One cannot term the reply given by the Prime Minister's Office to an application under Right to Information (RTI) Act, anything but bizarre. What Sanjiv Chaturvedi asked were information about complaints received by the prime minister about corruption by central ministers. The PMO refused to disclose that information.
The reasons cited were: " The records are not kept in one place and are scattered across different sectors and units of this office. These complaints received relate to a variety of matters including corruption related and non-corruption related matters. The applicant has only sought details of all corruption related complaints. To identify, examine and categorise each of these complaints as corruption related complaints may be a subjective as well as a cumbersome exercise. The collation of information sought will require the undertaking of thorough search of numerous files. Such an exercise will disproportionately divert the resources of the office from the normal discharge of its functions." The sum and substance of the reply is this: we are not willing to search for what you asked; we have other work to do.
Ever since the RTI Act came into force in 2005, nobody would have received so negative and arrogant a reply - that too from the office of a prime minister who is so vocal about corruption-free governance. The context of the reply is also relevant. CBI itself has raised corruption charges against Central minister of state for Coal and Mines Haribhai Parthibhai Chaudhary. In addition to this, there are several allegations of corruption against various minisers. PMO rejected the request under cover of the provision in RTI Act that information should be provided unless it will "disproportionately divert the resources of the public authority or would be detrimental to the safety or preservation of the record in question." But then, what is the message this gives to the country?
It is not only the information about corruption charges against the ministers that was deemed inconvenient and unnecessary by the prime minister's office. When asked about the data used as basis for demonetisation, the reply given was that it could not be disclosed. To a query about how many officers from minority communities were there in the prime minister's office, the office answered that it cannot be disclosed. The enquiry as to the total amount spent on foreign tours by former prime minister Manmohan Singh and by prime minister Narendra Modi, was turned down terming it 'vague'. RTI is a powerful tool in the hands of the democratic people of India. It has played a no small role in exposing the faults of government including corruption and preventing them. It needs no overemphasis that the best guarantee of good governance is transparency. And Narendra Modi is one who had declared good governance and corruption-free rule as the main plank of his goals. If he had any sincerity in wiping out corruption, he should have been loyal to RTI, as a powerful means to achieve that. But the experience since Modi assumed office is different. Attempts are being made to dilute RTI. The number of officers and ministries that refuse to provide information, is increasing. And the prime minister himself who is bound to be a model for all of them, is giving the feeling that he is vying with them to defeat RTI. The prime minister, who speaks loud about people being the masters and rulers as ones answerable to them, should be able to prove that. RTI is a touchstone for this. When corporate tycoons who have borrowed huge sums flee the country after swindling banks, information about them are not forthcoming. The figures submitted by the Reserve Bank to the government about bad loans, are kept confidential. Even the orders by the Central Information Commissioner are ignored with different excuses. The number of so rejected RTI petitions has recorded a big rise in recent times. Not only that, most of the specious reasons given for rejecting them are not justifiable as per RTI Act.
If transparency will boost the confidence about governance, conversely secretiveness will only breed suspicions. Many are the questions regarding prime minister Modi that have come under the shadow of suspicion. When Neeraj Sharma asked for the list of Delhi University's graduates of 1978 - the year when Modi is said to have secured his degree - the University did not give that list. When the CIC ordered the university to provide it, the latter approached the high court. What are the people to make of it? Although some of the backroom secrets of currency ban did emerge via RTI, many still remain hidden. It is reported that many stories of corporate looting are yet to come out. As long as there is no transparency, suspicions will remain and grow among the people. Further, the government has the added obligation to convince people that no one, not even the prime minister, is above RTI - a law passed by parliament. It is not only for the RTI activists to intervene in this. People themselves have to come forward to invoke RTI and strengthen it.