Back in 2014, when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ascended to power in India, it did so on the promise of running an open government accountable to its citizens that would eliminate corruption. But nearly five years later, and with an election due between March and May, the track record of Narendra Modi’s government on upholding citizens’ right to information has raised doubts about its commitment to accountability.
The BJP’s predecessors, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, led by the Indian National Congress party, were instrumental in passing the Right to Information (RTI) law in 2005. Its aim was to undo the culture of bureaucratic secrecy encouraged by the colonial Official Secrets Act of 1923.
For the first time, the law compelled government departments to provide official information in the form of records or documents to citizens when specific requests were made. This helped to expose corruption in government as state authorities could no longer hide information on the way they made decisions, or spent taxpayer’s money. The exposés contributed to the UPA government’s political downfall at the 2014 elections.
Yet, ever since the RTI law was passed, successive governments have sought to suppress it one way or another. In recent years, public authorities affiliated to the central government have denied information to citizens under the law on matters of vital public interest.
Take, for instance, the case of demonetisation, in which the government pulled high-value currency notes out of circulation in 2016. It said the move was aimed at eradicating fake currency notes circulating in the economy, but demonetisation led to a severe cash crunch that had spiralling effects on jobs and economic growth.
When citizens filed RTI appeals with the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) about demonetisation, they were refused information on a range of queries from who had been consulted, to the reasons behind the move and the cost incurred by scrapping the banned notes. The central bank took refuge under the law’s exemption clause, which states that exemptions can be sought for information if disclosure would: “prejudicially affect 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”. While it’s up to the public information officer of each institution to decide on exemptions, these decisions can be appealed to the Central Information Commission (CIC), which settles information disputes.
But such denial of information amounts to a failure to come clean on a controversial decision that affected the lives of ordinary citizens in a big way. It’s not even clear whether demonetisation’s stated motive of removing fake notes was actually achieved.
Another important ongoing case of denial of information regards a list of wilful loan defaulters held by the RBI. This came at a time when the Indian government has been struggling to extradite businessmen who fled the country after defaulting on billions of dollars of bank loans. After the CIC ordered the RBI to release information on the loan defaulters, the central bank went to court in mid December to get a stay order, denying the release.
India’s Supreme Court had already pulled up the RBI back in 2015 over its in-house “disclosure policy”, which violated provisions under the RTI law. The court ruled in favour of making disclosures, but the central bank has continued to deny information requests on matters of vital public interest.
In 2017, the Indian Air Force also denied an RTI request and refused to release crucial information related to the pricing of a deal for 36 Rafale aircrafts finalised between India and France, that has currently snowballed into a major corruption scandal.
Another controversy pertains to the prime minister’s educational qualifications. In 2015, when Neeraj Sharma, an IT professional from Delhi, sought to verify Modi’s 1968 BA degree results from Delhi University – mentioned in his election affidavit – the information was expressly denied. When the CIC directed the university to disclose the information, the university went to the high court demanding a stay on the disclosure order.
The university publicly confirmed Modi’s degree was authentic, but still refuses to make the details accessible under the RTI. The legal case drags on, with the next hearing due in early 2019. Requests for the release of details of the prime minister’s MA degree from Gujarat University were also denied under the RTI law.
In November 2016, the Supreme Court upheld citizens’ right to know about the educational background of people contesting polls and held that the election of those lying in their affidavits could be set aside.
Diluting the law
Besides denying information, the BJP government has also proposed amendments to the RTI law, in which the central government seeks to control the salaries and tenures of the information commissioners. The effect would be to erode the independence of the information commissions at the national level and in India’s states. It is the information commissions – which are vested with court-like powers to adjudicate information appeals denied by government departments – that actually give the law its teeth.
Since coming to office in 2014, the BJP government has delayed making crucial appointments to the CIC as vacancies have arisen and, as the end of 2018 approached, eight of the 11 posts for information commissioner were vacant. After activists went to the Supreme Court to demand speedy appointments to the commission, in late December the government announced the appointment of a new chief information commissioner and four new information commissioners. While RTI activists hailed this as a small victory following months of protests, the government has refused to divulge information on the process adopted for vetting applicants for the job.
At present more than 26,000 information appeals lie pending before the commission, delaying availability of information to thousands of citizens using the RTI. The government has also dragged information commissioners to court. This is a clear case of intimidation of commissioners aimed at discouraging them from ordering disclosures of information that the government finds inconvenient.
Back in 2005, when India passed the RTI law, it was heralded as a revolutionary move to empower the people to hold those in power to account. But that task has been easier said than done. As India awaits yet another electoral battle later in 2019, the incumbent government has clearly failed to deliver on its promise of accountability.