Activists Unconvinced By Centre's Reassurance on New RTI Draft Rules

Activists have demanded removal of clauses in the draft rules that permit the withdrawal of an application and say appeals proceedings end with the applicant’s death.

New Delhi: Even though the central government on Wednesday (April 5) clarified that the draft rules issued by it for implementing the Right to Information Act (RTI), 2005 were the same as those notified by the UPA government in 2012, and therefore the criticism of it was misplaced, RTI activists do not seem convinced.

The activists have pointed out that what the government has ignored in the draft rules is an important resolution adopted by the Central Information Commission (CIC) in 2011 about how to deal with situations where RTI users are attacked for seeking information from any public authority under the central government.

CIC resolution had called for strong action if appellant was attacked

Pointing out this lacuna, Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, said that the resolution CIC adopted on September 13, 2011, dealt with the manner of handling pending RTI applications of persons who are assaulted or murdered for seeking information.

He said the resolution moved by the then information commissioner Shailesh Gandhi had stated, “The Central Information Commission expresses regret and takes note of the reported killings of and assault on the RTI users across the country. The commission underlines the need to take urgent steps by the respective governments for the safety and protection of the RTI users. The commission strongly believes that it is the duty and responsibility of the respective governments to safeguard the life and liberty of the RTI users for which purpose they should invoke the relevant penal provisions for the prevention and detection of such heinous crimes.”

He said the commission had then resolved that “if it receives a complaint regarding assault or murder of an information seeker, it will examine the pending RTI applications of the victim and order the concerned department(s) to publish the requested information suo motu on their website as per the provisions of law.”

The CIC had also resolved that it would “take proactive steps in ascertaining the status of investigations/prosecutions of the cases involving information seekers and endeavor to have these processes expedited.”

Draft RTI rules may prompt attack on activists

Nayak said that rather than adopting such a strident resolve in dealing with complaints when the applicants are attacked or murdered, the draft rules moved by the present government have adopted a very soft approach towards the entire issue.

He had earlier raised concerns about how the draft rules by permitting the withdrawal of an application and allowing proceedings to end with the applicant’s death could mean higher risk for those filing queries.

The RTI activist said that it was clear that while CIC’s official policy was to take action suo motu by examining pending RTI applications, if a case of murder of or attack on any person seeking information from a public authority under its jurisdiction is reported to it, under the draft rules, “an appeal or complaint would abate [lapse without any action being taken on it] when the CIC comes to know that the appellant/complainant has passed away either due to natural causes or because he or she was murdered.”

He added that, “The new rules will nullify the CIC’s policy of dealing with RTI applications of those murdered by vested interests, on a priority basis, in a proactive manner. The CIC will plead that its hands are tied by the new RTI rules, so it will do nothing about the case of a murdered RTI activist except allow the appeal to abate.”

Attacks on RTI activists on the rise

Nayak said there has been a sharp increase in the number of attacks on RTI activists and information seekers. In 2007, when the CIC’s management regulations were issued allowing for the abatement of appeals on the death of the appellant, there were only eight reported cases of attacks on RTI activists and information seekers. By the time the CIC adopted the resolution in 2011, the number had gone up to 168.

Further, he said that by the time the RTI rules were drafted, discussed and notified in 2012 under the UPA government, the number of cases had jumped up to 195.

“This is why RTI activists have strongly opposed every proposal to allow abatement of appeals on the death of the appellant,” he reasoned.

Abatement clause will lead to silencing of crusaders

“The abatement clause will not empower anybody. Instead, it will provide a loophole to vested interests to get pending appeals off the CIC’s table by silencing crusaders against corruption and defenders of social justice and human rights through the device or murder,” said Nayak. In this regard, he referred to murder of two whistleblowers – Satyendra Dubey and Manjunath – which were linked to allegations of corruption in public authorities under the central government.

Meanwhile, in an interview to a news channel, union minister Jitendra Singh while speaking on the issue, said, “Recently, Supreme Court passed a direction that RTI was brought in 2005, this regulation was brought in 2007 or 2012, and if you do not convert all the regulations into rules then all the judgments and various decisions taken by the information commission benches all across the country may tomorrow become null and void. So there was an urgency to frame rules based on the regulations which are part of what UPA gave us and we inherited from them. So, we thought it fit to put these in public domain and at the same time invite opinion of the citizens and the people.”

Commenting on the controversy around the issue, he claimed, “It is much out of lack of understanding of what the entire issue is all about.” Singh said it is not that the present government was against RTI. “In principle, the government is committed to absolute transparency in governance, absolute citizen centricity in governance and absolute ease in governance. What the Congress is doing or saying is because they have not studied the subject.”

“The RTI was brought by the UPA government in 2005, then some regulations and rules were brought in 2007 and 2012. Many of the regulations they brought in were not converted into rules as should normally happen. They spent ten years but could not do it. But now what they are talking about – 500 word limit, etc – was actually brought in by them. These are the regulations, which were drafted and proposed by the UPA government. What we are trying to do is to complete the unfinished task with the help of the citizens.”

The Centre had also come out with a detailed note on the issue on April 5 in which it had termed the claims that the new set of RTI rules had been formulated to create difficulties and hurdles in the rights of the citizens to get information from the government as “factually incorrect”. Stating that “the facts are totally to the contrary”, the government said that on July 31, 2012, the then UPA government had notified the RTI rules under section 27 of the RTI and the provisions of the same had been retained in the draft RTI rules.

In this note it had clarified that the provision for withdrawal of appeal was earlier included in the Central Information Commission (Management) Regulations 2007, and therefore it has been included in the new rules as well. Similarly, it said the provision for abatement of appeals/complaints on the death of the applicant/complainant, which was earlier included in the CIC regulations, had also been included. These are the two specific provisions Nayak has objected to.

The Centre said the rules provided that an RTI application will ordinarily be not more than 500 words (subject to exception) with a nominal fee being charged from each applicant. These rules were framed and notified in 2012.

“However,” it said, “legality of the CIC (Management) Regulations of 2007 was challenged before the Delhi high court and these were quashed. The matter has been pending before the Supreme Court. The government therefore decided, in consultation with the CIC, that a comprehensive set of rules be notified by consolidating the key provisions of CIC (Management) Regulations and also the rules of 2012” and now these have been put up in public domain for comments.

The Centre had also clarified that the existing RTI rules notified in 2012 specifically provide in section 3 that an application shall ordinarily not contain more than 500 words excluding the annexure and therefore no change has been proposed in these provisions in the new rules.

It also said the provision with respect to charging rates was identical to that contained in existing RTI rules which provide for charging rates as per price fixed for a publication or Rs 2 per page of photocopy for extracts from the publication. There is a further provision in rule 5 that no fee under rule 3 and rule 4 shall be charged from any person who is below poverty line and this provision has been retained in the new proposed rules.

It said there was also no change in the postal charges for sending the information. Also, it said the proposed rules do not limit the filing of either complaint or appeal “online” only. Both rule 8 and rule 13 dealing with filing of appeals and complaints especially provide for filing offline as well as online.

Such being the case, Centre said the allegation that there is a move to dilute the provisions of RTI is unfounded. “The proposed amendments to the rules are in public domain for comments by April 15, 2017, and will be finalised keeping in view the public feedback received in the matter.”