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Why the Government Is Still Stuck in Its Culture of Secrecy

Despite legislations and promises to the contrary, the government is not doing everything it can to be more open and accessible.

While commendable success has been achieved in promoting transparency, the bureaucratic mindset to maintain secrecy has not significantly changed. Credit: Pixabay

While commendable success has been achieved in promoting transparency, the bureaucratic mindset to maintain secrecy has not significantly changed. Credit: Pixabay

On August 9, 2007, 65 years and one day after the Quit India movement, the present office of the Central Information Commission (CIC) began operating at the August Kranti Bhawan in New Delhi.

Conducting hearings on this date, in matters filed before the CIC, was planned with a view to revolutionise the sharing of information, mainly through efforts to dismantle the ‘culture of secrecy’ maintained by the political and bureaucratic class.

I am privileged to have conducted the first hearings on that day.

As citizens of this country, we must realise that we have the responsibility to fight against all ills that plague the development process, mainly corruption in public life. The implementation of the Right to Information Act (RTI) in 2005 was one important step towards this goal.

Indeed, the linkage between RTI and good governance is strong, which augurs well for improving transparency and accountability in the functioning of the government. An informed citizenry under the RTI regime can duly contribute to the formulation and execution of important policy measures such as those for employment and income generation, poverty alleviation and socio-economic development.

The effective implementation of RTI ensures a free flow of ideas and information, which in turn enables people to take informed decisions and participate in public activities for the promotion of socio-economic objectives.

Information Commissions have, in the last 12 years, played a critical role in enforcing the provisions of the Act to improve access to information. A massive amount of information and data is now in the public domain.

Government departments that implement various flagship schemes gainfully utilise people’s feedback on the functioning of various bodies to evolve strategies to provided services in a cost-effective manner. The RTI is thus used as an effective instrument for fulfilling the objectives of various social welfare schemes, mainly to optimise the socio-economic returns on public expenditure and to ensure that entitlements reach beneficiary groups.

While commendable success has been achieved in promoting transparency, the bureaucratic mindset to maintain secrecy has not significantly changed, which is why over 60,000 RTI applications are filed every year for accessing information that should have ideally been in the public domain. The costs of accessing information are therefore unduly very high; and, in many cases, by the time information is provided, it becomes obsolete or unusable because of the lapse of time.

The things that need fixing

There are some major impediments in realising the objective of ‘open government’.

First, all government departments are mandated to voluntarily disclose updated information under Section 4 of the RTI Act, which they hardly do. As a result, information seekers are compelled to file RTI applications, which could take over a year to reach a logical conclusion, or is sometimes even disposed of in stages by the public authority and later by the Information Commissions. The Department of Personnel and Training, under the prime minister’s office, has already decided to conduct an audit of disclosures under Section 4, which is yet to be initiated. This, despite Prime Minister Narendra Modi making an oft-repeated commitment to improve transparency and governance. As a result, there is no perceptible change in the culture of secrecy that breeds corruption.

Second, there is consensus among the lay and learned that the main source of corruption in India is the manner in which political parties receive funds from different sources. The CIC has already ruled that political parties, being public authorities as per the provisions of RTI Act, should function transparently and disclose their sources of funds. However, this has not been done in the last three years. The CIC is still struggling to explore the legal possibilities in order to enforce its earlier decision. A fresh bench of four information commissioners has recently been constituted to review and deliberate on the matter, and to find ways to direct political parties to reveal the sources and amounts of donations received by them from different entities. In view of the close linkages between political bosses and the bureaucracy, it seems difficult to implement the RTI Act in letter and spirit to realise the laudable objective “to contain corruption and to hold Governments and their instrumentalities accountable to the governed”.

Third, under Section 4 of the Act, the government must “Provide reasons for every administrative or quasi judicial decision to affected persons”. Of late, a few decisions have been taken without proper consultation with the people at large, which has resulted in public outrage as many people have suffered unduly. For instance, the government’s recent rule on cattle trade was neither shared with the Lok Sabha, as per a RTI reply, nor were the rules put in the public domain for sufficient days to obtain people’s feedback on the matter. The Act is thus undermined by the government.

Fourth, until 2011, the CBI was under the ambit of the RTI Act. When a large number of corruption cases were exposed under the RTI regime beginning from 2005 and CBI’s credibility in matters of fair and objective investigations were questioned by civil society, the then government considered it expedient to exclude the CBI from the ambit of the RTI.

The political parties in power today have stalled the functioning of parliament several times around issues of rampant corruption, which were revealed through the use of RTIs. As is well known, the CBI was responsible for investigating corruption cases against senior members of different political parties and other officials facing charges in cases of disproportionate incomes. Less than one-fourth of these cases were cracked by the CBI, while in many of the remaining cases the accused have gotten away for different reasons, including the lack of evidence.

The CBI must be brought under the ambit of the RTI Act as per the original Act passed by parliament in 2005. Since the CBI does not fall under the category of ‘security and intelligence’ agencies, excluding it from the purview of the RTI is illegal and uncalled for. This exclusion is inconsistent with the Modi’s “commitment towards providing transparent, effective and accountable governance to the people of this country”.

Fifth, over 60% of RTI applications fall in the category of grievances regarding employment, recruitment, promotion, pension and insurance settlements, issuance of permits and licenses, tax-related disputes and the like. Most government departments have not put in place effective grievance redressal systems for dealing with employee and customer-related matters. All dissatisfied citizens are then compelled to take the RTI route to resolve grievances of a personal nature and/or to realise rights-based entitlements. The departments, which have a huge interface with the public, have as yet not succeeded in resolving the disputes arising from unsatisfactory services rendered by the government.

Finally, information literacy is extremely low in the country, particularly in rural areas. This may be a major obstacle in the digitisation of the economy and society. To create mass awareness, a concerted effort is required to educate and train every citizen on subjects such as to how to decide what information should be sought, where to try and get it from, and how to go about it.

Every citizen should be empowered with the requisite information so that s/he can be a part of the knowledge society. The right to know creates conducive conditions for inclusive growth. If we do so with the spirit of the Quit India movement, it my be possible to ensure a decent quality of life for all.

M.M. Ansari is a former chief information commissioner.