The Union Cabinet on Thursday decided to withdraw the controversial draft amendments to the Right to Information Act. These sought to restrict disclosure of file notings to social and developmental issues. The withdrawal followed a prolonged and heated discussion, with several ministers saying they felt the economic and decision-making slowdown in India could be attributed to the Act in its current form.
“The Cabinet has decided to withdraw the amendments,” said a source privy to the deliberations at the meeting chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. In 2006, the Cabinet had approved amendments to the Act that would limit its scope to file notings related to public interest. This had led to outrage from social activists, who felt the purpose of the Act would be defeated if the government was made inaccessible. They added with the ministries of defence and external affairs and the covert agencies out of the purview, the legislation would be based on exclusion, instead of inclusion.
But the government persisted with this and the draft amendments were brought before the Cabinet today. At the meeting, Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, his Nationalist Congress Party colleague and Heavy Industries Minister Praful Patel and Congress ministers such as Urban Development Minister Kamal Nath argued the Act should be revisited and diluted. “The bureaucracy has stopped working because it is too afraid to take decisions. The government is not moving. These amendments should not be withdrawn,” the ministers argued.
Patel said withdrawing the amendments, that is, retaining the Act in its original form, would be “succumbing to pressure”, presumably of civil society activists who were bringing forth information on government decisions that had gone against public interest.
These arguments were also supported by Railway Minister Pawan Kumar Bansal. “Decision-making has slowed,” Bansal murmured.
Pawar said, “Why should you withdraw it (the amendments)? Just let it be there.” Patel, too, said the Cabinet didn’t have to withdraw the amendments, even if it decided not to push these in Parliament.
However, a Congress minister said in the current environment, it would be politically unwise to curtail or dilute a right that put the government’s working under a magnifying glass. “People will say we are trying to evade scrutiny,” the minister said.
The amendments were finally withdrawn at the instance of Prime Minister Manhohan Singh. “If it won’t pass (in Parliament), what is the use of keeping it alive?” he asked. In 2006, the amendments had faced stiff opposition in Parliament. Following the withdrawal, all file notings can be made public. Those related to national security, privacy and protection of commercial interest are exceptions.