RTI Must Grow Not Retreat in the Name of Privacy
By Prabhu Chawla *
Information is power. Explosive information is lethal. News is what someone somewhere wants to hide. Everything else is publicity. With the public and the media digging more and publicising less, the ruling establishment is finding it extremely difficult to put the genie back into the bottle. The UPA, which sired the innovative Right to Information Act, is now rueing the day when it faithfully accepted the idea floated by its leader Sonia Gandhi. For the past few months, RTI has caused more agony to the government than the frequent parliamentary disruptions by the entire Opposition.
As RTI completes seven years of its existence, the government seems to be in a hurry to chop its feet off before it starts running after information. The Prime Minister himself set the tone for the dilution of RTI when he pleaded for its review in his address to vigilance officials drawn from all over the country. He struck at the very foundation of the RTI Act when he said, “There are concerns about frivolous and vexatious use of the Act in demanding information the disclosure of which cannot possibly serve any public purpose.”
The Prime Minister hinting at curbing the scope of the RTI Act is bemusing. In an environment of confrontation between the government and civil society, the hunger for information is growing. While Manmohan Singh did suggest the inclusion of the corporate sector in the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA), he refrained from making any commitment for its inclusion in RTI. If the growing list of scams is any indication, it would be prudent for the government to expand RTI’s scope to include not only all government agencies but also public-funded NGOs, trusts and educational institutions, sports bodies, political parties, media organisations and listed and unlisted corporate houses which receive funds from public sector banks. In spite of the massive hike in financial allocations to development schemes and the infrastructure sector, the actual delivery on the ground is almost negligible.
Of late, a new concept of Public-Private Partnership (PPP) model has been developed by those who want to avoid public scrutiny of their projects. Under this model, the government provides massive amounts of money and even land to private individuals to construct roads, hospitals, airports and toll roads. These projects are built and operated by private entities over which government has no control. Most toll roads are symbols of massive corruption and mismanagement, but they have been kept out of the ambit of the RTI Act. The petroleum ministry is engaged in a running battle with Reliance Industries over the Comptroller & Auditor General of India’s scrutiny of capital expenditure incurred by the company on gas exploration. Similarly, various road projects and airport expansion plans are facing charges of financial irregularities. But they refuse to be audited by the CAG. Manmohan struck the right chord when he pointed out that big-ticket corruption was mostly related to operations by large commercial entities. He concluded, “It is, therefore, also proposed to include corporate failure to prevent bribery as a new offence on the supply side. We are also examining how the Act can be amended to protect honest public servants more effectively.” The Prime Minister hit where it hurts the most—the top leadership admitting that the India’s high economic growth may have contributed to the rise in graft cases and crony capitalism.
However, only a legislative measure may not be enough. Since political donations are the biggest source of influencing government policies, all political parties should be brought under the RTI Act. All of them put together collect over `1,000 crore officially, but the donors’ names are only known to a few leaders in each party. Surprisingly, no party has supported the idea of making it mandatory for all political outfits to make full disclosures about the sources of their income. According to conservative estimates, all the registered national and regional parties spend over `10,000 crore on contesting elections.
The most effective method of controlling corruption is to make it compulsory for all political leaders to declare their incomes, the list of donors for their campaigns and the assets of their dependents and independent children. All political parties have stonewalled the efforts of RTI activists to collect information on the use of private aircraft by leaders—for both domestic and international travel. According to aviation industry sources, politicians consume over 50 per cent of the flying hours of 300 privately owned aircraft and helicopters. For new age political leaders, it is air, not ground, contact with their voters, which is the most effective way of seeking a public mandate. Since they don’t foot the bills themselves, it doesn’t cost them money or subject them to the physical torture of arduous journeys along India’s potholed roads. Besides, most of the big companies spend huge amounts of money in the name of business development and corporate relations to influence opinion and decision makers. But no amount of allurements, threats, coercive and administrative means and methods can now tame the growing appetite of the people—not for food and fun—but for information.
* Prabhu Chawla is Editorial Director of The New Indian Express Group and hosts Teekhi Baat, a talk show on IBN7. He was awarded Padma Bhushan in 2003 for his journalistic achievements over the years. In his 40 years as reporter and editor, he has written extensively on events that have changed the political course of India and the people who engineered them. This column first appeared in The Sunday Standard and The New Indian Express dated October 14, 2012.