Towards an Open Government
The enactment of the Freedom of Information Act, 2002, since replaced by the Right to Information Act, 2005, is an important milestone in the citizen's struggle to secure information about the way he is governed. It has been a long and painful struggle and the state apparatus seems to have been embittered by it. Accustomed to operating under the protective shadows of the Official Secrets Act, it tends to regard the outcome as a major defeat, which has to be avenged in a million skirmishes with the foot soldiers of the enemy by denying them the desired information under every conceivable pretext. Anyone who is called upon to invoke the provisions of the RTI Act time and again will vouch for the great ingenuity of a vast majority of the designated public information officers in stretching the letter of the law to deny access to the information sought. They pay scant heed to the spirit of the legislation encapsulated in section 4 of the Act, which mandates that every public authority shall endeavour to provide, of its own accord, as much information to the public as possible, so that the public have minimum resort to the use of the Act to obtain information.
The provision of effective access to information constitutes a crucial step towards a deeper and more meaningful democracy. The intrinsic value of the right to information is predicated on the fact that in a democracy, citizens are entitled to know what concerns and interests them. The instrumental value of the right to information comes into play as, empowered by knowledge, citizens can demand and secure action for development. Relevant information also enables them to make enlightened choices, effectively engage in democratic processes and call to account their elected representatives and the officials, who claim to act in their interest. The right to information is a potent weapon in the campaign against corruption. It promotes social and economic development and reduces conflict by enhancing government transparency and accountability. It is imperative that public authorities cease to view a demand for information as an affront; instead, they should proactively place all material facts concerning their operations in the public domain. Such an attitudinal change would win them the trust of the people, which is fundamental to good governance, and obviate the need for invoking the statutory right to information. The real value of the Right to Information Act is in enhancing the democratic process by encouraging popular participation in public affairs and ensuring the accountability of those in office.
|* TOWARDS AN OPEN GOVERNMENT
* SUPREME COURT & PILs
|* APPOINTMENT OF C.A.G.
* POLICE REFORMS
There are far too many obscure nooks and corners in the edifice of government, which have been kept beyond the pale of public scrutiny. For instance, appointments to constitutional posts and other high offices in India have always remained shrouded in mystery. The government has been steadfast in its refusal to lay down any qualifications for these posts, or spell out the procedures for preparation of short lists of candidates and the criteria for selection. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has not upheld the challenge to executive arbitrariness in the appointments to the constitutional office of Comptroller & Auditor General of India. But this setback need not deter the civil society from pressing for replacement of secrecy and mystery in appointments to high public offices with transparency and objectivity. As citizens of a mature democracy, we are entitled to demand the restoration of competence and an end to the culture of expediency and cronyism.
It is only natural that this new culture of openness should also extend to personnel management in government. In this connection, the Fifth Central Pay Commission had specifically mentioned activities such as appointments, transfers and postings, empanelment, promotions and resolution of disputes among government servants and recommended that clearly defined criteria for all such matters should be laid down and publicized so as to permit a scrutiny of the decisions purported to be based on them. Hopefully, this recommendation will see some action after a lapse of eleven years.
The domain of policy formation is equally in the need of public airing and exposure. Public participation in the processes leading to policy formulation and legislation is virtually non-existent. Advances in information and communications technologies have made it possible for governments to transcend the limitations of representative democracy and to reach out to the general public to ascertain its aspirations and concerns and accommodate them. It will be foolhardy to underestimate the public concern and disquiet over issues such as terrorism, inflation, food security, energy crisis, unemployment, growing income disparities, social discords and corruption. It is quite possible that the government has formulated its strategies and actions plans to address these concerns, but the public needs to be reassured that it is indeed the case. We have not seen any White Papers on these critical issues.
We also need to question established practices and conventions which inhibit the dialogue between the citizenry and the government. The mystique of the budgetary process, for instance, is an anachronism from the colonial era. There is no reason why the Finance Minister should not take the nation into confidence about his budget proposals, which should occasion an informed public debate. The budget document should then be finalized and presented in the Parliament.
To conclude, if we want an open, accountable and participatory government, we must be exigent in our insistence for a radical change in the processes of government.
- Kamal Kant Jaswal