New Delhi, April 5: Accused of diluting the RTI Act and weakening the architecture of accountability, the Narendra Modi government has gone into overdrive to dispute the allegation that comes at a time it is already under attack for injecting further opacity into political funding.
Some erroneous media reports on the proposed RTI Rules, 2017 - circulated by the department of personnel and training (DoPT) on March 31 and open for consultations till mid-April - and a factually incorrect reaction on a couple of points by the Congress have come in handy for the government in building its defence.
DoPT officials worked through the day yesterday, an official holiday on account of Ram Navami, to counter the Congress's allegations. With the denials failing to get any traction, the government went into overdrive today.
Not only was the clarification posted on various social media platforms but information and broadcasting minister M. Venkaiah Naidu also held a news conference to rebut the allegations.
"It's disgusting that the Congress which took credit for the RTI is now unabashedly carrying on with a disinformation campaign," he said, demanding an apology.
The vigilant RTI community fought back, conceding some misreporting but insisting this did not take away the fact that some fundamental changes - considered and rejected five years ago - were being brought back through the proposed RTI Rules, 2017.
The two main sticking points pertain to withdrawal and abatement of appeals. The government's contention is that both had been earlier included in the Central Information Commission (Management) Regulations, 2007, and that these were now being incorporated into the rules.
However, RTI activists pointed out that the regulations were struck down by Delhi High Court in 2010, after which RTI Rules, 2012, were agreed upon and notified following extensive consultations.
Venkatesh Nayak of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) rejected the Centre's contention. He pointed out that when the UPA government tried to bring the two provisions on abatement and withdrawal of appeals, activists had fought back on the premise that several people using the law to expose corruption had lost their lives in the process.
The refrain among RTI activists is that closure of appeals on death and allowing people to withdraw appeals before the process is completed will further endanger their lives. A meeting has been called tomorrow under the banner of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information to prepare a response to the proposed changes.
Asked about the status of the court case, the CHRI said: "The matter is pending before the Supreme Court...In the matter of the Delhi Development Authority vs. the Central Information Commission (CIC), a division bench of DHC (Delhi High Court) had quashed the CIC Regulations. The Supreme Court has stayed only the operation of Para 34 of the DHC's judgment where the power of the CIC to set up benches was rejected. All other aspects of the DHC's 2010 judgment remain in operation."
On the CIC's powers under the RTI Act, the high court judgment said: "The CIC is not a court and certainly not a body which exercises plenary jurisdiction. The CIC is a creature of the statute and its powers and functions are circumscribed by the statute. It does not exercise any power outside the statute."
In 2011, when the UPA tried to introduce the abatement clause, Justice A. P. Shah, who had just retired as chief justice of Delhi High Court and had been consulted on the issue, said the change was "not desirable".
"Introducing a provision of this nature in the rules is not at all desirable as it may encourage, in as much as it may result in, (the) killing of the appellant," Justice Shah had said in a written response to the DoPT and the Sonia Gandhi-headed National Advisory Council.