Lok Sabha clears Freedom of Information Bill

MUMBAI: The Indian Parliament took a small progressive step forward with the Lok Sabha (Lower House) approving the 'Freedom of Information' Bill yesterday. The Bill, first proposed by the VP Singh Government in the 1980s, enhances citizens' rights to access information concerning the activities of the Government on a statutory basis.

Under the Bill, it is obligatory upon every public authority to provide information and maintain all records consistent with its operational requirements duly catalogued, indexed and published at such intervals as may be prescribed by the appropriate Government or the competent authority. Autonomous bodies like Prasar Bharati and other public sector organizations will also fall under the purview of this Bill.

The Opposition hesitatingly supported the legislation by calling it a "half step in the right direction". It disapproved of the sweeping exemption clause that could be used to withhold "sensitive" information in areas like trade, commerce, defence and security. Also, it took objection to that fact that the Bill entrusts the bureaucracy with the task of freeing information from the "classified" label.

"The bill has taken a long time to be taken for passage in Lok Sabha as it was deliberated by a Standing Committee of Parliament and subsequently discussed by a Group of Ministers constituted by the Central Government to ensure that there is free flow of information to the public," said Vasundhara Raje, minister of State for Personnel, Public Grievances and Pension, while replying to a debate in the Lok Sabha yesterday.

However, the Opposition felt that the Bill had also ignored the Parliamentary standing committee's recommendations including the one on reducing the time gap for declassifying official information from 25 to15 years. The Opposition also expressed a viewpoint that the Bill did not specifically empower citizens to seek information on contentious issues like "corruption" or "disinvestment".

The Bill has been pending due to the lack of consensus between the various political parties about the need for such a legislation and the various clauses therein.

The approval of this Bill is in sync with the fact that the Supreme Court has actually handed down many favorable precedents on the "right to know" since many years. But these rulings have constructed the "right to know" very narrowly. And most citizens have come to demand an interpretation of the "right to know" as the government "having to inform them". Even though the Court has ruled, the government still does not abide by those decisions. The reason for this is that often the "information" turns into a matter of national security, or something top secret, or a confidential matter.

Social activists feel that this Bill is still inadequate because the government is required to provide information and not the reasons for the decisions taken and therefore an access to the files detailing this aspect. They emphasise that there is a substantial difference between a "Right to Information Bill'' and a "Freedom of Information Bill''. Both are enshrined in Article 19 (1) of the Constitution. The fact remains that if "one" can have access to information and not be allowed to express it, it is of no use. Conversely, if one can express oneself but not have access to information, what good is it?

Now, these bottlenecks of the earlier legal framework will hopefully be cleared to ensure more transparency!

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