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‘Secret documents must be reviewed and made available after 20 years
October 15, 2011 06:26 PM |
rti event

Wajahat Habibullah, former CIC says official secrets have no place in democracy

“A democracy is no place for secrets. And RTI users therefore, must fovus on implementing the Act, and making the authorities more pro-active in disclosing information, especially now, when the debate is going on about the reach of the Right to Information Act,” said Mr former chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah. He was speaking at a seminar organised by Moneylife Foundation.

He talked about a case where veteran journalist Mr Kuldip Nayar had sought some documents about the interaction between Benazir Bhutto and Indian diplomats from the 1960s. The ministry of external affairs, said that a junior officer had reviewed the records and ruled that the information cannot be disclosed, “The senior bureaucrats and ministers sided with him. I then ruled that a committee be set up to review such secret documents that are more than 20 years old and make them available to the public. Unfortunately, that has not happened,” he said.

He said that efforts are being made by authorities to make information online, as the department of administrative reforms and pension schemes is going to invest Rs 23,000 crore for e-governance. When asked about why authorities have not disclosed information, he said that that is because the law doesn’t say how to enforce it.

The current Supreme Court-Chief Information Commission tussle regarding a CIC directive has caused much anxiety to RTI activists, along with the rumours about amendment to the RTI Act. Mr Habibullah said, “I don’t think the law needs to be changed~ that will dilute its powers. The Prime Minister thinks that the present Act prevents information officers from expressing their honest opinion. I think that a bureaucrat will never disclose information if he has something to hide, and the PM’s fears are unfounded.”

While speaking about whether no- governmental organisations be covered by RTI, he said that NGOs that are substantially funded by government, must not be exempt. He cited a hearing about disclosure of some information about a race course. “I believe that if some institution is set up under a law, it is subject to RTI.Such organisations are often indirectly funded by the public as they get many concessions.”

He also discussed the exemptions mentioned in the RTI. He said that first information reports(FIR) can also be accessed by RTI, and such disclosure cannot be said to impede investigation. However, the concept of privacy must be discussed, because there is demand to cover public private partnerships(PPPs); while on the other hand, Parliament is about to introduce a Bill on privacy next session.

Mr Habibullah said that public authorities have taken advantage of the low compensations and penalties that have been levied against errant PIOs. “They just file a case in order to get away with delays. The penalty course must be more forcefully used,” he said. When asked about whether housing societies come under RTI, he said that if contradictory opinions exist about the issue, it reveals that the law needs clarity.

In reply to a question, he also said that an RTI user can get compensation in case of harassment.

Mr Anil Divan, senior advocate at the Supreme Court and current president of the Bar Association of India , who was Mr Habibullah’s co-panelist, said that RTI must be used to expose corruption.

He said, “Persons who hold Constitutional positions are immune from Executive and political pressure, but the agencies who are in charge of investigating cases or vigilant bodies are governed by the Executives. An independent investigation agency which will be at par with the Supreme Court or Election Commission is necessary to act on the cases on corruption.”

Mr Divan shared his views on the current RTI-Judiciary tussle. He recounted many rulings and incidents that have come up in relation to disclosure of information by the Judiciary He said, “ Judiciary is a powerful institution, and it can check the powers of the government. It is thus expected that Judiciary itself should set an example and be pro-RTI.”

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