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Govt of India seeking to 'undermine' RTI, keep accountability outside the purview of law

By Our Representative 

Several political leaders, rights campaigns and others, opposing amendments to the Right to Information (RTI) Act through the Digital Personal Data Protection Bill (DPDP Bill), have expressed the view that the Bill, likely to be introduced in Parliament during the ongoing second half of the Budget session, will severely restrict the scope of the information access legislation. They were speaking at a public meeting organised at the Constitution Club, Delhi.
Karti Chidambaram, Congress MP, and member of the Standing Committee which examined the DPDP Bill, said that the government is weakening peoples’ rights and centralising power with itself. He said that in balancing the RTI and the data protection bill, no amendments should be made to the RTI Act. 
He also expressed concern about the government usurping several powers related to the oversight body proposed to be set up under the DPDP Bill and said that his party will oppose these anti-people and anti-RTI provisions.
Jawahar Sircar of the Trinamool Congress, who is also a member of the Standing Committee, said that the government’s tenure is marked by dilution of peoples’ fundamental rights. He said the government must not weaken the RTI Act in any way. He also shared that despite the committee deliberating on the Bill, there was no focus on the issue of its impact on the RTI Act. He emphasized the need to have greater transparency about legislations and their content.
John Brittas of CPI-M, also part of the concerned Standing Committee, said people have to be very alert because often there is conspiracy and ulterior motives behind actions of the Central government such as using the DPDP Bill to amend the RTI Act. He added, DPDP Bill should be for the benefit of people in terms of protecting and furthering their rights and must not weaken the RTI Act.
The three members of the Standing Committee on Communications & Information Technology also stated that the committee has given no approval or thumbs up to the DPDP Bill, 2022 contrary to the recent claims made by the Minister for Electronics and Information Technology.
Azeez Pasha of CPI said the government is trying to silence all those who question it and he said the amendments to the RTI Act was also a step in that direction. He said the party will strongly oppose any dilution of the RTI Act.
Ghanshyam Tiwari of the Samajwadi Party said that the government was already not disclosing crucial information needed for public accountability. He also said that the government must disclose who it had consulted on the DPDP Bill and why they were not taking on board concerns of citizens.
Prashant Bhushan, senior lawyer of the Supreme Court, said accessing information is already a challenge and if the amendments come through, most of the information crucial for seeking accountability from the government will be outside the purview of the RTI Act. He said the government already hides behind the shield of privacy to deny information on a host of issues from names of bank defaulters to government’s decision making. He said the amendments must be strongly opposed by all citizens.
Anjali Bhardwaj, co-convenor of the National Campaign for People's Right to Information (NCPRI) explained that the draft Digital Personal Data Protection Bill (DPDP Bill) was expected to develop a framework balancing the need to protect certain kinds of personal data with the provisions of the Right to Information Act, 2005, which lays out the statutory framework for Indian citizens to access information, including personal information.
However, she said, the draft Bill which was made public by the Ministry of Electronics & Information Technology (MeitY) in November 2022 fails to safeguard and harmonize the two. The proposed Bill seeks to amend the provision regulating the disclosure of personal information to expand its purview and exempt all personal information from the ambit of the RTI Act. 
Also, she added, based on an incorrect understanding of the RTI law, it seeks to delete a key overarching provision which lays down the conditions under which even information which qualifies to be exempt from disclosure is liable to be provided under the RTI Act.
Wajahat Habibullah, former Chief Information Commissioner, said that the proposed amendments would fundamentally destroy the RTI Act. He said giving a wide, non-specific definition to what constitutes privacy will make it very difficult for people to access information from the government.
Commodore Lokesh Batra, transparency activist who has extensively used the RTI Act said the proposed amendment would cause hindrances on even accessing information on decision-making as they would deny names and opinions of officials on the pretext of privacy.
Proposed amendment would cause hindrances on even accessing information on decision-making
Nikhil Dey of the NCPRI said that public disclosure of information was crucial for people to be able to access their rights. He cited the example of the MGNREGA public database which enables people to carry out public monitoring and tracking of funds, wages, work sites and said if such information is removed due to the DPDP Bill, people will find it impossible to access their rights.
Prasanna S of the Article 21 Trust and Anushka from Internet Freedom Foundation expressed concerns about the bill giving wide discretionary powers to the Central government both in rule making and vis-à-vis the oversight body. They said rather than a data protection bill, it was a government protection bill.
Several RTI users highlighted how using the RTI Act empowered them to access granular information and hold the government accountable for delivery of basic rights and entitlements. Speaking at the meeting, Kusum Lata, a resident of Moti Lal Nehru Camp said that they used to face a lot of problems in accessing their entitlement of kerosene oil from the depot which used to be part of the Public Distribution System. The depot dealer would turn them away saying the stock had not reached the shop.
She filed an application under the RTI Act and accessed the sale register of the shop which provided details of how much oil had been supplied to which person and the cost. Using the information, the community did a public audit by checking with people whether they had indeed received the oil as per the entries in the register. They unearthed significant diversion of kerosene and successfully followed up with complaints and community monitoring to improve the delivery in the area. 
Others spoke of the importance of public disclosure of granular information related to rations, pensions, scholarships, welfare schemes and voter lists. Dolly of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights  highlighted the importance of public disclosure of data to track budget expenditure of schemes and funds earmarked for SC/ST.
Participants at the public meeting passed resolutions to oppose any regressive amendments to the RTI Act, reject the centralisation of power sought to be done through the DPDP Bill, reject and oppose the DPDP Bill in its current form, and the Bill be put through a proper process of consultation including in Hindi and regional languages.
NCPRI organised the meet in collaboration with the Right to Food Campaign, NREGA Sangharsh Morcha, Internet Freedom Foundation, Article 21 Trust, Right to Education Forum, National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, and the National Alliance of Peoples Movements.

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