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The next Indian PM should be a paanwala to strengthen RTI

Charu Kartikeya | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:50 IST

If it was not for the Right to Information (RTI) Act, the country would have never known that in 2010 Air India deployed a larger aircraft only to accommodate relatives of the then civil aviation minister Praful Patel. It makes perfect sense for Patel, to now say out loud in Parliament that RTI is being misused and that the law was made in a hurry.

It has been 11 years since the UPA government, which the NCP MP was a part of, brought the landmark Act. It gives one a sense of complete amazement that he is now bewildered that the law enables anybody with Rs 10 to spare to access just about any kind of government information. In fact, Patel went a step ahead and revealed not just his aversion to transparency but also his disdain for the sense of empowerment that RTI was delivering to the common masses.

Any panwaadi (betel leaf seller) or chaiwala (tea seller) could seek information about the country's missile programme, Patel lamented, and urged the government to consider amending the Act. He is not alone and his disdain for the transparency instrument is not a solitary case. He was the last contributor to the discussion on RTI that took place during the question hour in Rajya Sabha on 28 April.

Deep fear of RTI?

Patel's tirade virtually hijacked the discussion that was originally meant to be centred on the reluctance of government departments in sharing information under the RTI Act. Patel may have taken cue from earlier speakers who diverted the discussion to the misuse and alleged demerits of the RTI.

While Congress MP Rajeev Shukla limited his intervention to the misuse of RTI by professional extortionists, Samajwadi Party's Naresh Agarwal went completely off tangent by saying that the RTI law was enacted under American pressure to leak confidential government information. Agarwal wanted to know whether any similar mechanism existed in neighbouring countries.

Interestingly, all nations that Agarwal was interested in - Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka - fare worse than India on global anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International's corruption index. But that could be irrelevant information for the MP as he also feels that not just RTI but Public Interest Litigation's (PIL) have also become a big problem for the country.

How leaders, not people, are misusing RTI

The government is, of course, happy to lap up any criticism of the RTI Act. Union minister Jitendra Singh agreed that the government was also concerned that the Act was intimidating government officers. He assured Opposition members that the government would consider the issues raised.

As far as leaking of sensitive information under the RTI is concerned, one couldn't be more misplaced than Patel and Agarwal. As the minister thankfully noted, under sections 8 and 24 of the Act, matters related to sovereignty and integrity of the nation as well as national security have been kept out of the purview of RTI. In fact, it is the government that often misuses the Act by arbitrarily invoking these clauses and refusing to divulge otherwise ordinary information.

Political parties' resistance to come under the RTI is well known. Activists as well as former information commissioners have argued that parties are public entities because they use resources like publically funded land. Also, they are critical to law-making and governance, as they field candidates who go on to constitute the Parliament and form the government. They have even defied orders of the Central Information Commission (CIC) as well as the Supreme Court to disclose the sources of their funding, their assets and financial holdings under the RTI.

The record of all parties is similar in this regard. When the CIC tried to enforce RTI on parties, the UPA government considered amending the Act to nullify the order. In 2015, the NDA government told the SC that the CIC's ruling was erroneous, and that if political parties came under the RTI Act, it would hamper their functioning.

Afraid of PILs too

RTI and the humble PIL are essential instruments that enforce the accountability of the government and our lawmakers. Agarwal's reference to the PIL as a big problem is an indicator of how much trouble it has been causing to the political class. Ever since PILs began in the 1980s, they have had a long history of leading to landmark judgments in which individuals, organisations and even the state have been forced to make amends.

In recent history, the cancellation of 122 telecom licences in the 2G scam, probe in the coal scam during the UPA's tenure, the ongoing corruption cases against former CJI K G Balakrishnan and Himachal Pradesh Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh, Taj-corridor case against Mayawati etc are all results of PILs. The several recent PILs related to the Board Of Control For Cricket In India (BCCI) and the Indian Premier League (IPL) made BJP MP and the secretary of BCCI, Anurag Thakur, say that they had led to huge losses for the board.

The maai-baap syndrome

Agarwal and Thakur's discomfort with PILs are very much in sync. Taken together with the assault on RTIs, reveal the aversion of the political class to accountability mechanisms. It is essentially an evidence of their deep-seated belief that they are not people's representatives, but a notch above them. It was this same feudal pride that was reflected in several MPs' recent fancy protests against the traffic rationing odd-even scheme in Delhi.

It was one thing to protest against the scheme and quite another to seek exemption because they are MPs. Why not support the scheme when many common people were complying, voluntarily or by force? Equally, why not demand its cancellation arguing that it brought discomfort for all and not just MPs? Our political class is yet to cease to remind people of the power gap between them through acts and statements like these. What will it need to turn them around? A chaiwala has already become the Prime Minister. Do we need a panwaadi next?

Edited by Sahil Bhalla

First published: 2 May 2016, 11:57 IST
Charu Kartikeya @CharuKeya

Assistant Editor at Catch, Charu enjoys covering politics and uncovering politicians. Of nine years in journalism, he spent six happily covering Parliament and parliamentarians at Lok Sabha TV and the other three as news anchor at Doordarshan News. A Royal Enfield enthusiast, he dreams of having enough time to roar away towards Ladakh, but for the moment the only miles he's covering are the 20-km stretch between home and work.