RTI Act that there exists no organic link between the State Information Commissions and the Central Information Commission, not even of the manner which exists between the High Courts and the Supreme Court of India. That is one major difference between these two different “public authorities”. There are instances where the interpretations of the Statute have differed even within a single Information Commission, and Central Information Commission and State Information Commission. So, what gets accepted in the Central Information Commission is not necessarily going to be followed by any or all State Information Commission. Without belabouring the point further suffice to say that no great harm would have been caused had a consultative process been followed, all stake-holders heard, before these Rules were presented to the State Cabinet. One just hopes that the officials of this new State do take some time to follow how the Union Government, these days, routinely solicits suggestions and comments, even before announcing any important Public Policy and websites are full of such Draft Rules, in several domains e.g. draft Water Policy, and so on. Now, as far as the provisions of the RTI Act are concerned it is arguable whether it is solely the domain of the “Appropriate Government” to interpret the existing provisions, when it comes to the various sections of the Act are concerned, or going ahead with “prescriptions” when it comes to fleshing-out the procedural part of the implementation of the RTI Act is concerned. Lack of consultation with all possible stake-holders, especially the information-seeker citizen, the civil society, the State Information Commission and its various Rulings which are binding on all public authorities, including the state government until these are turned down by the State High Court, is one ground on which these Rules can be certainly, and mainly faulted. Such Rule making in present times can not be either termed transparent or the process conforming to principles of accountability. The over all impression left behind is one that of just the reverse of the basic objective behind enacting a forwarding looking law as the RTI Act.
If this writer is not mistaken during the last year of his stay in the State Information Commission ( 2010 ) by way of resolution of such situation it was mooted to have a Information Consultative Forum, in which all stake-holders in Uttarakhand could be suitably represented and which could debate all contentious issues, some of these seem to be now being pushed through unilaterally by the State Government, as these are still the early days for a law as forward-looking as the RTI Act. Let us remember that India is the only country, at least in South Asia, which has such a law and none of our neighbours can even dream of having anything close to it in coming decades. Let us all be proud of this fact and work in concert in harmonising the conflicting perceptions, very natural in implementation of any transitional regime, through a transparent process of continuing consultations.
Uttarakhand RTI Consortium :
Establishment of a Uttarakhand RTI Consortium, representative of all stake-holders, where conflicting perceptions could be openly discussed, debated and resolved would be one innovation which Chief Minister Bahuguna could consider putting in place, if he sincerely wishes to see Uttarakhand continuing to have a positive record of implementation of RTI Act so far. A beginning could be made by putting all the proposed Rules in the agenda of the first meeting of the proposed Consortium for open discussion. This would give him a fair idea as to how the common man looks at these Rules and whether the proposed Rules are really grounded on facts and deserve to be implemented. That Rule making is the domain of the Appropriate Government that does not have to be asserted by the state officials but that the new Rules are being made to strengthen the letter and spirit behind this revolutionary Act and not just to thwart it, that is what the Chief Minister must ascertain through a consultative process before placing it before the State Legislative Assembly, as is required by the Act itself and Gazetted for public consumption.
Rule Making Powers
In the next instalment we will go into the intricacies involved in Rule making under the RTI Act and examine how the public perception and expert opinions appear in the media and print. This is one debate which all news-papers and electronic media must take up as if the RTI Act gets stifled it could also engender public anger and resentment which any unilateral act on the part of the State generates, as we have seen in several instances where the existing laws are made to kow-tow to the wishes of a segment of stake-holders at the cost of a much larger segment, especially the common man and the civil society at large.