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Recently, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh raised concerns over misuse inherent in the operation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. He highlighted issues such as the frivolous and vexatious use of the RTI Act in demanding information that doesn’t serve any public purpose to the possible infringement of the right to privacy.

The fact, however, is that it is the RTI that is endangered today. As it is, under Section 8 of the RTI Act, multiple exceptions have been built in—ranging from national security to parliamentary privilege. On top of that, various judicial and quasi judicial pronouncements have limited the scope of the Act.

Since its inception, the United Progressive Alliance government has unleashed a “rights revolution" in India. From the right to work to the right to food, these rights are a political promise from the government to the electorate. Even if they are formally enshrined as a law, their implementation is dependent on the government of the day. The RTI, in contrast, is a law that requires no such political intermediation. At the same time, it is the most “political" of all the rights. Very often, the information obtained under RTI applications ends up showing maladministration or malfeasance on part of officials, elected and unelected.

The second force that militates against the Act, again something highlighted by the prime minister, is the rather personalized nature of governance in India. Ministers and civil servants have much to hide, personally. Because of this, the public-private divisions—so clearly demarcated in western democracies due to much higher administrative standards—are blurred in India. The way public debate is carried out in the country, such information inevitably gets centred on the persona of the official involved. The disclosures around irregularities in the irrigation department in Maharashtra and the business interests of various politicians are good examples of this aspect of the law. Hence the rather questionable concern about the privacy of individuals.

Even the most aggressive RTI activists are not interested in violating the right to privacy just to derive prurient pleasure: the fact is that officials in India have much to hide.

Thus, when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh recently told a gathering of information commissioners that “The citizens’ right to know should definitely be circumscribed if disclosure of information encroaches upon someone’s personal privacy," he only highlighted one side of the problem.

The net effect, however, is that the RTI is now clearly under threat from various quarters. It is not clear for how long it will retain its current effectiveness given the scale of official opposition to it.

Are officials scared of RTI? Tell us at views@livemint.com

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