RTI activists Anjali Bhardwaj and Venkatesh Nayak talk about their hopes and expectations from the Centre for the year ahead.
While Prime Minister Narendra Modi has often talked about moving from confidentiality to transparency and accountability, rights activist believe that he is yet to walk the talk. As transparency and anti-corruption laws await proper implementation, they are hoping that in 2017, the Centre will work on reviving lapsed legislations, operationalising existing ones and bringing on new ones that are essential to ensure accountability in the system. They also believe that the posts of Lokpal and Lokayuktas in all states, and information commissioners should be filled with the most suitable candidates. Two rights activists, Anjali Bhardwaj and Venkatesh Nayak, spoke to The Wire about the year gone by and their expectations from the new year.
The present government came on the plank of anti-corruption and so there were a lot of expectations, especially that the existing legislations will be implemented properly. These included the Lokpal law and the Whistleblowers Protection Act, which had got passed before the dissolution of the previous Lok Sabha.
And with the Lokpal the need was for an independent and an empowered body to investigate and prosecute cases of corruption and we had hoped that the government would immediately move to make the appointment of a Lokpal.
Promulgate rules to operationalise the Whistleblowers Protection Act
The government needs to put in place the proper mechanism needed to operationalise the Whistleblowers Protection Act. It was actually meant to protect people who come forth and expose corrupt practices and wrongdoing in the government. NCPRI had even drafted the rules for the implemented of the whisteblowers protection law and shared them with the government. Unfortunately, no rules have been promulgated till date.
So we hope that to begin with in the coming year, the government will immediately promulgate rules to operationalise the whistleblowers protection law, not dilute the law in any way and immediately start providing protection to people who blow the whistle on corruption.
Appoint the Lokpal immediately
The independent and empowered body of Lokpal is needed to investigate and prosecute cases of corruption and we had hoped that the government would immediately move to make the appointment of a Lokpal. The Lokpal law just requires a single line amendment which is to provide for the proper constitution of the selection committee for the selection of the Lokpal. The government must immediately introduce that one-line amendment, have it passed in parliament and immediately appoint the Lokpal.
Do not dilute asset disclosure norms
In the new year, we are also hoping that the government will rethink its entire move that they have taken to dilute the Lokpal law by diluting the asset disclosure norms. For that, the government had already promised in the parliament that it would refer the amendment act to the parliamentary standing committee. So we are hoping that it follow up on the commitment and assurance, and immediately send it for public consultation to the standing committee so that the problems that have happened with asset disclosure can also be resolved.
Centre should re-introduce grievance redressal Bill
We also hope that the grievance redress legislation, which is widely recognised as one required to fight graft at the very grassroots, where day-to-day corruption takes place, is brought in to provide time-bound redressal of citizens’ grievances. The Bill that had lapsed with the dissolution of the Lok Sabha in 2014 was a good law and had already been examined by the standing committee which gave its final nod to the draft that was readied.
So the government must immediately re-introduce the grievance redressal Bill in parliament and must take steps to ensure its smooth passage. It should also show commitment to implement that law and make sure that the delivery of basic goods as well as the entitlements and rights of people can take place effectively. The BJP manifesto had, incidentally, also talked about it in the 2014 polls.
BJP should set the example, bring itself under RTI, appoint PIO
On the issue of political party funding, we really hope that BJP can lead by example and immediately appoint public information officers and start servicing requests under the RTI in line with the Central Information Commission (CIC) order. At the moment there is non-compliance with the orders of the CIC.
Withdraw regressive PCA amendment on permission for investigation, prosecution
The amendment to the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA), which has been introduced through a Bill by the government, basically brings in the requirement of prior permission to be taken from the government to proceed with any cases of corruption and the investigation or prosecution of cases of corruption. This is a completely regressive step which we hope the government will reconsider and drop from the amendments to the PCA because this will set the clock back by many years. Also, there is a Supreme Court order which had struck down the requirement for sanctions to investigate into cases of corruption.
Also, the PCA amendments criminalise the act of bribe-giving. Now in a country like India where bribes are extorted from people and there is large-scale coercive corruption, this step will criminalise common people because when they go to a government facility and ask for a basic entitlement, they are asked for a bribe. So now first they will have to pay a bribe and then be sent to jail for up to seven years.
Make political funding transparent, every rupee donated be accounted for
In the case of political funding, we feel that the Election Commission saying that details of donors be disclosed for all donations above Rs 2,000 instead of Rs 20,000 earlier does not serve any purpose because all the parties are already indulging in the practice of breaking down donations and they will just break them down further. So it will not attack the real problem of transparency.
What is required is that every rupee that is given in donations to any political party should be accounted for. That happens in case of all citizens or all organisations. So why should political parties be an exception? Moreover, there should also be complete transparency in the expenditure of by political parties.
RTI activist Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative regularly files RTI applications to make details behind various government decisions, policies and actions public. For him, strengthening institutions is as important as implementing the requisite laws to empower citizens, ensure protection of RTI applicants and enhance accountability.
I think what is important is for the public authorities to take RTIs seriously next year, in accordance with the statements being repeatedly made by the prime minister to switch over from confidentiality to accountability. Authorities should understand that is the government policy, deal with RTI applications promptly and provide the information sought without unnecessarily invoking exemptions.
I hope the public authorities will take steps to improve the quality and quantity of the proactive disclosures based on the analysis of the RTI applications that come to them – again another recommendation given by the prime minister last year – and put more information in the public domain as is required by the RTI Act in Section 4 (2) so that the instances of attacks on citizens who ask for that kind of information is brought to zero.
No more attacks on RTI users
We do not want to see any case of harassment or attack on any RTI user and are hoping that we will not get any data next year for uploading on the “Hall of Shame” that we had launched this year to highlight cases of attacks on RTI users across the country. We are looking forward to such a situation.
Have people with diverse specialisations as information commissioners
I would like the governments to fill up all the vacancies that are there in the information commissions through public consultation, open invitations and open advertisements. These posts should be filled up with people having diverse specialisations.
I think more than 90% of the information commissioners are from the IAS. All wisdom and experience does not lie necessarily in retired civil servants. There are people in others walks of life like law, science and technology, social service, management, journalism, mass media or administration and governance, who can also be appointed. But they normally choose civil servants because they prefer them. It is like a post-retirement sinecure for most of them. This should change.
Check past record of bureaucrat before appointment
I also think that next year, when the government will start considering retired bureaucrats for appointment, one criteria for selection should be what steps did the bureaucrat take in the last ten years to implement RTI properly in his or her office
I also hope the government will revive the practice of consulting with the people on all draft laws. There was a consultation policy in practice in 2014. But this changed under the current dispensation and now the government does it only when it wants to and not mandatorily. Now it does not consult the public in all matters, it only does so when it wants to.
Hope Lokpal is appointed, states set up their Lokayukta offices
I am hoping that early next year we will see the establishment of the Lokpal and also appointment of Lokayuktas in the states that are yet to establish the office as also in those where the post is lying vacant. Also the amendments brought to dilute the law should also be withdrawn and the central government and the state governments should implement the law as it is. That is crucial for protecting whistleblowers, including RTI users.
Detailed CIC orders need of the hour
I do not have a problem with the use of templates so long as it captures the content of an RTI application and the first appeal and then gives detailed reasoning concerning the CIC’s decision if the application is rejected.
Within the commission, there are some commissioners who do not want every decision to be made public. They want the decision to be given to the parties concerned but not the whole world. This is a ridiculous position to take because within the commission these decisions have evidential value. If people do not have access to these decisions then how are they going to claim relief for anything? This information should be in the public domain. Also, the commission is a body meant to resolve all transparency-related disputes, so its own activities must be transparent, particularly its decisions in all cases. There is no reason to keep them confidential.