July 27, 2019 Cited in Media 0 Comments

2G to CWG: the RTI amendment will make it harder to unearth corruption

Filing RTIs allowed journalists and activists to get to the truth, but that might change. 

By Veena Nair

Since January, The Indian Express is still waiting on responses to 300 RTIs that its filed. With the recent introduction of the RTI (Amendment) Bill, journalists are only going to find it harder to get information from the government.

“No party likes the RTI Act,” explains Shyamlal Yadav, senior editor at Indian Express. “Getting replies to RTIs is getting difficult day by day. Most of our RTIs are pending with the central government.”

This situation is not limited to organisations like Express. Publications like The Caravan, which does long-form reporting, also use the Right To Information Act as a tool to substantiate their reports with facts.

“The spirit of RTI got diluted over the years,” says Vinod Jose, editor-in-chief of Caravan. “It was an Act which was supposed to empower citizens—which it did, but there was resistance to it from bureaucracy. They started exempting agencies like the CBI from early on itself. The Manmohan Singh government, which passed the Bill itself, started diluting it. If we were getting two denials or delays out of 10 applications in earlier times, we would get seven out of 10 denials in the last five years.”

Several of Caravan’s prominent reports relied on the Act to put the story together. “We don’t do stories completely based on RTIs, but we use it as a tool to back up our evidence,” Jose says. “The information we received through RTI supported the recent Rafale stories.”

Both the United Progressive Alliance and National Democratic Alliance governments brought in various amendments to garrotte this act. The most recent blow fell on July 19. The latest amendment says the central government will decide the tenure, salaries and allowances of the information commissioners at the state and central level. The Bill has been passed in both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.

Jose calls the new amendment an “institutionalised killing of the Act”. “Now I can expect 10 out of 10 denials in crucial questions that try to hold power accountable. The strategy with the Act’s amendment is simple: it is to tire people out with delays and denials, eventually making people believe that there is an Act only in namesake. This amendment institutionalises the killing of the RTI as an Act, and takes Indian society back to the 1990s.”

Anjali Bharadwaj, co-convenor of the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information, explains why the Centre wants an amendment to an Act which has been working well for the past 14 years. “RTI is an Act which seeped into the masses quickly. More than 60 lakh RTI applications are being filed in a year which in itself shows how extensively it is used. RTI is a tool which is mostly disliked by authorities because, of course, no one likes to be questioned.”

It’s no exaggeration: the Act is a tool that has toppled governments, sent politicians to jail and confounded millions of Indians with the scale of corruption it exposed. Importantly, it gave journalists a way to seek information. It made institutions appear more transparent as journalists could question authorities and base reports on information acquired through RTIs.

“Many think that RTI was a movement started by a lot of activists. If you look at history, it was the Press Council of India who demanded a tool for seeking information and more transparency,” says Afroz Alam Sahil, editor of BeyondHeadlines and a freelance journalist. “Veteran journalists like Kuldeep Nayyar and Prabhat Joshi raised this demand.” According to him, realising the threat RTI presents to a corrupt government, the UPA tried withholding information by bringing in several amendments from 2006 itself.

Given that every party in power has tried to amend it, it’s important to look at what the Act has achieved so far in unearthing stories of corruption. One of the pioneers in these revelations was the Adarsh Housing Society Scam in 2010. The plush apartment complex in Colaba, Mumbai, was meant for the widows of martyred Army officers and personnel of the Ministry of Defence. RTIs filed by Vice-Admiral Sanjay Bhasin revealed the scale of conspiracy, where politicians, bureaucrats and ex-military officers were bending landownership rules to acquire the flats for themselves.

Flats were acquired at one-tenth of their price, mostly by proxy owners. Ashok Chavan, then the chief minister of Maharashtra, was accused in the scam and the results of a subsequent CBI investigation led to the Congress forcing him to resign. Activists Simpreet Singh and Yogacharya Anandji filed multiple RTIs revealing the list of allotees, the role of MMRDA (Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority), and environmental violations involved in this project.

A scam that rocked the country was the 2G spectrum scam, bringing India dubious international attention when it was rated among the “Top 10 Abuses of Power” by Time magazine. The scam involved the telecom ministry, headed by A Raja, who was arrested in 2011 on charges of cheating, forgery and corruption, and was estimated to cost ₹1.76 lakh crore, according to the Comptroller and Auditor General.

It was an RTI application filed by Subhash Chandra Agrawal and another by Vivek Garg which brought to light the role of then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former telecom minister Dayanidhi Maran. The Times Of India published a series of 20 stories on the events as they unfolded.

Another RTI-driven bust-up was over the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Congress MP Suresh Kalmadi, who was also chairman of the event’s organising committee, was arrested for “irregularities”. The scam was estimated to involve an amount of ₹70,000 crore. An RTI filed by the Housing and Land Rights Network revealed that the Delhi government had diverted ₹744 crore from social welfare projects for Scheduled Caste communities to the Games.

In 2006, the Odisha government reportedly allotted 8,000 acres of land to the Vedanta Group. The landowners approached the Odisha High Court based on RTI documents, which showed that the stipulations of the Land Acquisition (Companies) Rules, 1963, were not followed before acquiring the land.

But these cases were during the initial 10 years of RTI. As Express’s Shyamlal Yadav points out: “Have you heard of any major scams recently? Last you heard of the fake degree of Smriti Irani and nothing came out of it. The government at the centre and state is slowly killing this Act, and it has become challenging to get any information. The State Information Commission is at a more pathetic stage than the Central Information Commission.”

A bureaucrat, on condition of anonymity, explains the dire state of the Act in three points. “The information commissioners and the officials at the CIC and SIC are retired civil servants. There can’t be transparency with the kind of people authorised to provide information. Second, there is no implementation of a penalty clause. There is a penalty if the information is delayed, with a charge of ₹500 every day going up to ₹25,000. And third is the lack of staff. States like Assam don’t have information commissioners, and this is being done  deliberately to weaken this Act.”

Beyond Headlines’ Sahil says: “The problem is the access of information at a very primary level. I was reporting on the Batla House encounter. The CIC approved my RTI of acquiring details from AIIMS. But after 10 days, the CIC withdrew its own order without explanation.”

According to journalists, some ministries are more closed off than others to RTI requests by journalists. Yadav says, “In my experience, it’s difficult to get information from the Ministry of Finance, External Affairs, Income Tax, Culture, Railways, the RBI, and certain states like Delhi, Odisha, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal.”

Sahil asserts that getting information from the central government is the most difficult. “So many questions have been raised about the education of the prime minister and his foreign trips. Nothing comes out.” He thinks that one thing the present government has mastered is stopping the flow of information. “Do you think the BJP does not have corruption? What they’re good at is just stopping the flow of information completely.”

This article was first published on newslaundry.com, July 27, 2019.