New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday said that questioning the government is a citizen’s right and vital for democracy. Inaugurating the tenth annual convention of the landmark Right to Information (RTI) Act, Modi said, “People should have right to question government”.
“RTI should be used, first and foremost, to better the process of governance. Today, I feel there is a limitation to RTI. We know of the process but not the end product,” he said at the event which has been boycotted by most RTI activists for running security checks on the attendees. The government has invited only seven RTI activists to the event.
“We need to become proactively transparent. People should not have to make an effort to get information. More openness in the government will help citizens. In this day and age, there is no need for secrecy,” PM Modi said.
Modi used the occasion to stitch his Digital India dreams with the 10-year-old legislation. “When matters go online, transparency increases automatically. Trust also increases,” he said.
The Central Information Commission convention is a congregation of RTI activists who discuss issues related to the implementation of the transparency law across the country through informal sessions where they are able to question and counter-question the experts and commissioners. The two-day convention is being organised on the theme of “RTI: Outlook for the Future Trust Through Transparency”.
The government said around 5 million requests for information have been received up to June 2015 by the public authorities of the central government across the country since the inception of the RTI Act in 2005.
Controversy over Convention
Leading RTI activists including Aruna Roy boycotted the opening of the annual CIC convention, celebrating the 10th anniversary of the transparency law, to be addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The activists including Lokesh Batra, Venkatesh Nayak, Anjali Bhardwaj and Nikhil Dey, who were invited for the convention, had announced their boycott plans after the authorities restricted the invitations to some activists citing security reasons.
The activists have in the past been an integral part of the annual convention organised by the CIC where the Prime Minister or the President used to attend the opening or valedictory session. Only one year, none of the two top dignitaries were able to attend, following which, Law Minister Veerappa Moily had addressed the gathering.
“We have resolved that the members of the NCPRI who have received invitations (and have not as yet been uninvited) will not attend the inaugural session.
“We will use the RTI to probe the sequence of events and will fight to establish the independence and pro-people democratic mandate of the CIC,” National Campaign for the People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) said in a resolution passed yesterday.
Besides inaugural and valedictory sessions, the conventions are known for technical sessions ensuring a free dialogue process between activists, RTI users and legal experts.
About two months back, in a meeting of Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions, it was decided that this year SICs will be asked to send the activists for the convention.
But this changed, after Modi gave a last minute nod to attend the inaugural session. The activists who were assured of invitation were told that they cannot be invited because of security reasons.
“Due to security reasons we are not in a position to issue the Cards to two of you,” S P Beck, Joint Secretary in the Commission, wrote to two activists in Andhra Pradesh.
Chief Information Commissioner Vijai Sharma, did not comment on this development.
“Only people who belong to registered NGOs have been invited… Individual RTI activists’ contributions are much more than any NGO in this country. For the last eight years I have been attending the convention I was not a security threat, how can I become one in the ninth year,” C J Karira, Hyderabad based RTI activist told PTI over phone.
Venkatesh Nayak of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, who has been invited, said it is most unfortunate that after 10 years, when the world is lauding this act, the Government is not ready to celebrate it in big way even as it is celebrating every other anniversary.
“The Government is sending Intelligence Bureau to the homes of these RTI activists to check their antecedents. That has never happened in the past. No security clearances were required ever. I can’t understand why this paranoia about security,” he said.
When asked why the invited activists have decided to boycott only the inaugural session, Nayak said it is because of this session, security reasons are being cited to deny access.
He said CIC people have assured them that activists can come for the rest of the sessions which are important for deliberations on the way ahead.
Social activist Aruna Roy, who is a signatory to the resolution, alleged that this is happening under the “control” not “influence” of the government.
“It is an indication of government wanting to take over the decision making process to an extent it can. In the history of this government in one and half year, consultation has stopped, anytime access to authority or free governance is so restricted,” she said during a press conference. “Even the names recommended by the State Information Commissions have been rejected, reportedly because of so-called ‘security concerns’. Our contribution to the exhibition has not been taken,” she added.
Subhash Agarwal, RTI activist said, he is not a signatory to the resolution but he shares the anguish and disappointment of the activists on being insulted and denied access to the convention in such a manner. However, he maintained that he will boycott all the sessions other than the inauguration.