The long wait for a Central right to information law—hanging fire despite the President’s assent—may just have been worth it. For, the new Act that is set to replace the old one in Parliament this session has radical proposals to ensure unprecedented transparency in sections of the government.
Under these, intelligence and security agencies, so far kept insulated from the public’s right to know, will have to disclose information related to complaints of human-rights violations or corruption. There will be an independent Information Commissioner to enforce the law and harsher penalties for officials who do not comply—extending to a five-year prison term.
These sweeping changes to the Freedom of Information Act, 2002, come after the National Advisory Council, headed by Sonia Gandhi, sent a list of 36 amendments to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in August.
Officials in the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) say they are working overtime to get the Cabinet’s clearance by mid-December so that the new Act can be tabled in Parliament this session itself. Says DoPT Secretary A N Tewari, ‘‘We have assured the Prime Minister that the new Act will be an expanded version of the existing Act and that we are in favour of real openness and transparency. All the important amendments will come through.’’
The list of amendments, which DoPT officials say have now been cleared by the Law Ministry, include:
• Like the earlier law, while information on 19 intelligence and security organisations (such as Intelligence Bureau, R&AW, DRI, BSF, CRPF, NSG, Assam Rifles) will not come under the purview, information pertaining to violations of human rights and allegations of corruption (by these organisations) will not be excluded.
Coming soon: A Chief Information Commissioner?
Proposed changes in the new law: • President will appoint a Chief Information Commissioner and Governors State Information Commissioners to implement the Act. They will be autonomous functionaries with 5-year term. • Intelligence and Security agencies will have to provide information if it pertains to human rights violations, life and liberty of human beings and allegations of corruption. • Govt bodies have to publish details of staff payment, budget • Instead of 25 years (in old Act), information on event which occurred 10 years before date of request should be provided.• The President, at the Centre, and the Governor in the States will appoint a Chief Information Commissioner to monitor the Act who will function ‘‘autonomously without being subjected to directions of any other authority.’’ The Commissioners will be appointed for a period of five years.
• The Chief Information Commissioner and the State Infomation Commissioner will publish an annual report on the implementation of the Act. The annual reports will be tabled before Parliament/State legislatures.
• A stringent new section on penalties has been added. Varying penalties of fines (Upto Rs 5,000) and even imprisonment (of upto five years) have been listed as punishment for mala fide refusing information; destroying information or knowingly giving wrong information to an applicant.
While the Common Minimum Programme (CMP) had assured a stronger disclosure law, what helped was the fact that two members of the NAC are also the lead campaigners of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI). A delegation of the NCPRI twice met the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and during the last meeting on December 5, he gave them an assurance that the amended Bill would be tabled in the current session.
NAC member Aruna Roy, who attended both the meetings, says information on what was happening to the 36 amendments seemed to be getting lost in a big black hole. ‘‘We got an impression that the bureaucracy was resisting amendments like the one on punitive clauses and the appointment of independent commissioners,’’ she told The Indian Express.
‘‘We are now hoping for the breakthrough, as the Prime Minister assured, in this session of Parliament. Otherwise, we will get into an agitational mode.’’
Significantly, DoPT officals say there has been a rethink also about the earlier proposal for the central Right to Information Act taking precedence over similar Acts implemented by State Governments. It is being proposed that now, the applicant be given the choice to either make a request under provisions of the Central Act or the State Act.
In all, eight State Governments have earlier implemented their own Right to Information laws.