The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Information Bill beeps

New Delhi, Dec. 3: The Lok Sabha today passed the Freedom of Information Bill, conceived by Rajiv Gandhi but hanging fire after stiff opposition from the bureaucracy, to bring transparency and accountability in governance.

The highlights of the Bill are:

n Barring 12 items relating to defence and national security, it allows citizens access to almost all information on a statutory basis and removes bottlenecks in the legal framework.

n It bars passing any information about agreements between India and other sovereign countries.

n Apart from defence, national security and accord details with foreign countries, citizens can get photocopies of any document on payment of nominal charges.

Though some Opposition members wondered whether the “arcane” Official Secrets Act of 1923 negates the very purpose of the information Bill, government sources said the Act would be amended.

The Rajya Sabha is also expected to pass the information Bill in this session. Thereafter, the ministries concerned will frame rules for implementation of the law. Special information officers will be attached to each ministry to help citizens seeking information.

The ball was set rolling when Ram Jethmalani, as urban development minister, had announced in 1999 that all files relating to his ministry would be open to the public.

The primary idea was to rein in the bureaucracy which, the political leadership alleges, has a vested interest in hiding information.

“Arbitrary exercise of power will be dented and aggrieved parties can now challenge government decisions in court on the strength of documents,” said an official source.

Replying to a discussion on the Bill, minister of state for personnel, public grievances and pension Vasundhara Raje said the Bill was only a step in the direction of sharing information.

The legislation was found to be necessary as similar laws exist in other countries, she said.

Under the Bill, it is obligatory for every public authority to provide information and maintain all records consistent with its operational requirements duly catalogued, indexed and published at such intervals as may be prescribed by the government or the competent authority.

Pointing out a flaw, Congress leader Shivraj Patil said the Bill did not cover information on persons who have taken huge loans from banks.

In a brief intervention, parliamentary affairs minister Pramod Mahajan replied: “I will communicate to the original lawmaker to make necessary changes in the Bill concerned but let us not delay the passage of this Bill at this juncture.”

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