Monday, September 01, 2014

RTI reply suggests Union Home Ministry destroyed 11,100 files in July casually, without caring for rules

By Our Representative
Even after more than a month of destroying the 11,100 files, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Government of India, does not have, in one comprehensive list, details of all files it destroyed in July. Alleging this on the basis of a right to information (RTI) application, senior activist of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) Venkatesh Nayak has said, “Having looked at records management practices in some detail during my decade-long career of advocating for transparency in government, I find it surprising that the MHA went about destroying files without even preparing a list of files for review.”
Referring to Union home minister Rajnath Singh’s statement in Rajya Sabha in July, Nayak says, “The Home Minister stated that records were weeded out in accordance with Para 113 of the Central Secretariat's Manual of Office Procedure (CS-MOP). Para 113(4) states that the department records room must send a list of files ripe for reviewing and destruction/ archivisation in January each year in quarterly lots.”
However, the RTI reply by the public information officer said that the even the list of files that were weeded out “has not been compiled till date”, which indicates that the procedure for properly identifying files for weeding out was simply not followed. Nayak underlines, “Section 4(1)(a) of the RTI Act states that all public authorities, including the MHA must index, catalogue, computerise and network the records they hold in custody.”
The activist asks, “If the MHA's divisions did not have a preliminary list of files to be reviewed for destruction, how exactly did the weeding out process take place? Did the 500 officers, whom the Home Minister stated as being involved in the weeding out exercise, simply walked to the records rooms or the shelves where the old files were kept and started weeding them out one by one?”
Nayak comments, “The refusal to give details of this process both to Parliament when the issue was debated and now when a request is made under RTI, is shocking to say the least. What worsens the case is the audacity of the PIO's reply sent more than 30 days after the request was received in the MHA that the information will be given only on payment of fees." Nayak emphasises, "Under the RTI Act it is simply not open to a PIO to charge any fees for giving information after 30 days. Nor can the supply of information be deferred to a date beyond 30 days.”
Nayak says, “The Home Minister informed Parliament that 500 officials were involved in the weeding out exercise. No further details were given. When I asked for only the designations of such officers because officers of all grades and ranks are not permitted to authorise destruction of official records, a vague reply is given to me.”
He adds, “Let alone the names, even the designations of the officers who authorised destruction of files is being denied under the RTI Act in a roundabout manner. This is not in keeping with the promise of transparency that was made when this Government took over the reins of power in Delhi. Citizen taxpayers have the right to know who authorised the destruction of files, as the salary bill for the officers' time spent on this work is footed by them.”
Nayak further says that the rules require that records that are more than 25 years old be reviewed for archivisation in consultation with the National Archives. “However, the PIO's reply indicates that National Archives was not consulted at all during this weeding our process. So how old were the records that were weeded out is a serious question which was not satisfactorily answered either in Parliament or in response to my RTI application.”
Further, “these records are meant for preservation for 25 years or more. However, the PIO's reply indicates that no file classified 'top secret', 'secret' or 'confidential' was sent to the National Archives in June-July, 2014. It is only obvious that files of shorter lifespan would also not have been sent to the Archives for preservation as they may not contain information of historical value that is worth preserving. What then was destroyed in June-July 2014 is a mystery that neither the Home Minister's reply in the Rajya Sabha nor the PIO's reply clarifies.”
“The Home Minister and his senior officers have a lot of 'homework' to do if they are to truly deliver on the Prime Minister's promise of increased transparency in the Central government's actions and greater accountability to the people of India. This kind of transparency cannot be accomplished through Twitter or Facebook or other social media. What is required to be done is something akin to what Norway has done with its official records.”
In Norway, Nayak says, “the meta data about all files generated and held by public authorities is published online. A request under their RTI law may be made for any of these documents through this website. If a requested document is not covered by any exemption, it is emailed to the requester within a week. I have received some official documents in this manner when I tested out this facility. India has a lot of work to do if it wants to join the groups of nations that practice the transparency they preach”.

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