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FEATURES/Real Issue | Jan 25, 2012 | 5735 views

RTI: Right To U-Turn

Activists fear that the government's move to exempt the CBI from the Right to Information Act could have ulterior motives
RTI: Right To U-Turn
Image: Indian Express Archive
QUESTIONS UNANSWERED Former CBI director Joginder Singh is surprised at the haste to keep the intelligence agency out of RTI

The agency traces its origin to the Special Police Establishment (SPE) which was set up in 1941 by the Government of India. The functions of the SPE then were to investigate cases of bribery and corruption in transactions with the War & Supply Department of India during World War II.

Even after the War, the need for a central government agency to investigate cases of bribery and corruption was felt and, as a result, the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act was brought into force in 1946. The DSPE acquired its popular current name, Central Bureau of Investigation, through a home ministry resolution in 1963.

Former CBI director Joginder Singh is surprised at the haste to keep the agency out of RTI. “If you wanted to keep some information out of the public domain, the government could have done so. Where is the need to keep the entire department out of the ambit of the RTI Act?” he asks.

Documents show that the file moved so fast that in three months as many as 45 DoPT officials signed the exemption. Former cabinet secretary K.M. Chandrasekhar, CBI director A.P. Singh and the DoPT declined to comment on the issue.

Joginder Singh added that the RTI could be used to find out if there were any anomalies in cases that were closed for lack of evidence. “The recent cases of corruption against the government could have definitely played a role here. It is possible the CBI had moved for the exemption at the behest of the government.”

Days after the decision was taken, former chief of the Central Information Commission (CIC) Wajahat Habibullah wrote to the Prime Minister pointing out that the CBI was not fit for exemption under the Act.  “...given the prevalent public mood around the country against corruption, exempting the CBI could be counter-productive,” said Habibullah in his letter of May 20.

“The CBI is not involved in collecting intelligence of any kind nor does it perform any security related duties unlike other law enforcement agencies.”
Habibullah is credited with laying the foundation of the CIC, and raising its capacity to deal with thousands of applications every day.

Officers in the CIC say that in 2010-11, about eight lakh RTI applications were filed by departments that functioned under the Central government. If RTIs filed in state governments are included, the number was about 20 lakh.

A CIC officer, who did not wish to be identified, says that a number of signals from the government indicate that it was uncomfortable with the flurry of applications. “We have tried to hold discussions with the government on several occasions seeking their help in getting ministries to move faster on applications. But in recent times, they seem to be short of hearing,” he says.

Recently, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said the law shouldn’t hurt the deliberative processes in the government. “Even as we recognise and celebrate the efficacy and the effectiveness of the Right to Information Act, we must take a critical look at it. There are concerns that need to be discussed and addressed honestly,” he said.

A public information official with National Highways Authority of India says that the Prime Minister has a point. “We are flooded with so many requests that at times the regular functioning of the body becomes difficult,” he says. Many requests come from companies and contractors with ulterior motives, he adds.

But Arvind Kejriwal, one of the key figures in the movement for right to information, says transparency was the larger good and therefore had to be pursued. “The government does not want the CBI to remain a credible and honest department. And all these attempts are towards ensuring that the agency is forced to remain under its control.”

This article appeared in the Forbes India magazine issue of 03 February, 2012
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