Sunday, May 10, 2015

Searching for transparency

11 May 2015, New Delhi, Pankaj Sharma

The ruling dispensation at the Centre has taken a U-turn on its promise for transparent governance

Addressing the Lok Sabha on May 6, Congress president Sonia Gandhi attacked the Narendra Modi-led government for its lack of transparency and accountability. In a motion moved before the House, the Congress president specified that the post of Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) has been lying vacant since August last year. In the interim the Prime Minister’s Office has seized control of the Central Information Commission, whose autonomy, she argued, is enshrined by law. She also said that the Chief Vigilance Commissioner has also not been appointed since September 2014, besides key vacancies to be filled in the Election Commission.

“These delays are subverting the accountability of the government to the people,” the Congress president said. The concern shown by the president of the main opposition party has raised many pertinent questions. It has highlighted the manner in which the current ruling dispensation is deliberately trying to undermine the authority of Central Information Commission. The Right to Information Act, enacted by erstwhile Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, has been diluted by the current ruling dispensation. Delays in the appointment of the CIC seems to be a step in that direction.

This delay has caused a pendency of 23,970 cases until last week. By Saturday, 14,754 cases had piled up on the Chief Information Commissioner’s desk, apart from 2,580 fresh complaints. In the absence of a CIC, 11,994 appeals are waiting to be disposed off. One can gauge the speed at which the Central Information Commission functions by the fact that only one in seven information commissioners has less than 1000 cases pending, as per data collected last Saturday. MA Khan Yusufi, one of the current information commissioners, has 290 fresh complaints and 523 pending appeals to address.  

In Parliament, Sonia Gandhi had explained the deplorable lapse on the government’s part in not appointing the Chief Information Commissioner. She also told the house that the posts of three information commissioners in the CIC have been lying vacant for almost a year. The UPA government, she argued, had ensured that the crucial post of the Chief Information Commissioner was never left vacant from the day the RTI came into force.

Sonia Gandhi did raise some very valid points about how the prime minister and his ministers had reneged on their promise for a transparent government. “The PM during his election campaign promised transparency but in a U-turn, his government has made sure through the absence of a CIC that the offices of the PMO, Cabinet Secretariat, Ministry of Defence, Supreme Court and High Courts are not accountable under the Right to Information Act. Do citizens no longer have the right to question their government,” she asked.

There is a clear attempt on the government’s part  to subvert the RTI Act. The intent of this landmark legislation was to enhance the government’s accountability and responsibility to the people. It is through this very legislation that millions were empowered to ask their government questions pertaining to the implementation of public schemes and public works, besides the functioning of public authorities. The right of citizens to question our government is being curtailed every day. More than half the information commissioners working in the states lack adequate infrastructure, causing long delays in the disposal of cases. The government has also shown a deplorable lack of interest in punishing those responsible for causing delays or admitting to lapses in the delivery of public services. Protecting the wrong doer cannot be a part of the ethos of any government. 

On March 11 this year, however, the Department of Personnel and Training, which is under the PMO, transferred the financial powers of the CIC to a government-appointed secretary. Such a post has no mention in the original RTI Act. This piece of legislation places all financial and administrative powers in the hands of an independent CIC. There is no provision in the Act, which allows the government to take over the commission’s day to day affairs in the absence of a CIC.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government is also facing questions as to why the two posts of vigilance commissioner and Lokpal remained vacant.  Although this government has shown extraordinary urgency in introducing certain laws, the Whistleblower Protection Act has not been operationalised, even though it received a presidential accent in May 2014. This act is essential to safeguard whistle blowers, who are extensive users of the RTI. All these legislative provisions are instruments that are required to combat corruption. The Centre’s inability to strengthen these institutions does cast serious apprehensions on its real intention.

The Modi-led government has also given up the convention of appointing the senior-most Information Commissioner as the Chief of the Central Information Commission. In October last year, the Centre advertised the position, inviting applications from the general public. It is also an astonishing fact that the search committee, designated to look for the new CIC chief, has only met twice and there are no records available of these meetings. The search committee met on January 16 and February 6 this year. The ruling dispensation says that the minutes of the meetings were not taken down, and hence there are no details of what transpired in those meetings. By not recording the minutes of the meeting, no one will ever know what occurred. Let the nation celebrate the ruling dispensation’s new definition of “transparent” governance. 

Author is Editor and CEO of News Views India

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