After five years, the Union government has decided to update the rules for the implementation of the Right to Information Act, which was passed by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance regime in 2005 to provide a transparent mechanism for citizens to access information.
The Department of Personnel and Training, the nodal department enforcing the Act, put up the draft rules on its website last week, seeking feedback from the public by April 15. The idea behind the revamp of the rules is to simplify the process of obtaining information. However, certain changes proposed in the new draft rules have not gone down well with transparency activists, who fear it may end up as a tool to intimidate them and discourage citizens from using the law.
In particular, two provisions have been flagged as problematic. The draft provides for the withdrawal of a right to information application, something that was consciously avoided in the 2012 rules. It also allows for the abatement of an application in the event of the applicant’s death, which activists described as an invitation to anti-social elements to unleash violence on right to information activists and whistleblowers.
Drafting rules are an essential part of implementing any law. They are what enable administrators to put the law to practice. Once Parliament passes a law, rules to subserve the objectives of the main law are framed, sent to the Law Ministry for vetting and then notified in the gazette. The rules for the Right to Information Act were last updated in 2012.
In the new draft rules, two key provisions added by the government could have a profound effect on the use of the law itself. Rule 12 in the draft provides for the withdrawal and abatement of right to information applications:
“12 (1) The Commission may in its discretion allow a prayer for withdrawal of an appeal if such a prayer is made by the appellant on an application made in writing duly signed or during hearing. However, no such prayer may be entertained by the Commission after the matter has been finally heard or a decision or order has been pronounced by the Commission.”
“12(2) The proceedings pending before the Commission shall abate on the death of the appellant.”
According to right to information activists, the very idea of the transparency law was to help people hold public officials accountable. Since its enactment, the law has helped expose a number of corrupt officials and those in connivance with them across the country. But this has come at a price as right to information activists have often been the target of those working against transparency.
Target of attacks
Venkatesh Nayak, programme coordinator at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, said that in the three months of 2017 so far, there have been more than 375 attacks against persons seeking information to expose corruption in public offices. Of these, 56 were murder cases.
Nayak said provisions to allow withdrawal and abatement of applications would encourage violence against those seeking information. “If you allow closure of the application after the applicant’s death, murder could become the tool to escape scrutiny,” he added. The same would apply to the provision of withdrawal. “A person could be intimidated with violence to withdraw an application,” he said.
Given the long time it usually takes for an appeal to be disposed of, there would be ample time to threaten the applicant, which is the other problem with the draft. Despite demands from activists, the Centre has not included a time limit for the Central Information Commission to act on appeals. Currently, an estimated 30,000 petitions are pending before the commission.
Furthermore, the new rules may also make the right to information process costlier. The draft says the postal charge, if above Rs 50, will have to be borne by the applicant.
The new provisions assume even more significance given the fact that the Centre has proposed sweeping amendments to the Whistleblowers Protection Act, 2011, which activists say would dilute the very purpose for which the law has been enacted.