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.
The current law is unacceptable
One step forward, two back
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Comparison with current law
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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.
On September 18, the Central government announced the launch of the NAC's website. (This editorial was published on September 1).
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.