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  RTI - a tactical retreat by the government

Yesterday the government responded to rising anger and decided not to move the infamous amendment to the RTI Act - ‘for now’. The victory that activists are celebrating is misplaced given that the Evil Empire has only slunk away to recover; but the moment is nevertheless a watershed in India’s public life because of the way people organised themselves at home and abroad, marshalled technology to raise the decibel level, enthused RTI pioneers to lead on and finally humbled a sneaky state.

The issue at hand was the attempt to emasculate the young RTI Act, already a vanquishing avatar in many peoples’ eyes. Since Oct, 2005 when the Act came into force people all over the country, from every social strata have used it with increasing success to fight extortion, concealment and harassment by civil servants, petty and high.

Success stories were piling up. NDTV which played a notable role using its website and news channel, has catalogued various successes. A lady in Karnataka wrote how she is fighting official collusion in a land registry to systematically grab land. An activist in Gujarat waved the RTI Act to get healthcare running again for salt pan workers. In Tamil Nadu, a man fought exorbitant billing on his mobile phone. In Rajasthan a mere threat to use the Act got long delayed pensions paid to four poor women. In Kerala, a poor sign painter was saved from extortion by a petty village official.

There were successes at the other end of the scale too. Arvind Kejriwal,-who fittingly got the Magsaysay Award during the fight-back- has written how the Delhi government was exposed by use of the RTI Act: it had wrongly awarded a consultancy contract under pressure from the World Bank. Elsewhere a citizen sought to be shown a copy of the letter written by the then President K R Narayanan, to Gujarat Chief Minister Modi disapproving that state’s failure in containing communal riots. Aruna Roy who has done more than most to mid-wife the Act, has asked “How many Indians, for instance, are aware of the details of field trials being conducted on genetically modified foods in India? This is no longer food that will be consumed by cattle but brinjal and other foods that will be directly consumed by humans”.

Clearly the Act was a threat to the Evil Empire that thrives in the very darkness that the Act was shining a light on. A conspiracy was hatched to maim the Act if it was too late to kill it. The Act was to be amended to exclude ‘file notings’ from the scope of information a citizen may seek. We will come in a moment to learn what file notings are, but in sum the citizen will be told what decision was taken but he may not know how or why such a decision was taken. In other words, a corrupt official or minister can evade detection. How?

Here is Maja Daruwala explaining file notings: “File notings, then, are X-rays of government functioning. They are proof of fair play and reason , or dishonesty, bias, and negligence. They are the shield that most honest bureaucrats wish they had and the sword that dishonest ones fear. It is only by allowing thorough public scrutiny of the evidence of how the government works at every level that corruption can be fought. File notings fall squarely within the definition of ‘information’ in the Act.” [The full article]

The cabinet decision to amend the Act came, as Kejriwal has wryly observed, at the very moment when the Prime Minister was waxing eloquent about the importance of transparency in public life. It came in the middle of very successful series of campaigns to popularise it all over the country. People were thronging to workshops to learn how to use the Act. NDTV gave commendable coverage to the campaign.

So when the move to amend the Act became known, all hell broke loose. Aruna Roy, a slightly built lady, went on national TV, all clenched fist and steely jawed, saying she will not let it pass. Within 24 hours there was an online petition that people could sign. In under three weeks 5,600 people signed it. Over 80,000 people signed NDTV’s petitions. Aid-India, an organisation of young influential Indians in America bristled with anger. They targeted to raise $25,000 to beat back the amendments. With typical savvy of the young in America they issued a campaign kit detailing how to fax- and mail- bomb politicians, how to call the Prime Minister and officials, what were the talking points, what could be a good letter to the press and so on. In india, Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey, Sailesh Gandhi, Shekar Singh, Arvind Kejriwal, Sandeep Pandey and most importantly Anna Hazare stepped out to take on the government. Delightfully, many serving civil servants spoke against the amendments because their own honest notings would be buried with the dishonest ones.

Throughout the campaign, GoodNewsIndia carried the following message at the top of its home-page

The Empire Strikes Back

In mere six months, the Right to Information Act has gone from a child that’d grow to clear oppression and extortion in the land, to a captive about to be strangulated.

The Evil Empire that lurks behind the Constitution, has awakened to the threat to its well-being. Just as tyrants in mythology sought to destroy children of promise, the Union Cabinet has chosen to disallow file notings from being revealed. The amendment will cripple or kill this Act.

If you love your India, be prepared to join kindred spirits to march in the streets to save the Act. For now, click this link to sign a petition.

August 9 was designated the day to begin a global relay fast by Indians; in the US in front of the Indian embassy. Anna Hazare threatened to return the national honour conferred upon him. He began a fast unto death in Maharashtra and Sandeep Pandey, likewise in Delhi. Seeing the overwhelming support to the campaign, politicians began to step out and speak against the amendments. By Aug 18, it was clear to the government that its sly move had been frustrated: it just couldn’t muster enough political support to carry the amendments in the Parliament.

Yesterday, it threw in the towel and said it would not try to amend the Act, ‘for now’. So perhaps it’s a victory: though the Evil Empire only retreats to fight another day, the next time around more formidable forces will be arrayed against it.