In its Common Minimum Program (CMP), the UPA government committed itself to bring in a progressive, participatory and meaningful national right to information law. This promise was in response to criticism about the current legislation, the Freedom of Information Act of 2002. The FOIA is too weak, and far short of the right to information laws passed by some state governments. Taking the first steps at the request of the Central government, the National Advisory Council established after the election has recommended amendments to the FOIA to make it stronger.

But the NAC itself attracted scrutiny during the past four weeks. The body is a twelve-member group that includes stalwarts of public interest work in civil society, besides political appointees. When Sonia Gandhi was named the chairperson of the group, questions were immediately raised as to whether the NAC's otherwise eminent members would be co-opted into governance in a manner that would dilute their objectives. Responding to this concern, Lok Satta's Jayaprakash Narayan penned a lengthy assurance to supporters and well-wishers that his independence and service to the public good would remain foremost in any role he played in the NAC, and on that point he was immovable.

It is certain that others in the Council - for e.g. Aruna Roy and Jean Dreze, to name only two - felt similarly. Their insistence on their independence is an excellent asset to the public good, and the country will surely be better for it.

Freedom of Information Act

 •  The current law is unacceptable
 •  One step forward, two back
 •  Proposed amendments
    PDF, 84 KB
 •  Comparison with current law
    PDF, 120 KB
 •  Interact: Progress Watch
But, as a matter of course, the Council's actions will reflect the positions of its other members as well, as well as the nature of the ruling party that established it. Not surprisingly, then, a second worry arose during the course of the first few meetings, when disagreements emerged between members on the scope of amendments to the current right to information law. Some members preferred to keep intelligence agencies and cabinet papers away from public scrutiny, while others wanted an overriding clause in the interest of human rights and preventing corruption. A compromise was made, and this upset some activists who were aware of the proceedings.

NAC members Roy and Dreze responded to those concerns and confirmed that compromises were made. They also added a note of caution: "What comes out of the NAC is not necessarily the best set of provisions. There are many issues on which there are bound to be differences of opinion within the NAC. Also what will eventually happen to the recommendations of the NAC remains to be seen." In a separate interview with India Together, Aruna Roy pointed out that the final changes to clauses on transparency of Cabinet papers were to bring them in line with the provisions in various progressive laws in India and abroad.

Since then, the NAC's final recommendations for amending the FOIA are with the Prime Minister and through his office with the Ministry of Personnel and Public Grievances. On the table are fewer exemptions, mandatory disclosures, independent enforcement bodies, and stiff penalties for unlawful non-disclosure of public information. The Council's work may well become the backbone of good governance in the coming months, and haste in judging its work is unwarranted.

NAC Website

On September 18, the Central government announced the launch of the NAC's website. (This editorial was published on September 1).

At the same time, the NAC must act to help itself too. By the members' own admission, the NAC's ability to steer the UPA government towards the human face committments of its Common Minimum Program lies in the degree to which its recommendations are acted upon by Dr.Singh's government. All the advice in the world will not help if the PM declines to act on them. To sharpen this loop, the NAC must also put in place a procedure for systematic public releases (perhaps a website) of each of its final recommendations. This will allow citizens groups and media to observe and respond to the Council's work in a manner that strengthens its advice. On the other hand, without continuous disclosure of its work, the Council's recommendations can be easily thwarted or diluted by the government.

Transparency is also important to address the question of trust. Good governance requires checks and balances, even when those making policy and implementing it are unquestionably honest. The NAC includes members who have been stalwarts of the 'Right to Information' movement, and their own judgement would demand nothing less than the highest transparency in the Council's work.