Shine a light in any dark crevice, and you will find an assortment of creepy-crawlies scurrying out. Creatures that thrive in the dark resent the incandescent light, and consider it an invasion of their 'privacy'. Which is why the arachnids and arthropods that flourish in the dark are now asking for the illuminating torch to be snuffed out. And, much to his shame, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has joined the chorus of the invertebrates in arguing for the lights to be dimmed.
Addressing the annual convention of information commissioners on Friday, Manmohan Singh gave voice to his thoughts on how the Right to Information Act, which has been used by activists across the country to shine a probing light into the dark corners of governance, was being used. And although he acknowledged that the Right to Information provision, which has been in force for seven years now, had "contributed in very large measure... for ensuring greater probity, greater transparency and greater accountability in the work of public authorities," he was merely leading up to a case for diminishing its intensity.
Manmohan Singh's speech (which can be read in full here) was a masterly exposition in the art of damning with faint praise. After a preamble in which he paid lip-service to how good the RTI was, he neatly segued into an argument calling for restraints on invocation of citizens' right to solicit information under the RTI on several counts. The RTI, he said, was being subjected to far too much "frivolous and vexatious" use: information whose disclosure could not possibly serve any public purpose was being demanded. "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."
The point about the use of RTI to secure frivolous information that ties down information officers without serving a larger public service is not entirely without merit. Even the public interest litigation (PIL) channel, which was intended to lower the bar for access to judicial intervention on public matters, has been abused by self-serving busybodies: for instance, publicity seekers frequently resort to the PIL route to challenge celebrities on frivolous grounds (such as dishonouring the national flag, as happened with Sachin Tendulkar, Sania Mirza, Shah Rukh Khan, Anna Hazare, and Mandira Bedi, when in fact no dishonour was intended). But these are aberrations that happen merely on the margins, and do not make a case for the dilution of the PIL or the RTI provision in their entirety.
Far more insidious was Manmohan Singh's suggestion that providing information under the RTI may possibly amount to infringement of "personal privacy". The citizens' right to know, Manmohan Singh said, "should definitely be circumscribed if disclosure of information encroaches upon someone else's personal privacy."
Two parallel narrative strands provide context to Manmohan Singh's invocation of the 'right to privacy' argument in order to recommend curtailing citizen's rights under the RTI.
First, the definition of what ought to be considered 'private' has been perverted in recent times by the UPA government. Indicatively, when the allegations against Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law Robert Vadra, and his very profitable transactions with real estate developeer DLF surfaced (after information on Vadra's companies were sought under the RTI), the government - and its galaxy of ministers - came out swinging in defence of Vadra, even though they characterised the DLF-Vadra transactions as between two 'private' entities.
But in fact, as has been established, Vadra benefited unduly from DLF's uncharacteristic generosity of spirit merely on the strength of the fact that he is who he is: Sonia Gandhi's son-in-law, with all the possibilities of influence-peddling that that familial status comes with in a political culture where even satellites of power centres enjoy tremendous power.
If Manmohan Singh's suggestion for tempering the RTI to protect "privacy" became law, it would raise the barrier on whistle-blowing of the sorts that happened in Robert Vadra's case.
More perversely, the government has proved excessively prickly particularly in matters relating to the affairs of the First Family of Indian politics. Activist Madhu Kishwar's experience of trying to secure information on the details of Rahul Gandhi's foreign trips is illustrative.
Kishwar recalls (here) that she filed the RTI application only after a rant by a Congress leader who said that Rahul Gandhi's "mysterious lifestyle" - "forever running abroad", not disclosing details of his comings and goings or of whom he meets abroad - was demoralising the party cadres. But her application was batted away without sufficient cause or reason, and she has filed an appeal. But as Kishwar argues (here), Rahul Gandhi is not a private citizen, but an elected MP answerable to citizens. More strikingly, he is a prime ministerial aspirant and arguably the most influential person in the Congress party, next to his mother Sonia Gandhi. He influences government policy, and to that extent, citizens have a right to put his public dealings to scrutiny. Nor would the revelation of such information compromise Rahul Gandhi's - or the nation's - security.
Yet, the UPA government has been resolutely opposing such disclosures. And Manmohan Singh is now setting the stage for an abridgement of citizens' right to invoke the RTI on grounds of protecting individuals' privacy.
Nor is the government alone in this enterprise. Even the Supreme Court has in recent times been batting for ring-fencing more and more information from RTI scrutiny. It recently ruled that the details of income tax returns filed by a person were beyond the ambit of the RTI (more here). And even State governments are looking to slow-poison the RTI by denying much of the information sought (as this report notes).
The irony is that today, it is far more easy to secure the income tax returns of Barack Obama (here) or Mitt Romney (here) than of our own netas. Such disclosures do not amount to "invasion of privacy", but are an important pillar of transparency and openness that ought to characterise democracies. Instead, the effort in India, as Manmohan Singh's latest suggestion shows, is to build higher walls of "privacy" in order to shield our netas - and their sons-in-law - from public scrutiny.
The UPA government certainly deserves credit for throwing open the doors of governance and introducing the RTI provision seven years ago. The fact that many an RTI activist has been killed in these past seven years for exposing corruption and otherwise shining the light on the dark crevices of public life is testimony to its efficacy. But the government's ongoing effort to abridge the space in which the RTI operates on specious grounds of protecting 'privacy" amount to slow-killing the RTI. Particularly given the government''s recent record of shielding corruption in high places, it shows up its mala fide intentions.
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