The Kerala government is facing criticism for allegedly trying to prevent the disclosure of details – under the Right to Information Act – of several hundred cabinet decisions taken before Assembly election dates were announced in the state.
Some of these controversial decisions taken by Oommen Chandy's Cabinet were leaked. Ironically, the Congress-led United Democratic Front government faced protests from state unit chief VM Sudheeran, forcing the Cabinet to withdraw or amend its policy decisions. However, details about most of the other decisions are yet to be made public.
At the time of these controversial moves, Chief Minister Oommen Chandy had even skipped the weekly Cabinet media briefing at which important decisions are announced.
Pillar to post
Advocate DB Binu, general secretary of the Human Rights Defence Forum in Kochi, had sought information under the Right to Information Act about cabinet decisions, including the minutes and agenda for meetings from January 1. Information was also sought on the orders issued on the basis of the Cabinet decisions.
In response, the State Public Information Officer of General Administration (Strictly Confidential) Department replied that information of Cabinet decisions could be provided only on completion of “procedures” by the concerned departments. The officer directed the RTI applicant to obtain copies of orders from the respective departments, without indicating what the decisions on which the orders had been issued were based.
There were murmurs that some officials were sitting on the decisions as they feared implementation would land them in trouble, especially should there be a change in government after the May 16 election. The RTI had also enquired about the number of decisions on which the officials concerned had refused to put their signatures and issue orders.
However, the Information Officer maintained that the Department does not keep tabs on the number of decisions on which the officials have not taken action. “There is no ‘information’ as defined under Section 2(f) of the Right to Information Act, 2005 [to be supplied] as no figures are being compiled separately on the matter,” he said.
Departure from protocol
Communist Party of India leader and former minister Benoy Viswam said that Cabinet decisions should not be kept secret. “However, I am not in favour of publication of Cabinet notes,” he said. “Besides, oath of secrecy should be maintained regarding deliberations of the Cabinet.”
According to RTI activists, the Right to Information Act stipulates that the Information Officer should assist the applicant in gathering the relevant information and forward applications to the departments concerned.
In this case, however, the information officer in the General Administration Department has asked the applicant to get orders from different departments and is not giving him any indication about the decisions taken or departments concerned. He also claims that the Department does not keep count of decisions which have not been implemented, although the Secretariat manual specifies that action should be taken on Cabinet decisions within 48 hours.
The Human Rights Defence Forum has now approached the State Information Commission with a complaint against the Officer. The Commission had directed the Department to release information on Cabinet decisions in a similar case earlier. However, this directive is being ignored by the Department.
“The Commission now takes upto three years to decide on complaints,” said DB Binu. “This effectively prevents people from obtaining timely information under the RTI Act.”
With this in mind, the RTI Kerala Federation had demanded that political parties and fronts should include proposals to strengthen enforcement of laws such as those on Right to Information and Right to Services in their manifestos. As it turns out, however, manifestos are silent on the matter.
“The transparency claimed by the government is not visible,” said Binu. “Hence, Cabinet decisions along with notes should be published immediately on government websites once decisions are taken. Suo moto disclosure of information is provided for in the Act itself.”
Stressing the need for early disposal of petitions before the State Information Commission, Federation general secretary A Jayakumar said: “District level camp sittings and adalats should be held to clear long-pending complaints and petitions before the Information Commission. Political parties should also declare that they will take departmental action against officials who are punished by State Information Commission. Action should also be taken against officials failing to publish mandatory information under the Act.”
It may be recalled that the Kerala Cabinet had earlier excluded information on vigilance inquires against ministers, legislators and all-India service officers from the purview of the Act. Though the Cabinet had made amendments following protests, details about ongoing inquires including that against Home Minister Ramesh Chennithala and other ministers are yet to be made public.