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Rule and intentV. VENKATESAN
|The Central government's newly proposed RTI rules make its intentions suspect.|
GOVERNMENTS which have only superficial commitment to the promotion of human rights often come under considerable pressure from within to impose stealthily restrictions on their exercise. They try to introduce such restrictions without much publicity, seek to execute them in a tearing hurry, and couch them in legal jargon. The Central government's proposal to notify the Right to Information (RTI) Rules is one such instance of acquiescence to bureaucratic pressure. There has been considerable pressure to curtail the ambit of the RTI Act, 2005, which is hailed as one of the progressive legislative achievements of civil society.
The Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), under the Union Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions, sought to notify the rules through an Office Memorandum on December 10, ironically celebrated as International Human Rights Day. Signed by R.K. Girdhar, Under Secretary of the Department, the memorandum proposed to notify the rules in supersession of the existing rules, namely, the RTI (Regulation of Fee and Cost) Rules, 2005, and the Central Information Commission (Appeal Procedure) Rules, 2005. It gave civil society just 17 days to respond to the proposed rules, without indicating whether the comments would be taken into consideration.
The draft notification of the rules, signed by Joint Secretary Rajeev Kapoor, has raised considerable concern among RTI activists and users.
The proviso to Rule 4, which deals with request for information, says the request shall relate only to one subject matter and shall be limited to 250 words, excluding the addresses of the Central Public Information Officer and the applicant.
The proviso has caused widespread consternation. An observer remarked that it was like asking one to speak in only so many words before even he or she could begin talking. Another wondered whether the government viewed RTI as nothing more than a social medium like Twitter, which imposes a 140-character limit on entries. RTI applicants question whether the proposed change is a ruse to evade accountability and reject applications for want of clarity, as this is bound to happen in view of the word limit permitted and the requirement that the application be limited to one subject. The proviso, it is believed, will give Information Officers wide discretion to decide whether an application deals with more than one subject and reject it summarily for that reason.
It has been pointed out that there are very few applicants who misuse the provisions of the RTI Act by posing a large number of questions in one application, but the Information Officers enjoy enough powers to reject such applications or request the applicants to prioritise their questions. It is suggested that applications in different languages entail distinct word usage; therefore, it will be impractical to impose a uniform word length. RTI activists are concerned that the requirement to write brief applications will demand linguistic skills, which will discourage, if not disqualify, semi-literate people from using the RTI Act.
The proposed Rule 5, dealing with fees for providing information, has also stirred up a controversy. Rule 5(g) states that one could be charged the actual amount spent by the public authority on hiring a machine or any other equipment to supply information. Rule 5(h) requires the public authorities to collect postal charges, in excess of Rs.10, involved in the supply of information. These rules, some activists say, could result in harassment of applicants, apart from restricting the number of applicants by unjustly hiking the cost of an application.
Rule 16, which states that the proceedings pending before the Central Information Commission shall abate on the death of the appellant, has also come in for criticism. RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak argues that appeal proceedings are about the violation of the RTI Act and, therefore, Information Commissions should continue to hear cases even after an appellant's death. Besides, there is the risk that RTI applicants seeking to expose corruption and wrongdoing could be killed by vested interests in order to stop the pending proceedings before the commission, he has warned. The rule appears to accord inadvertently a legal sanction to the spate of murders of RTI activists across the country.
Rule 19 requires that the head of a public authority shall ensure that an order passed by the Information Commission, unless varied or stayed by a validly passed order, is complied with and the compliance report filed with the commission within the time limit specified by the commission, or within 60 days if no such limit is specified. RTI activists suggest that the rules should also lay down punitive action to be taken against public authorities who fail to comply with the commission's orders.
As the government has not explained why these changes are required in the administration of the RTI Act, it has given rise to speculations about its intentions. According to RTI activist Subhash Chandra Agrawal, these rules constitute a major policy change and are against the letter and spirit of the RTI Act.
Other activists, such as Lokesh Batra, are surprised that the government has not thought it necessary to explain, through a press release, the reasons for the formulation of these rules. By asking the public to respond to an e-mail ID (email@example.com) by December 27, the government has deprived RTI users who are not Internet savvy of an opportunity to respond, Batra says. He also suspects that the rules seek to introduce complicated procedures, which may discourage people from all sections from voluntarily joining the RTI movement.
In its draft notification of the rules, the government has claimed that it drew its powers to notify the rules from Section 27 of the RTI Act. Subsection 1 of Section 27 enables the Central government, by notification in the Official Gazette, to make rules to carry out the provisions of the Act.
Subsection 2 seeks to enumerate matters that such rules may provide for. These matters include fee payable by the applicants, salaries and allowances of employees, and the procedure to be adopted by the commission in deciding the appeals.
Besides these, Subsection 2(f) includes "any other matter which is required to be, or may be, prescribed". It is apparent that the government will seek to justify some of the controversial rules in terms of Section 27 (2)(f). It is, therefore, incumbent on the government to justify whether the changes in the existing rules are indeed "required to be prescribed".
If there is no valid requirement to do so, then the government must explain whether the proposed rules are the only possible way to implement the Act. Failure to provide justifications will make the notification of the rules illegal. Section 4(1)(c) of the RTI Act requires the government to publish all relevant facts while formulating important policies or announcing decisions that affect the public.
The RTI Act was passed by the Lok Sabha (Lower House) on 11 May 2005, by the Raj Sabha (Upper House) on 12 May 2005 and received Presidential assent on 15 June 2005. Parts of the Act came into force upon Presidential assent, but the Act came fully into force on 12 October 2005, 120 days after Presidential assent.
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