In Another Blow to Transparency, Government Restricts Access to Secretariat Information

A minor change in the secretariat manual means that only ‘VIPs’ have access to communication within a stipulated timeline.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Credit: PTI

New Delhi: The Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pensions which, under minister of state Jitendra Singh, is the nodal ministry for the Right to Information Act – has silently restricted the flow of information to the general public by allowing only ‘VIPs’ access to communication within a stipulated timeline. This has been done through a minor change in the 14th edition of the central secretariat manual of office procedure (CSMOP).

The matter came to light recently when the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI) decided to file a RTI request with the Prime Minister’s Office to ask about the action taken on the vacancies in the Central Information Commission.

‘Members of public’ no longer have access to time-bound information 

According to Anjali Bhardwaj of the NCPRI, they were surprised to learn that a crucial para in the CSMOP – which prescribes procedures for secretariat work – had been amended. “In previous years, we would refer to the office of manual procedures and ask whether a reply had been sent under para 66(1) of the manual. However, this time when we checked the latest edition (14th edition) of the manual, we found that “member of public” has been replaced by ‘VIP’.”

Bhardwaj said the 13th edition of the manual, which was issued in 2010, stated in para 66(1) that “each communication received from a Member of Parliament, member of the public, recognised association or a public body will be acknowledged within 15 days, followed by a reply within the next 15 days of acknowledgement sent.”

The 14th edition had been revised to state in para 37(vi) that “each communication received from a Member of Parliament/VIP, shall be acknowledged within 15 days, followed by a reply within the next 15 days of acknowledgement sent.” As such, “member of public” had been surreptitiously replaced with “MP/VIP” to deny information to ordinary citizens.

Through this sleight, all the ordinary citizens were in a way debarred from accessing information, that too by a ministry and department that is supposed to uphold the Right to Information Act.

This assumes significance since the manual guides all the central ministries, their departments and their work. Ironically, while the document sought to deny time-bound information to ordinary citizens, its “introduction” stated that “the ultimate object of all government business is to meet the citizens’ needs and further their welfare.”

The 14th edition of CSMOP also had a “message” from MoS Singh stating that “the provisions of the revised CSMOP instil a greater sense of responsiveness, accountability, transparency and public service excellence in the current system of governance and also fulfil the need for further simplifying the government procedures and processes.”

Further, the secretary in the department of administrative reforms and public grievances, Alok Rawat, had in the “foreword” to the 14th edition of CSMOP stated that “the overall aim is to increase productivity in work and make the administration more responsive. Efforts have been made to maintain concordance between organisational goals, procedures of work and functionaries entrusted with the responsibility of discharging them.”

Meanwhile, a report in the Times of India quoted an official as saying that: “the latest edition (of CSMOP) is a more productive manual, which has done away with a number of entries that are otherwise available online.” The official was also quoted as saying that “the RTI Act still has a deadline for response from the public authority, which is not impacted by the changes in the manual.”

Transparency, information flow has suffered

Such claims notwithstanding, the changes to the document reveal another attempt by the Narendra Modi government to stifle the flow of information. In the past, RTI activists have accused the present regime of deliberately acting against transparency and flow of information.

In July 2017, the NCPRI had accused the Modi government of diluting the provisions of the original Whistleblower Protection Act by bringing the WBP (Amendment) Bill, 2015, that severely sought to undermine the powers under the original Act.

The activists of NCPRI had pointed out that by suggesting removal of the clause which safeguards whistleblowers from prosecution under the Official Secrets Act (OSA) if they make a disclosure under the WBP Act and also by stating that no disclosures should contain information which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty, integrity, security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the state, the amended Bill was diluting the provisions of the original Act.

The Campaign had also accused the Modi regime of doing away with the Right of Citizens for Time Bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of Grievances Bill. The Bill was advocated by NCPRI and was introduced in the Lok Sabha in 2011, but was allowed to later lapse.

Analysts had stated that the Delivery of Services and Grievances Redressal Scheme-2015, which sought to replace the Grievance Redressal Bill, did not provide a legal entitlement to redress.

Other activists have in the past too alleged that transparency through the RTI Act has taken a backseat in the present regime. They have also accused the Prime Minister’s Office of not only delaying the appointment of the central information commissioners but also of denying information under the RTI Act about these delays.

Liked the story? We’re a non-profit. Make a donation and help pay for our journalism.