The government and opposition in India are on a collision path, each ratcheting up the political rhetoric ahead of the general election due by May. Over these nine months, if parties follow precedent, the public discourse will be largely political. The battle was kicked off last week on 20 June in an appropriately stormy debate in Parliament over a motion for no-confidence introduced by the Telugu Desam Party and backed by most of the opposition.
One of the central points in the debate—though never mentioned in those terms—was the people’s right to information. When the opposition Congress party president Rahul Gandhi challenged the government to disclose the terms of a multi-billion-dollar deal for the purchase of 36 French Rafale fighter aircraft for the Indian Air Force, defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman intervened to claim that a secrecy clause was introduced into the original agreement by the previous Congress-led government in 2008.
Gandhi’s central position was that French president Emmanuel Macron had told him there was no secrecy clause in the agreement, which was signed in 2016 by the current National Democratic Alliance government. Setting aside legitimate concerns over disclosure of the specifications of the Rafale aircraft, Gandhi emphasised the cost of the deal, which he claimed had “magically" escalated.
The French intervened a day later saying the terms of the 2008 deal prohibited France and India from disclosing classified information “that could impact security and operational capabilities of the defence equipment". The debate now is on whether disclosure of the cost component could have such an impact.
Defence is, of course, a sector that is mostly wrapped tightly in secrecy but in India, the financial terms of costly defence deals tend to become explosive political issues. Rahul Gandhi’s father Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure as Congress prime minister came to an end after the opposition combined forces to challenge him over allegations of bribery surrounding a deal to buy Swedish Bofors field guns for the Indian Army.
With both the opposition and government MPs serving privilege motions in Parliament accusing each other of misleading the House, the Rafale deal could become a major political issue in the 2019 general election. It has obvious connotations for transparency and development. Yet, defence deals are not the only issues of secrecy in India. Far more insidious and ubiquitous is the secrecy that petty government officials seek to invoke to appropriate state resources and deny the poor their rightful share of these resources.
Take for instance the matter of subsidized food, the so-called rations that are crucial for the millions of poor in India. According to the World Bank’s country brief for Fall 2017, 268 million Indians, or 21.2% of the population, were living on $1.90 per day (equivalent of ₹ 25 by purchasing power parity) in 2011 (the last reported period). There were nearly 763 million people (60.4%) living on incomes of $3.20 per day ( ₹ 42.70 by PPP). More than 1.09 billion Indians were living on incomes of $5.50 ( ₹ 74 by PPP)—that’s 87% of the Indian population.
For years, many of the poor who are meant to benefit from food subsidies have been turned back by cheating and lying shopkeepers who squirrel away subsidized foodgrains and sell them at market rates. One of the few weapons they have on their side is the right to information, constitutionally guaranteed in the form of a law since 2005 as a result of years of struggle by activists. The usual excuse offered by shopkeepers would be that they were not receiving government supplies—only to be caught out when consumers demanded a copy of the monthly stock register from the government by invoking their right to information.
Today, with over six million applications filed every year, the Indian RTI Act is said to be the most extensively used transparency legislation—one that has empowered citizens to access not only food, but old age pension, water, sanitation, healthcare and education, say campaigners.
However, the government said last week it is planning to make changes to the law in the form of a bill to be introduced in the current session of parliament, apparently without any discussion with the public and without making the text of the bill public, which campaigners say will weaken people’s fundamental right to information.
Two days before the no-confidence motion debate, where secrecy was such a huge subject, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government announced it is considering a proposal to amend the Right to Information Act, 2005, to frame rules on salaries and services of Chief Information Commissioner and Information Commissioners, the Press Trust of India reported.
The next day, on the eve of the no-confidence debate, Rahul Gandhi attacked the government over the proposed changes.
“Every Indian deserves to know the truth and the BJP wants to hide the truth. The BJP believes the truth must be hidden from the people and they must not question people in power. The changes proposed to the RTI will make it a useless Act," Gandhi said on Twitter. He added that the changes being suggested “must be opposed by every Indian".
The proposed amendments, which PTI said had been circulated among members of Parliament, seek to do away with the parity given to information commissions with the Election Commission in terms of salary, allowances and conditions of service.
With supreme irony, when officials of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI), a Delhi-based non-profit, sought details of the proposed legislative changes by filing an RTI application, the government replied through its director, department of personnel and training, that the matter is still under consideration and the “information requested by you cannot be supplied at this stage".
NCPRI says the bill seeks to empower the central government and state governments to decide salaries of information commissioners. The RTI Act currently pegs the salaries, allowances and other terms of services of the chief of all information commissions and the information commissioners of the central information commission at the level of a Supreme Court judge. Those of the state information commissioners are pegged at the level of chief secretary of the state.
“The status conferred on commissioners under the Act is to empower them to carry out their functions autonomously and require even the highest offices to comply with the provisions of the law," NCPRI officials, including Anjali Bhardwaj, Amrita Johri and Aruna Roy, said in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, arguing against any dilution to the law.
Dipankar’s Twitter handle is @Ddesarkar1