Thursday, August 29, 2013

Social activist Aruna Roy seeks urgent discussion with Sonia Gandhi to defer amendment to RTI Act

By Our Representative
Prominent social activist Aruna Roy has written to Sonia Gandhi, UPA chairperson, asking her to urgently hold discussions with right to information (RTI) activists on contention issues on amending the RTI Act before going ahead the proposed amendment which seeks to keep political parties out of the RTI ambit. Enclosing a letter from the co-conveners of the National Campaign for Peoples’ Right to Information (NCPRI), she said, “The proposed RTI Amendment Bill should be referred to a Standing Committee for further discussion”, instead of passing it in Parliament.
Roy said, “I had written to you earlier seeking an appointment regarding the proposed amendments to the RTI. Since then much has happened. The amendment bill proposing to exclude political parties from the purview of the RTI has been tabled. Given that there has been no public consultation on the matter, I feel it is even more imperative that the Bill at least be referred to a Standing Committee or a Select Committee of the Parliament to allow for broader consultations and deliberations. It would also offer interested citizens and experts an opportunity to break the increasing polarization between people/civil society groups and political parties on this matter.”
Already, Roy and other activists have held discussions with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on the matter on the August 19, 2013, after which he promised that he would discuss with his colleagues to see whether a recommendation could be made to send the Bill to the Standing Committee of Parliament. “We also discussed with him the need to immediately pass long standing accountability legislations such as the Grievance Redressal Bill, Whistleblower Protection Bill and the Lokpal Bill”, Roy informed Gandhi, adding, while there have been “reports in papers that a decision has been taken to send the Bill to the Standing Committee, there is no confirmation from the government.”
On Thursday, Roy said, she has been informed by the Speaker's office that her proposal to defer the proposed amendment of RTI (exempting political parties) and send it to a parliamentary committee for thorough discussion (and participation by public/activists) has been rejected. “This happened due to lack of all-party support in the Lok Sabha's BAC (Business Advisory Committee).” Roy walked out of Gandhi-led National Advisory Council (NAC) in May-end, requesting not to renew her association with the top UPA body. Later, she began a movement against the proposed bill to amend the RTI Act.
Roy warned, “Apart from our concern that the RTI Act should not be amended in this fashion we strongly feel that we are losing an important opportunity to ensure financial transparency and accountability in the political structures. A number of sincere and committed political leaders have expressed their deep concerns with the illegitimate influence of money power in the electoral political process.”
She added, “The Election Commission and IT Authorities have already displayed their inability to effectively control this deep-rooted problem. Political parties themselves are unable to do this either. The only hope is to empower the common citizen to do what they have been doing so courageously and creatively with the RTI- fight corruption and the arbitrary use of power through their straightforward questions and determination to get answers. I believe that the least that the political class can do is to take into consideration all other opinions and options before taking a completely arbitrary step of exempting themselves all together from the RTI Act.”
NCPRI letter: The NCPRI in a separate letter to Gandhi said, “The enactment and implementation of the Right to Information Act 2005 is considered one of the most significant achievements of your government. You have spearheaded and supported this landmark legislation throughout- during the course of its passage in Parliament and subsequently when amendments were proposed to it. We are writing to request a meeting with you to discuss the RTI (Amendment) Bill 2013, which is currently in Parliament.”
It added, “In the eight years since its enactment, the RTI Act has enabled the citizens of India to make informed choices and strengthened participatory democracy in the country. The legislation has helped people end a culture of secrecy in governance and enabled Indian democracy to begin to move towards a system of open and transparent government.” The NCPRI’s letter has been signed by its co-conveners Anjali Bhardwaj, Nikhil Dey, Venkatesh Nayak, Bhaskar Prabhu and Rakesh Dubbudu.
Saying that the RTI Act has globally been recognized and heralded as “amongst the most progressive access to information laws in the world”, the letter from NCPRI insisted, “Any amendment that dilutes the people’s right to information would weaken this important avenue of reform, and even undermine the process of realizing constitutional promises. The introduction of the RTI Amendments Bill in Parliament, as a reaction to the recent Central Information Commission order, has raised widespread suspicion among citizens that the political establishment is attempting to cover acts of corruption and arbitrary use of power.”
Pointing out that this belief is being further reinforced by the fact that there have been no public consultations on the amendments, the letter said, “Since the RTI Amendment Bill has already been tabled in Parliament, we urge you to prevent the Bill from being put to vote in a hasty manner. We request you to ensure that the Amendment Bill is referred to a Standing Committee of Parliament or a Select Committee, to facilitate widespread public consultation on the issue.”
The letter concludes, “You will recall that the government made an assurance in Parliament in 2009 that the RTI Act will not be amended without public consultation. It would be a travesty of this assurance if such an important issue were to be passed without deliberation and consultation in the Parliamentary Standing Committee. We are confident that you will be responsive to peoples’ appeal and once again protect the RTI Act. We are sure that a process of dialogue and deliberation both within, and outside parliament, would prevent the dilution of the Right to Information law.”

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