Why does Honest Manmohan want to neuter the RTI Act?

Put the spotlight on our netas and babus, and they squirm.

On Friday, Honest Manmohan shot himself in the foot by taking potshots at what many consider to be his government’s highest achievement – the enactment of the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

Though he claimed that he was not about to dilute the RTI Act, according to the Indian Express he said: “I think we need to remember that a point of view brought under public scrutiny and discussion in an isolated manner may sometimes present a distorted or incomplete picture of what really happened in the process of making the final decisions. The RTI should not adversely affect the deliberative processes in the government,” he said.

In that case, shouldn't the government be putting more information in the public domain instead of less?

 Why does Honest Manmohan want to neuter the RTI Act?

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. PTI

The Express also quoted him as saying: “A situation in which a public authority is flooded with requests for information having no bearing on public interest is something not desirable.”

But isn't the public in a better position to decide what is in its interest?

Taking the cue from the PM’s covert attack on the RTI at a meeting of the Standing Conference of Public Sector Enterprises (Scope) in Delhi,  UD Choubey, Scope Director-General, went to the extent of claiming that RTI was slowing down growth.

According to the Hindustan Times, he said: “The GDP would have grown by another 2 percent if there would have been no RTI delays.”

Great. We all know democracy sometimes slows down decision. So should we abandon it?

So, it’s now clear. When Veerappa Moily, Salman Khurshid and now the PM himself pronounce that the RTI Act is flawed, the inescapable conclusion is that the harsh glare of openness is scaring the powers that be.

Let’s look at what the PM has said - that RTI should not affect the "deliberative processes in the government".

Has it? How is the disclosure of a bureaucrat’s file notings and a minister’s decision-making process debilitating? Does the public not have a right to know how decisions are made?

The obvious rebut is that when bureaucrats give their opinions honestly, they may sometimes be misunderstood and even penalised for it.

Absolutely, who said they should be? Even if their decisions are wrong, bureaucrats need protection, but not complete freedom to operate in secrecy.

It is one thing to say that one should not be penalised for one’s opinions and decisions taken in good faith, but to say that the public should not know how a decision was arrived at is surely anti-democracy? How is a citizen supposed to decide on what a government has done without knowing the reasoning that went into it?

A case in point is the 2G scam. Ministers have been saying repeatedly – after the scam broke cover – that they were not trying to maximise revenue, but ensure low call rates and higher tele-density by selling spectrum in 2008 at 2001 prices.

But if this was the consensus, there is little evidence of that in the correspondence between the PMO, Andimuthu Raja, the then finance ministry and the then finance secretary. In fact, all of them - barring Raja - wanted to sell spectrum at market-determined prices.

It is more than likely that the tele-density argument was manufactured only after the UPA was caught with its pants down in the scam.

So, the PM is certainly not right is saying that the RTI affects government processes. What the RTIs managed to prove was that the government was not following its own processes. (Read this, and this, and this)

The elementary requirement in the Transaction of Business Rules is that proposals involving revenue loss have to be jointly cleared by the finance minister and the administrative ministry concerned. But both Dayanidhi Maran and Raja forced the government to abandon this rule.

It is the RTI which has informed us that the government does not follow its own processes.

Clearly, the PM is defending the indefensible.


Updated Date: Oct 15, 2011 12:42:52 IST