The Right to Information Act (RTI), once touted as one of the biggest achievements in UPA-1, is now being seen as the villain of the piece in scam-ridden UPA-2.
The Prime Minister today came out very strongly against the “frivolous and vexatious use” of the provisions of RTI.
“There are some obvious areas of concerns about the way the Right to Information Act is being used presently. There are concerns about frivolous and vexatious use of the Act in demanding information, the disclosure of which cannot possibly serve any public purpose.
Sometimes information covering a long time-span or a large number of cases is sought in an omnibus manner with the objective of discovering an inconsistency or mistake which can be criticised. Such queries, besides serving little productive social purpose, are also a drain on the resources of the public authorities, diverting precious man-hours that could be put to better use,” Singh said at the annual convention of Information Commissioners.
Many of the controversial RTIs relating to the 2G scam and its aftermath came from the PMO itself - including the March 2011 note which said P Chidambaram could have stopped the allotment of cheap spectrum issued by A Raja, if he had so wanted.
In an indirect reference to RTI queries regarding Sonia Gandhi and Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi’s trips abroad – issues on which Narendra Modi has raised a ruckus in Gujarat – Manmohan Singh said: “Concerns have also been raised regarding possible infringement of personal privacy while providing information under the Right to Information Act. There is a fine balance required to be maintained between the right to information and the right to privacy, which stems out of the fundamental right to life and liberty. The citizen’s right to know should definitely be circumscribed if disclosure of information encroaches upon someone’s personal privacy. But where to draw the line is a complicated question”.
The issue of a separate legislation on privacy is under the consideration of an expert group under retired Delhi High Court Chief Justice AP Shah.
“There are other issues as well which need to be addressed. For example, how much information should entities set up in the public-private partnership be obliged to disclose under the Right to Information Act. Blanket extension of the Act to such bodies may discourage private enterprises to enter into partnerships with the public sector entity. A blanket exclusion, on the other hand, may harm the cause of accountability of public officials. I am sure that you will discuss such issues in this convention with a view to finding a way forward.”
The PM also raised the issue of a recent Supreme Court order on the composition of the Central and State Information Commissions. The court said benches should have at least one judicial member, including retired judges of the Supreme Court of high courts. There are simply not enough judges of this level available to go around. “As you might be aware, the government has decided to go in for a review before the Supreme Court in this matter”, the PM said.
Since the UPA government has been put on the mat over several scams – CWG, 2G, etc – the PM chose to speak of counterbalancing rights with duties.
”Rights, of course, cannot stand in isolation and must always be accompanied by reciprocal obligations. This important legislation should not be only about criticising, ridiculing, and running down public authorities. It should be more about promoting transparency and accountability, spreading information and awareness and empowering our citizen. I think that there is need for all of us to work towards building an environment where citizens see the government as a partner and not as an adversary.”