Sunday, 21 October 2012

Mr Prime Minister, we need more information, not less (Sunday Guardian)


Demonstrators oppose PM’s stance on reducing the RTI ambit. They say the proper way of countering the flood of requests is for the public authorities to earn the trust of the people. PTI
ational security, what crimes get committed in your name! Mainly on this ground, successive governments have blocked publication of reports and other nuggets of information that would expose their negligence and inattention to the needs of the people. Fifty years after the 1962 Sino-Indian border conflict, the Henderson-Brooks report on the missteps which led to the October debacle is yet to be officially released. Clearly, the motivation behind the perverse insistence on concealing the analysis stems from a desire to protect the reputation of those involved in decision-making during the conflict and the years preceding that. While there are countries that have a blasphemy law, these are directed against criticism of the Almighty. This columnist joins those who argue that the Almighty hardly needs the protection of man-made laws, and would remain totally unharmed even by the most vituperative of attacks. However, in locations across the globe, self-appointed guardians of the good name of the Almighty are meting out obloquy and even death to those they suspect of disrespect to divinity. Pakistan is among such countries. However, India appears to have gone beyond its neighbour by adding to its already considerable stock of gods, by placing selected leaders of the political spectrum beyond the pale of honest assessment. That the man acknowledged as the most saintly of these, Mahatma Gandhi, had numerous imperfections is something that the Mahatma himself pointed out, sometimes with disarming frankness, as for example, the special duties that he handed out to women young enough to be his granddaughters. Jawaharlal Nehru himself penned a devastating critique of his vanity, albeit anonymously. Of course, neither the Mahatma nor his colleagues seem to have bothered to read Nehru on Nehru, for they continued to bequeath to him high office after high office.
However, now that both the Mahatma as well as his chosen successor are no more, they and numerous others have in effect been deified, and an unwritten Blasphemy Law has come into effect, whereby the government at least refuses to reveal information which presents them in a light less than glorious. Hundreds of reports remain unaccessible to the ordinary citizen, despite the immense relevance of many of them towards the forming of an informed opinion about the quality and capacity of our leaders. Each government has continued with the tradition of secrecy, no doubt confident that successor regimes would repay the favour by declining to give information about their own peccadilloes. A democracy where people are denied the right to information is an imperfect one, and by the standards of transparency of mature democracies such as the US or the UK, India's is primitive. The Right to Information Act was among the few laudable steps taken by the Manmohan Singh administration, but if newspaper reports (including recording of his own speeches) are to be believed, the Prime Minister now seeks to gut the RTI of the few yellowing teeth that the law has, in order to render it entirely toothless as a means whereby the citizen can find out the ways in which decisions that affect them get taken. Should Manmohan Singh go ahead with this regressive move, his legacy will develop even more smears than is already the case. Hopefully, the PM will, in the manner of Haroun Al Rashid, occasionally step outside his comfortable cocoon and look at matters from the viewpoint of a citizen denied the benefits of high office. In other words, the viewpoint of 99.99% of the population of India. If the Republican Party in the US appears to be championing only the wish list of the super rich of that country, by diluting RTI Manmohan Singh would be placing the interests of corrupt elements of the higher bureaucracy above those of the citizenry as a whole.
Rather than gut the RTI, what is needed is to strengthen it. This columnist is not among those who believes that only former judges have the acumen and the dedication needed to ensure that the various RTI boards themselves function in a transparent and effective manner. While judges in India are indeed admirable, there may also be a few ordinary citizens possessed of similar qualities, if only a search gets conducted, again by a commission which comprises a majority of non-officials. Incidentally, to truly live up to such a term, the search team needs a majority of those who have never in their lives drawn a government salary. At present, the RTI boards have become sinecures for retired and retiring bureaucrats, some of whom have had less than stellar records while in harness. This should change, not by replacing them with ex-judges, but with those unfortunates who have never known the cool shade of high office, and who therefore may hopefully be expected to understand the hunger for facts that the public has, a hunger now sought to be satiated by sensational leaks, some of questionable accuracy. If Manmohan Singh has any concern about his legacy, he ought not to dilute one of the policies that he can be genuinely proud of, the passing of RTI legislation.

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