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Why the RTI Act is right
A K Bhattacharya
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September 19, 2006
Ironically, most officials have no idea of what transparency and openness can do to their effectiveness.

Why should Civil Aviation Minister Praful Patel argue that making notings in official files public, under the Right to Information (RTI) Act, will make bureaucrats more scared of taking decisions?

The argument, prima facie, seems strange. But Patel is not the only minister who has voiced such apprehensions. Several other ruling party politicians feel the same way. And joining them are a large number of officials who also feel that making file notings public, will increase their fear of being identified and then later being targeted for taking hard decisions that might be unfavourable to powerful vested interests. So, the decision-making process will suffer.

But none of these politicians or bureaucrats is answering the basic question: Why should an honest and competent officer be scared of taking decisions just because his notings in official files may become public?

Bureaucrats opposed to the disclosure of their file notings point out that political witch hunts will be rampant when any politically well-connected party, aggrieved by a certain decision, will have access to what they may have stated with respect to a specific project or a proposal.

The irony of this is that the RTI Act had enforced disclosure of official file notings because it wanted to prevent such political victimisation of officials who want to take a firm stand on an issue.

And the bigger irony is that most officers have failed to see the merits of this provision of the law and seem to be voicing concerns the same way as some ministers have.

The fact is that government decisions are often taken by officials not just because they feel that is the right way, but because they are influenced by the minister who acts as a superior force in the decision-making process. It is the directive of the minister, which gets carried out by officers in most cases.

If the minister and the officer do not see eye-to-eye on a certain issue, that difference of opinion is rarely captured in a file. Most officers feel that disregarding the wishes of the minister may not be very rewarding in the final analysis. In fact, they fear that this might adversely affect their career.

The role of the RTI Act becomes very useful precisely for this reason. Officers can now put the blame on the RTI Act and justify their decision to record their frank views on a proposal in a file, even if that means disregarding the wishes of the minister.

A minister or an officer can no longer feel secure under the belief that the official notings in files will always remain confidential. Whatever decision they take or whatever stand they take on any issue, they will be forced to formulate a considered view and, indeed, suggest what is in the best interest of the people.

Ministers, too, will be more careful while forcing their decisions, which may not have followed all the norms. The decision-making process will become more mature and governance standards should improve. And all this because of the RTI Act.

If officers fear that taking a firm stand on a proposal or a project might land them in a political controversy which might affect their career, they now can rest assured that the latest interpretation of the RTI Act has come to their rescue. An officer can now have access to his annual confidential report.

What's more, he can even take a look at the comments made on his performance as an officer by the departmental promotions committee. It is reasonable to assume that this too, will be opposed by ministers and bureaucrats. And the argument against this will be that such disclosures may undermine the very process of assessing an officer's performance and making recommendations on his suitability for promotion.

But the spirit of the RTI Act lies in ensuring transparency, openness and access on all issues that are of public interest. A public servant's actions and actions against a public servant should not be hidden from public view, when these pertain to issues of public interest.

Most officials have become so used to functioning under the protection of confidentiality and secrecy, that they have no idea of what transparency, openness and access to such information can do to their own effectiveness in service. Politicians will not like this transparency ushered in by the RTI Act.

It is important that bureaucrats see its long-term gains and learn to adjust to the much-needed changes being brought about by the RTI Act.

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