The United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has been largely a government of inertia, held in position by Newton’s first law of motion— that every object remains in a state of rest or uniform motion unless changed by an external force. The inertia of the coalition government is due to the very nature of its composition and the constraints it faces in decision making on any issue.
Parliament is a major pillar of governance in our system. The level of debasement of this institution was telecast to the whole world when currency notes were flaunted during the trust vote on 22 July.
The Central Bureau of Investigation, or CBI, is designed to be the premier investigation agency for corruption and serious crime. The manner in which CBI was forced to go easy in some cases seriously compromised its credibility.
The Election Commission (EC) is an institution which, thanks to the tradition set up by (former chief election commissioner, or CEC) T.N. Seshan, had emerged as a guarantor of free and fair elections. The recent report by the CEC to the President recommending removal of one of the election commissioners gives rise to the question whether even EC is getting politicized and about to lose its credibility.
Against this dismal track record, the enactment of the Right to Information (RTI) Act, 2005, stands out as a singular achievement of the government. It contains in it the seed for better governance and development of healthy institutions. This was the first time in the history of independent India that a law was enacted because of pressure exerted by activists. Activists including Aruna Roy proved that even in an underdeveloped state such as Rajasthan, illiterate villagers could be educated and motivated to realize that information is power.
How effective has the RTI Act been in practice? In the past three years, the implementation of the Act by the Union and state governments has been chequered. The effectiveness of the implementation of the Act varies from state to state. From the reports so far, Bihar seems to have done well. Some non-governmental organizations in Delhi and Mumbai have been able to get significant relief to citizens in certain cases.
Two issues have come up prominently during this period. The first is the secrecy mindset of government servants fighting a rearguard battle to deny access to information by a clever interpretation of the exemptions provided in the Act. There has been strong resistance to providing access to notings in files. It must be realized that if such an access is allowed, the civil servants who made the notings must be exempted from being hauled up in civil and criminal courts by interested parties. If this provision is made, there should be no difficulty in making official notings accessible to the public.
The second issue relates to making public the immovable property returns of civil servants. Surprisingly, even some information commissioners have shown reluctance in making public information regarding their own immovable property. Judges have also claimed privilege in disclosing information about their immovable property. In fact, there is no reason why this information should not be made public.
Another issue that has come up is the fact that more than the citizens, corrupt government servants facing departmental enquiries seek information about the whistle-blowers who exposed their corruption. It will be necessary to protect whistle-blowers by making provisions in the Act.
Unfortunately, the government, having passed the RTI Act in 2005, appears to be dragging its feet in the effective implementation of the Act in its true spirit. The issue of making public the file notings and property returns of government servants shows the half-hearted approach of the government on the issue of transparency and reduction of corruption in government.
The RTI Act has the potential to increase transparency in governance, check corruption and empower the citizen to make our democracy more meaningful. What it needs is effective implementation by bringing about a basic mind shift among government servants for greater openness in government operations.
The author is a former central vigilance commissioner. Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org