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HALF A STEP

Arguably, the greatest disadvantage poor citizens suffer from is the lack of information. Consequently, expenditure in the name of the poor never trickles down to target beneficiaries and citizens are not aware that such expenditure has ever been sanctioned or incurred. This makes the government non-transparent. Civil society intervention in states like Rajasthan also demonstrates that right to information improves governance, including efficiency in provision of public services. If the government is for the people, the colonial mindset of withholding information must be overcome. Some (but not all states) have indeed enacted right to information acts and the Lok Sabha has now passed a Central freedom of information bill. The experience with such state-level legislation conclusively establishes that mere enactment is no more than a signal and the devil is in the detail, implying that caveats in the detail can nullify the intent of legislative openness. In the present case, there was no need for this inordinate hurry, since such a law has been pending since the V.P. Singh government. Three main reasons for reservation suggest themselves.

One, the statute does make it obligatory for all public authorities to provide information and maintain records, but the frequency of the publication has been left to executive decision. Sweeping exemption clauses can be used to deny citizens or civil society access. Two, there are no penal clauses for use against officials who refuse to part with information. Providing information should be the norm and exceptions specially justified. Instead, the bill suggests that information is provided as an exceptional favour. Three, a parliamentary standing committee examined the bill and suggested changes. Courtesy the group of ministers to whom the bill was later referred, some have been ignored. For example, the time frame for declassifying official information remains at 25 rather than 15 years. Two ministers have argued that the bill should be pushed through even with deficiencies. This is hardly a tenable argument, even if the government is over-sensitive to the criticism of not being able to attend to legislative business. Surely, legislation is a means to an end and not an end in itself. It may be legitimate to describe the bill as “half a step forward”, as the opposition has. But the remaining half is contingent on how caveats are interpreted by departments that have to interpret legislative provisions and on administrative rules that will flesh out the statute. Unfortunately, there is not much evidence yet of the government being open to the idea of parting with information. Reactions to scandals and corruption prove the point.

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