RTI Rejections: Disclosure as threat to the sovereignty and integrity of India

Within the context of recent events in India such as the criminalisation of protest that we have seen at JNU, caste and it’s unaccountability with Rohith Vemula, the tabling of the bill on Aadhar, the threat of the coming back of 66A, what has been made clear is the State’s endeavour to make citizens ‘accountable’ with the threat of punishment. At the same time the State has been engaging in drawing up a veil which leaves it unaccountable to its citizens.

One of the spaces is where information is requested under Right to Information (RTI) Act reasons so incomprehensible are provided and being touted as valid grounds to reject attempts at making State processes transparent. This brings to the fore the way the State machinery works in protecting the interests of private enterprise. Solomon Benjamin exploring the construction of the city through the urban reforms agenda and elitist corporate interest groups says:

question on linkage between the urban reform agenda and new business partnership was posed to Delhi’s NDMC commissioner, her pointed response was that the ‘steel frame’ of the state was being rapidly dismantled and replaced by policy making from ‘external sources’. Such a ‘capture’ of the policy-making process is paralleled by the way this is pushed through the system. Here it is useful to mention an interesting observation made by a researcher working on the issue of public sector reforms for an international donor agency. He mentioned that in contrast to Kerala, where the elected representatives debate proposals for reforms, what struck him in Karnataka was the way a small coterie of ‘blue eyed’ very senior but young IAS officers used government orders in ways to bypass the legislature. (Benjamin, 2010)

In an attempt to make visible, the way the Government of Karnataka (politicians and bureaucracy) has worked with the Karnataka Tourism Vision Group to hand over public spaces, citizens filed RTI applications. These were made to the Department of Tourism requesting for documents containing the following information: MoU, minutes of the meetings of Karnataka Vision Tourism Group, Government order establishing it, correspondences between Tasveer Foundation and Department of Tourism etc. (For a full list please refer to Annexure 1.) It was an attempt to understand how something as big as the handover of cities to private entities, the creation of monopolistic business practices, the slew of legislation passed to support this including denotifications, changes to Karnataka Government Parks (Preservation) Act, 1975 and subsidies.

The RTIs were returned with no information provided. The reasons (for a detailed list please refer to Annexure 2.) for the non-disclosure included:

1. What was asked could not be considered as information under the RTI Act 2005

Even though the information asked for fell under the definition of the RTI Act 2005 2(f) the applications were still rejected. Right to Information Act (RTI) 2005 clause 2 (F) states that “”information” means any material in any form, including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force.”

2. Citizens can not ask for opinions.

By what stretch of the imagination was this considered an opinion seeking exercise is beyond our comprehensibility. Especially since the Department of Tourism has proven over the past few months that soliciting general public opinion isn’t really one of their strong points.

3. The information is not held by the ministry.

Copies of the MoU signed between Tasveer Foundation and Department of Tourism was made available by Citizen Matters, a news portal whose advisor and investor is the Co-Chair of KTVG. So is this document not held by the ministry? A citizen who puts in a request to the ministry through RTI is turned down and instead has to depend on private ‘benevolence’ for access which is also limited to being able to access the online world.The Ministry does not have a copy of the circular that brings KTVG into existence and yet this is the body that gets to decide who public spaces are given to. KTVG members speak on behalf of the Government of Karnataka and yet the Government does not hold information regarding its status!

4. The information is not available in the form in which it has been requested.

As stated in the above point the request for a copy of the MoU and the existence of it shows how seriously RTI applications are taken by DOT.

5. The information is confidential as it would affect business interests and the relationship between the ministry and the private enterprise.

The RTI Act 8(1) d&e which is quoted as refusal refers to trade secrets, intellectual property etc the disclosure of which would harm the competitiveness of a company. Are Tasveer Foundation and KTVG private enterprises with business interests that the Government feels compelled to protect?

6.This information concerns the government’s operational and financial interests.

RTI Act 8(1) a) is referred to here which provides for refusal on the ground that disclosure may harm “the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign State or lead to incitement of an offence.” Asking for a copy of the government circular that brings KTVG into existence or the copy of minutes of their meetings or for that matter a copy of the MoU threatens the State enough to invoke such a clause.

The RTI rejections do provide the space for appeal. The only slight problem here is that the one who will decide on the appeal is a signatory to the MoU with Tasveer Foundation!

Access to official documents enables citizens make informed choices which is why the RTI exists in the first place. With these rejections and with the tourism website being down for days  citizens are put at a disadvantage to engage with the Government and unable to combat the powerful private propaganda machine.

Asha Ghosh in her article Public-Private or a Private Public discussing the Bangalore Agenda Task Force and its workings during SM Krishna’s time says:

In the context of Indian urban governance, the impact of high level task forces have the potential to extend beyond an advisory capacity on policy initiatives while there are no regulatory or accountability systems in place to evaluate and advise the public and the government on the merits of their far-reaching efforts. (Ghosh, 2005)

When governance colludes with private interests accountability and transparency take the fall.

 

References:

Asha Ghosh (2005) ‘Public-Private or a Private Public? Promised Partnership of the Bangalore Agenda Task’  Economic and Political Weekly 19 November 2005
Narendar Pani (2006) ‘Icons and reform politics in India: The case of S.M. Krishna.’ Asian Survey, 46 (2), 238-56
Benjamin Solomon (2010) ‘Manufacturing Neoliberalism: Lifestyling Indian Urbanity’ A chapter in ‘Accumulation by Dispossession: Transformative Cities in the New Global Order’ edited by Swapna Banerjee-Guha

Annexure 1:

RTI:1

  1. Copy of the Memorandum of Understanding
  2. Is there any other contract, understanding or agreement between the government of Karnataka and Tasveer Foundation?
  3. If so, what is it? Copy of same.

RTI: 2

  1. Copy of the terms of reference of the Karnataka Tourism Vision Group
  2. Copy of the minutes of all meetings of the Karnataka Tourism Vision Group
  3. Copy of the Government order under which the Karnataka Tourism Vision Group was set up
  4. Copy of the minutes of all meetings of the Karnataka Tourism Vision Group
  5. What is the current status of the Karnataka Tourism Vision Group?

RTI:3

  1. When was the MoU entered into?
  2. What are the terms and conditions for the adoption of Venkatappa Art Gallery by Tasveer Foundation?
  3. What activities can Tasveer Foundation carry out in Venkatappa Art Gallery?
  4. What construction work can Tasveer Foundation carry out in Venkatappa Art Gallery and its immediate surroundings?
  5. Which government department will supervise Tasveer Foundation’s work in Venkatappa Art Gallery?
  6. Copy of the minutes of all meetings between Department of Tourism and Tasveer Foundation.
  7. Copy of all letters of communication between Department of Tourism and Tasveer Foundation.

Annexure 2:

  1. According to Right to Information Act (RTI) 2005 clause 2 (F) your request does not come under the terminology of the word ‘Information’. As per the ruling on 08.12.2010 by  Karnataka information commission (no. KMA 12704 and 12705 complaint 2009) procedure cannot be questioned. “The Public Information Authorities cannot expect to communicate to the citizen the reason why a certain thing was done or not done in the sense of a justification because the citizen makes a requisition about information.” (Mumbai High Court Writ Petition 419/2007)
  2. “Citizens can ask for copies of documents containing information But they cannot seek opinions through a questionnaire.” (225/IC(A)/2006-31-08-2006 and CIC/OK(A) 2006/00049/ 2nd May 2006)
  3. Also as we have to prepare the information requested by you which is against the Right To Information Act 2005 2(J) we will not be able to provide you the information. This fact has made been clear by Central Information Commission. RTI Act 2005 (2j) Creation of Information: “Only information as held by or under the control of any public authority can constitute a right to information for which the citizen can claim access.”
  4. “Information is to be provided in the form in which it is sought, provided of course the information is available in that form.” (225/IC(A)/2006-31.08.2006)
  5. As we have to compile the information you have requested and as there is no clarity in your request we will not be able to accept your application (To Compile or not to Compile -Information is to be provided in the form of in which it is sought, provided of course the information is available in that form. The appellant should therefore ascertain whether the information that he needs are available in the form required by him. The appellant for instance, has sought certain statistical information, such as the number of disputed cases settled under different schemes, which should be given, provided it exist in the form in which the appellant has asked for. They ought not be manipulated in any form, lest the purpose of scrutinising of public action by the civil society should get defeated. – (225/IC(A)/2006 -31.08.2006).
  6. “The information you have requested is confidential between the department and the private enterprise and as it a question of trust and belief and it concerns their business and their matters, by giving this it will affect the competitiveness of the private enterprises hence we will not be able to provide you the information you have asked for.’’ (RTI 2005 8(1) D&E)
  7. Information you have requested as per Right to information act 2005 8(1) (A) include Governments operational and financial interests and these agreements have been prepared and signed as per the guidelines, rules and regulations of the government we will be unable to provide you the requested information.
  8. Information you have requested include Governments operational and financial interests and these agreements have been prepared and signed as per the guidelines, rules and regulations of the government we will be unable to provide you the requested information as per Right to information act 2005 8 (1) (a).

 

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8 thoughts on “RTI Rejections: Disclosure as threat to the sovereignty and integrity of India

    1. Rashmi Munikempanna Post author

      Thank you so much for this. Look forward to reading and listening to more on your site!

      Reply
  1. sharmajeeblog

    1. This is a perpetual system defect of Indian Governance and Justice system. People in power at every village, taluka use it irrationally to harrass common man on seeking details. Babus hate being asked questions with their feudal mindset….. Long history of colonial past (conveniently adopted) by our modern post independence ruling Maharaja’s (both political leaders and government Babus)…..

    2. Its a known fact our justice system and law can be interpreted to suit mighty Babus and accused to give them long rope to delay the justice. To my mind this is the main root of corruption in our country….. which troubles all of our common man.

    3. None of the ground taken by PIO on your referred RTI will be able to hold scrutiny of law. The only way out is to persist and wait for denial of first appeal by his superior (as expected, as weak RTI law donot put any lawful punishment on him for being illogical or unreasonable).

    4. This will be another long wait till decision of second appeal which will not be decided by very upright person but old Babu of friend of Babu who will also order for part information…. and you are lucky if that is provided by PIO else again same cycle will continue…

    5. If you further decide to approach High court than their too RTI cases are low priority and long wait ……..

    6. In this process whole purpose is lost and you stop chasing….

    Having said above I conclude by saying missionary people like you must persist…. to bring about change for the betterment of society for tomorrow, as any change will have resistance and only few will persist!!!

    Reply
    1. Rashmi Munikempanna Post author

      Thank you so much for taking the time to respond to this. I completely agree with most of what you are saying. Although higher than the babus sit those we voted into power!!

      Reply
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