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Shield for officials in info law

New Delhi, Dec. 1: The Centre today moved to protect the identity of individuals involved in policies or decisions whose details might be revealed under the Right to Information Act, 2005.

The Prime Minister directed the department of personnel and training to include “substantive” file notings on plans, schemes, programmes and projects relating to the development and social sectors within the ambit of the act, but to withhold the identity of the official(s) who made the notings.

The directive was governed by the caveat that information “protected” by section 8 of the act cannot be accessed even for these sectors.

Such information includes that whose disclosure could affect India’s sovereignty and integrity and its strategic, scientific or economic interests; invite contempt of court, cause a breach of privilege of Parliament and legislatures, or jeopardise investigations.

Even cabinet papers ' including records of deliberations of ministers, secretaries and other officials ' are out of the public domain.

“People have the right to know what the decision was and why it was taken but nobody needs to know who said what,” a source explained. If the act were to make it mandatory to reveal an official’s identity, “officers will be scared to write a word and would rather play it safe”.

This is especially important for the economic ministries, the sources said.

“A policy pronouncement or decision on, say, oil may please a certain influential person and antagonise others. If the identity of the policy- or decision-makers involved becomes public knowledge, it could stultify the system,” a source said.

Asked if people had the right to know if a certain official had “influenced” a policy or decision to suit certain interest groups, the source said: “If there is a hint of corruption or unfair practice, all files will be examined by an inquiry committee.”

A press release, issued by the Prime Minister’s media adviser, said file notings relating to “identifiable individuals, groups of individuals, organisations, appointments, (and) matters relating to inquiries and departmental proceedings shall not be disclosed”.

The directive ' seen as a half-way step towards ensuring transparency in the government’s working ' is likely to be incorporated as an amendment that may be moved in the current Parliament session. Asked why it had not been inserted in the act, the sources put it down to “bureaucratic ineptness”.

Jairam Ramesh, Rajya Sabha MP and convener of the National Advisory Council which had pushed the act, said its intent was to “open up structures like the zilla panchayats” for the “aam aadmi” and not “Delhi’s middle class obsessed with so-called corruption and lack of accountability among politicians”.

The army has decided to withdraw an internal circular asking officers to withhold information on “sensitive” matters till a clarification came from the defence ministry. It said it would implement the act.

Sources said the Prime Minister was keen that the army not be excluded from the act’s ambit.

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