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New Delhi: For the past few years, the country’s premier department, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), has been continuously violating the Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005. To questions posed in various RTI queries, the department furnishes arbitrary responses, which are not only illegal at times but even absurd.
In yet another instance of blatant disregard of the 2005 Act, the PMO has refused to make public the documents related to the government’s decision to rename the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award after legendary sportsperson Major Dhyan Chand. In a clear violation, the department claimed that the details sought are outside the purview of the definition of ‘information’ as per the RTI Act.
The PMO instead claimed that the details sought by the applicant are ‘roving’ in nature.
Amid euphoria over the Indian men’s hockey team’s brilliant performance at the Tokyo Olympics this year, people reiterated the demand to confer the prestigious Bharat Ratna award posthumously to Major Dhyan Chand.
A three-time Olympic gold medallist, Major Dhyan Chand is considered the country’s greatest hockey player and his birthday on August 29 is celebrated as the National Sports Day of India. On this day every year, the highest sports honors of the country, Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, Arjuna, and Dronacharya awards, are bestowed on players for excellence in sports.
But ignoring the popular demand, the Modi government instead decided to rename the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award. On August 6, Prime Minister Modi announced that the Khel Ratna has now been named after Major Dhyan Chand.
Backing his decision, the prime minister tweeted, “I have been getting many requests from citizens across India to name the Khel Ratna Award after Major Dhyan Chand. I thank them for their views. Respecting their sentiment, the Khel Ratna Award will hereby be called the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna Award!”
I have been getting many requests from citizens across India to name the Khel Ratna Award after Major Dhyan Chand. I thank them for their views.
Respecting their sentiment, the Khel Ratna Award will hereby be called the Major Dhyan Chand Khel Ratna Award!
Jai Hind! pic.twitter.com/zbStlMNHdq
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) August 6, 2021
But the decision soon sparked a row. The Opposition was quick to point out how the government is being selective as Gujarat’s cricket stadium was recently renamed Narendra Modi stadium, even though it was earlier named after Sardar Patel, venerated freedom fighter and the country’s first home minister.
Meanwhile, to ascertain the veracity of the claims made by the Modi government regarding demands for the renaming of the Khel Ratna Award, The Wire had filed an RTI application in the PMO on August 8, 2021, enquiring about the total number of requests received by the government regarding renaming the Khel Ratna award. Photocopies of all such requests were also sought in the RTI query.
In addition, copies of all files (including all file notings, correspondences, records which are part of the file) in which the said decision described above was processed and approved.
However, the PMO’s central public information officer (CPIO) and under secretary, Binod Bihari Singh, refused to provide the information claiming that the details sought are outside the purview of the definition of ‘information’ under the RTI Act.
In his reply dated August 19, 2021, Singh said, “Details sought by the applicant is roving in nature and does not come within the definition of ‘information’ as defined under Section 2(f) of RTI Act, 2005.”
The response of the CPIO is ridiculous and only goes to point out that Singh does not even have the basic understanding of the RTI Act.
Section 2 (f) in the RTI Act, 2005 clearly states that “information” means any material in any form, including records, documents, memos, e‑mails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force.
The PMO’s response
It is noteworthy that the PMO has not denied the presence of such documents, but instead gave an illegal argument that the details sought are not ‘information’ under the RTI Act.
Clearly, a file must have been created for renaming the Khel Ratna Award which includes documents of approval from the concerned ministries or departments and other documents that formed the basis of the decision. But Singh refused to furnish any of them.
The response to the RTI query raises the question whether Singh is under pressure or he is actually inept to be occupying such a responsible post at the PMO.
Singh was earlier the under secretary in the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change. He was deployed with the PMO in August 2019, succeeding former long-time CPIO Praveen Kumar.
Kumar is also known to have furnished many similar illogical and arbitrary responses to RTI queries.
In September 2018, The Wire had filed an RTI query seeking information on a list of high profile fraud cases of non-performing assets forwarded by former Reserve Bank of India (RBI) governor Raghuram Rajan to the PMO. Back then as well, the CPIO had said that the details sought were not ‘information’ as defined by the RTI Act.
The office neither revealed the date on which the then RBI governor had sent the letter nor informed about any course of action in the matter.
While the RBI had provided information regarding the matter under the RTI Act, which revealed that Rajan had sent a list of the country’s major scammers to the Prime Minister Modi and also demanded a probe in the matter.
The CIC’s lackadaisical attitude
RTI activists and former information commissioners claim that the Central Information Commission (CIC), the apex appellate body for matters related to the RTI Act, is not functioning properly. As a result, it casts no fear on public information officers who are increasingly and blatantly violating the law.
Former Central Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi says that it takes two years for an appellant to fix a hearing for a case. In such a situation, the RTI Act fails to benefit the citizens who are unable to access information timely.
“There is no doubt that the PMO CPIO’s reply violates the law,” says Gandhi. “They want to suppress the information. They are aware that once the appellate officer of the department rejects the application, it will take two to three years for the case to be heard in the CIC. By then the information will be rendered futile. As such, the ‘Right to Information’ will become ‘Right to History’.”
Gandhi said that the main reason for the pathetic condition of the RTI Act is that the present regime is antagonistic to it. Even the courts are pronouncing bizarre verdicts in the RTI Act matters, he said.
The former CIC remarked, “Our law is one of the best RTI laws in the world. It was implemented properly for the first five-six years. But now the situation has changed. If we want to preserve the law, then the information commission, the information commissioners, and the CPIOs will have to be held accountable. The law will hold any significance only if the concerned authorities grant timely decisions.”
Note that as on August 20, 2021, a total of 35,143 cases were pending in the CIC, out of which 30,295 appeals and 4,848 complaints are yet to be disposed of.
One of the major reasons behind such a large number of pending cases with the CIC is that the Modi government is not appointing information commissioners on time. There are a total of 11 sanctioned posts in the CIC, including the Central Information Commissioner, but at present, three posts are lying vacant.
Despite the matter being sub judice before the Supreme Court for a long time and many important orders being issued, the government has failed to make the required appointments to vacant posts. The situation in state information commissions is even worse.
Renaming was already being considered
The plan to rename the Khel Ratna award was under consideration for at least the past two years. The idea was proposed by the committee for review of sports awards and special (Cash) award scheme, constituted by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports in February 2019.
The committee under Justice (retd.) Indermeet Kaur Kochar consisted of members like Shiva Keshavan, Ashwini Nachappa, Mohandas Pai, Rajesh Kalra and S.P.S. Tomar (deputy secretary in the sports ministry and in-charge of sports awards).
According to the Hindu’s report, the committee had noted that “Rajiv Gandhi has not been directly associated with sports, but the award is being given carrying his name for the last 26 years. Bhartiya Khel Ratna would be more appropriate.”
Eventually, it was unanimously decided that “there is no need for changing the names of the schemes of sports awards at this juncture.”
While the Congress welcomed the decision to rename the Khel Ratna Award after Major Dhyan Chand, it objected to renaming the cricket stadium in Ahmedabad after Prime Minister Modi. It remarked that various stadiums in the country should now be named after sportspersons like P.T. Usha, Milkha Singh, Mary Kom, Abhinav Bindra, Sachin Tendulkar, Pullela Gopichand, Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Sania Mirza and Leander Paes.
Translated from Hindi by Naushin Rehman.