New Delhi: The Union cabinet on Thursday decided to withdraw controversial draft amendments to the Right to Information (RTI) Act that sought to restrict disclosure of government file notings. The move allayed the concerns of rights activists.
The draft amendments would have restricted disclosure of file notings only to social and developmental issues. The government had to drop the move following the intervention of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, according to a cabinet minister, who did not want to be identified.
RTI activists and the National Advisory Council, headed by Gandhi, had opposed the move to restrict access to information.
“A couple of cabinet ministers had the view that the restrictions are necessary as the RTI Act has many a time slowed down the activities of the executive. But others feel that this is not the politically right time for such moves,” the minister said, referring to the corruption scandals the United Progressive Alliance government (UPA) has battled.
Although UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi have projected the implementation of the RTI Act as a major achievement of the government, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has complained that the law has slowed decision making and has been used to harass honest officers.
The withdrawal of the amendments essentially means that any file noting, except those specifically exempted under section 8 (1) of the Act, which includes matters of national security and protection of commercial interest, can be made public.
“File notings are a source of information to establish all of what the government officials or ministers have said regarding anything,” said Venkatesh Nayak, an RTI activist from the New Delhi-based Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative. “It is important to establish the chain of who said what and to track the movement of the file,” he said, adding that the withdrawal of the amendment was a “very fine step” to maintain the efficiency of the law.
In the first cabinet meeting after the Prime Minister expanded his council of ministers on 28 October, Singh urged ministers to work with a long-term vision in mind while setting goals for improving the nation’s infrastructure, disregarding political events such as elections. Singh has expanded his council of ministers by inducting 17 new ministers.
The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) on Thursday approved an increase in the minimum support price of five rabi or winter crops, including gram and masur, by up to 20% for the year starting April 2013. Except wheat, the CCEA has approved the minimum support price of all other rabi crops, PTI reported, adding that there will be a fresh cabinet note on wheat.
The minimum price of gram and masur was raised by Rs.400 per quintal to Rs.3,200 each for the 2013-14 marketing year (April-March) from Rs.2,800 per quintal this year. The move is expected to increase the production of pulses grown in winter and cut the country’s dependence on imports. The CCEA also decided to increase the minimum support price of mustard seed to Rs.3,000 per quintal for the 2013-14 marketing year from Rs.2,500 per quintal in 2012-13.
Although the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) had recommended freezing of minimum support price at last year’s level, the agriculture ministry, factoring in the recent increase in diesel prices, has proposed to raise the minimum support price of wheat by Rs.115 per quintal to Rs.1,400 for the next year.
The cabinet has also approved a plan to introduce a new Bill related to the regulation and welfare of construction workers in order to streamline the process of their registration.
Before the meetings of the cabinet and CCEA began, Prime Minister Singh addressed the council of ministers and set the agenda for the next 18 months before the country elects a new government.
Pointing out that the UPA government is facing the fallout of a global economic slowdown, Singh said. “Our growth has decelerated, our exports have fallen and our fiscal deficits are expanding.”
Finance minister P. Chidambaram has pegged the fiscal deficit at 5.3% of gross domestic product in the year to 31 March. India’s economy grew 5.5% in the quarter ended 30 June after hitting a nine-year low of 5.3% in the preceding three months. The Reserve Bank of India said on Tuesday that it expects economic growth to slow to 5.8% in the current year; it had predicted 6.5% growth in April.
The Prime Minister said the government had to overcome constraints such as fuel supply arrangements, security and environmental clearances and financing difficulties “that currently deter or slow” investments.
“The growing gap between demand and supply of energy has emerged as a major constraint on our development,” he said.
“I am aware that we are working against the political calendar, but we should not lose sight of the fact that we are also involved in the task of nation-building. Our responsibilities and our commitment therefore need to transcend other considerations,” Singh said, urging his colleagues to make good use of the time left before the government, which faces general elections in 2014.
Singh’s call came ahead of the month-long winter session of the Parliament beginning 22 November.
Mint’s Elizabeth Roche and PTI contributed to this story.