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Mainstream, VOL XLIX, No 27, June 25, 2011

Subverting Right To Information — The Sarkari Way

Tuesday 28 June 2011

by SHOBHA AGGARWAL

June 15 marked the sixth anniversary of the President’s assent to the Right to Information Act, 2005. The following article is an attempt to evaluate the efficacy of this Act. Having filed over 500 RTI applications in the last six years, the Public Interest Litigation Watch Group (of which the author is the Joint Secretary)
is sharing with our readers the fate of one such RTI application.

Outraged at the loot of the exchequer under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), the Public Interest Litigation Watch Group (PILWG) filed a series of Right to Information (RTI) applications. On May 21, 2010 an RTI application was filed with the Cabinet Secretariat asking the following question:

Reference the Cabinet Committee on Infra-structure (CCI) meeting held on 10.12.2009 granting exemption from implementation of inter alia rental law reforms to the Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi (GNCTD) under the JNNURM.

A. Please let us know:

1. Name and designation of all those who attended this CCI meeting?

2. Did the Union Minister of Urban Develop-ment/Secretary, Ministry of Urban Develop-ment (MoUD) apprise all those present in the meeting of the mandatory condition of rental law reform under the JNNURM policy—announced by the Prime Minister in December 2005—before sanctioning of the JNNURM funds to the GNCTD?

3. Was the PM present in this meeting?

4. Can the CCI overrule the JNNURM policy decided upon by the Union Cabinet and announced by the PM in December 2005?

5. Even if the GNCTD had to be exempted from inter alia rental law reforms, what steps has the Union Government taken from September 16, 2005 till date to get the Delhi Rent (Amendment) Bill, 1997 passed in Parliament?

6. Has Parliament been informed of this shift in the JNNURM policy vis-à-vis the GNCTD? If so, when and the details thereof?

7. Was the public informed through any Press Information Bureau release about the rental law reform exemption to the GNCTD? If so, kindly provide us with a copy of the press release and press clipping, if any.

B. Kindly provide us with photocopies of full files, both correspondence and notings; as also the full deliberations and decisions taken by the CCI in its meeting on 10.12.2009 on the afore-mentioned issues.

The Cabinet Secretariat (CS), in its reply dated 14.07.2010 through the Central Public Infor-mation Officer (CPIO), answered none of the eight questions; and transferred the application to the MoUD. The First Appellate Authority (FAA), CS, vide decision dated 07.09.2010, upheld the order of the CPIO, CS. Thus no reply was forthcoming from the CS to any of our queries. Amazing!

The MoUD, in its reply dated 10.09.2010 through the CPIO, refused to divulge the name and designation of all those Ministers who attended this CCI meeting and whether—hold your breath—the PM was present in this meeting! It also denied photocopies of full files, both correspondence and notings; as also the full deliberations and decisions taken by the CCI in its meeting on 10.12.2009. The FAA, MoUD, in its order dated 16.11.2010, upheld the decision of the CPIO to stonewall our queries. So much for transparency and accountability of public servants of the ‘Yes Minister’ variety!

Crucial Decision of Central Information Commission Subverted by the Powers That Be

THE Central Information Commission (CIC), in its decision announced on 30.08.2010 as adjunct to Complaint no. CIC/WB/C/2010/000120 dated 14.05.2010 in the case of Shri Venkatesh Nayak and Shri Shekhar Singh v. DOPT, had held:

“This would imply that exemption u/s 8 (1) (i) will not apply to deliberations leading to formulation of a policy framework till such time as the draft is submitted to the Cabinet Secretariat, with all its necessary attachments for submission to the Cabinet, which would then be a final form given to the draft. Thereafter, this draft would remain exempt from disclosure till such time as the decision has been taken and action to be taken thereon is ‘complete and over’.”

On the basis of the aforementioned CIC decision a fresh RTI application was filed on February 7, 2011 asking for files pertaining to the CCI decision. It was explained in the application that as the matter of the CCI decision on 10.12.2009 was now complete and over, it does not qualify for exemption. In utter contempt of the CIC decision both the CPIO and FAA in the MoUD have refused to provide us with a copy of the file even sixteen months after the CCI decision. Who all are being protected for their acts of omission and commission? No guesses are required!

Why is the File being Withheld?

IT is amazing that both the Cabinet Secretariat and Union Ministry of Urban Development are blocking access to the public of the crucial file pertaining to the CCI decision wherein the GNCTD was exempted from mandatory rental law reform and thousands of crores of rupees could be released to the GNCTD under the JNNURM. It may be mentioned that the CCI in December 2009 consisted of 15 Ministers including the PM; Shri Pranab Mukherjee, Minister of Finance, Shri P. Chidambaram, Minister of Home Affairs, Shri S. Jaipal Reddy, then Minister of Urban Develop-ment, Shri A. Raja, then Minister of Communi-cations and Information Technology (now incarcerating in jail), among others.

There are three likely scenarios which necessi-tate the Government of India to desperately hide this vital document from public gaze.

Scene 1: The alleged CCI meeting on 10.12.2009 was attended only by the then Minister of Urban Development, Shri S. Jaipal Reddy, in which case the decision cannot hold forth and has to be reversed at the earliest and the concerned Cabinet Minister should exit from the Union Cabinet immediately. After all, he has only duplicated—under the pretext of Cabinet sanction and the PM’s tacit concurrence—what A. Raja did in the 2G telecom scam. In fact if this scenario is the reality, then the 2G scam would pale into insignificance before the JNNURM scam.

Scene 2: If the PM had actually chaired the CCI meeting wherein the decision to exempt the GNCTD from the mandatory rental law reform was taken, then it is thoroughly embarrassing for the father of economic reforms in India to be reversing the UPA’s reform policy; in which case he has no moral right to continue as the PM anymore.

Scene 3: The alleged CCI meeting never took place; so the file pertaining to exemption of the GNCTD does not exist and hence is not being provided under the RTI Act.

The Cabinet’s Code of Omerta

THE public has every right to know the para-meters surrounding a Cabinet meeting, namely, what constitutes a quorum; whether Ministers who are members of the Cabinet have to be compulsorily present in the meeting or they could send a note by way of an opinion on issues in the agenda; whether a single Union Minister can decide on behalf of all other absentee members of a Cabinet Committee; whether such Cabinet meetings are held surreptitiously and no press release is issued; or the details of crucial decisions taken are made public; and finally why should the file pertaining to a Cabinet decision—which is complete and over—be not made public. Keeping Cabinet decisions secretive in this era of the RTI Act gives credence to the public assumption that the government has a lot to hide for its wrongdoings to save its own skin. But then, truth like pregnancy has a habit of surfacing sooner rather than later!

Even at this late hour the government could own up the acts of omission and commission and ensure that the guilty would be punished straightway.
Will the PM break his silence or will the code of omerta reign supreme?

The author is an Advocate and Joint Secretary, Public Interest Litigation Watch Group, New Delhi. She can be contacted at e-mail: pilwatchgroup@ gmail.com

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