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Media pundits oppose amendments in RTI Act

Written by: Staff

New Delhi, July 23: Outraged over the proposed amendments in the the unique Right to Information (RTI) Act, media pundits and zealous human rights campaigners have slammed the government for belittling the scope and relevance of the Act under the dubious plea of making it more ''effective and progressive''.

''Despite all claims otherwise, by this very move the Cabinet has cold-shouldered a watershed legislation in favour of an outlived Official Secrecy Act of 1923,'' Centre for Media Studies (CMS) Chairman N. Bhaskara Rao said.

Dr Rao said it was unfortunate that the Union Cabinet was trying to ''protect secrecy'' and restrict the scope and relevance of a unique legislation passed unanimously by both the Houses of Parliament barely a year ago. ''That too, without sounding any stakeholders who lead the movement for right to information, not even with its own partners in the ruling coalition.'' Reminding the government that for making this 2005 Act work the civil society of the country had just organised a massive nationwide campaign, he said. ''Has the government got scared of the public response? Or is it simply yielding to pressures or apprehensions of some bureaucrats?''.

On Thursday, the Union Cabinet had approved introducing in the Monsoon Session of Parliament an amendment exempting file notings of officials from the RTI, much to the consternation of the right to information campaigners.

The Act, if amended, will allow the public access to only file notings in developmental and social issues.

''The government should nevertheless clarify now about a specific provision in the Act under Section 24 (1). That is even in the case of intelligence and security organisations, information pertaining to the allegation of corruption and human rights violations shall not be excluded,'' Dr Rao said.

Central Information Commission (CIC) member O P Kejriwal said the Cabinet's decision to exclude officials' notings on government files from the purview of the RTI would take "life out of the law".

''Information minus the file notings amounts to taking the life out of the RTI Act," Mr Kejriwal told a news channel.

"There were hundreds, literally hundreds, who got their ration cards, electricity connections only by filing an application where they asked what was the daily progress of the applications and who were the officers dealing with their applications.

"Now if the file notings are closed, the entire process is stalled," he said.

Denouncing the government's argument that the proposed amendments would make the RTI ''effective and progressive'', Dr Rao said, "At this rate what is the guarantee that the government honours this Act. Every time one or other of its wings finds it difficult to cope with requests for information.'' He also appealed to the UPA partners ''not to fiddle with an Act for which as a nation we should be proud of.'' Dr Rao, however, lauded the Central Information Commission (CIC), saying it had done a good job in a matter of nine months to establish that the Act had come into being and also working.

''The CIC has shown restraint in giving file notings of ongoing cases and before a decision is taken. The CIC has not done anything to warrant an amendment now, nor anything else has happened since the same Parliament passed it unanimously.'' Ms Aruna Roy, the prime mover of the right to information campaign, said the decision was a setback.

''This is completely unreasonable and unwarranted. The Act has been in force for six months now and every single appeal has been judiciously dealt with. There could be no problems in Section 8.'' Ms Roy, a leader of the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghathan, said the government would take advantage of the proposed amendments to hide all the necessary notings critical in forming policy and taking decisions.

The BJP said the RTI was brought into force with a big hype but it turned out to be a damp squib.

Party General Secretary Arun Jaitley said a big hype was created over the Act with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh going to the extent of advocating to make official notings public.

''But as disclosures are becoming more and more embarrassing, the government is now saying that certain facts cannot be revealed".

The Congress, on the other hand, maintained that despite the changes proposed in the Act, the "heart and soul of the legisaltion" had been retained to allow transparancy in the governance.

Information and Broadcasting Minister P R Dasmunsi said the amendments would remove the ambiguities and make the provisions of the Act effective and progressive. ''Such exemptions have been granted in the US, the UK and Australia," he argued.

The Left parties have made it clear that they would oppose the move tooth and nail, saying the proposed changes would mar the transparency in governance which is the very purpose of the new law.


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