While you were enjoying watching pre-Diwali crackers being burst under the bungholes of a few politicians and politically-affiliated private citizens over the last couple of weeks, a quieter smoke bomb was let off by the Prime Minister last Friday. And as I’ve been registering since I first travelled in an elevator, the quieter ones tend to be more deadly.
Delivered in his signature manner that cannot but inspire trust, Manmohan Singh told an audience of information commissioners – very Minority Report, very Philip K Dick-sounding that designation – that the Right to Information Act (RTI) does not provide provisions to infringe on a person’s right to privacy. “The citizens’ right to know should definitely be circumscribed if disclosure of information encroaches upon someone’s personal privacy,” he said, adding that a separate legislation on privacy was being talked about by an expert group.
On the face of it, there’s nothing wrong with this reminder about certain things not being anybody’s business but that of the individual. As Facebook users know, privacy settings come at various levels – information pertaining to oneself that’s for “public sharing” with everyone, information available to specific groups such as friends, and information available to only a few other individuals sent specifically to them. Information about oneself known only to oneself – say, the habit of peering into the neighbour’s bathroom or having a weakness for a quiet late-night raid of the refrigerator – doesn’t make it to social media platforms because the point of such information is not to bandy it about, but to keep it from becoming known to anyone but oneself.
Which makes the RTI hardly a social networking tool but an information-prying device. Its very function is to get information about someone – holding public office or who is affiliated to the government directly or indirectly – that is deemed to affect public functioning. The Prime Minister’s concern would have been more apt if the RTI was indeed used to find out the kink of a public sector company chief, or to find out whether a bureaucrat’s fondness for alcohol was confined to one or two glasses every evening or not, or whether an MP did indeed go to watch Ek Tha Tiger at the cinema where you thought that you saw him seven rows behind you.
The RTI is used to gather tucked-away information that should be in the public domain and isn’t, either because of bureaucratic shyness (read: being anal about matters such as “national security”) or is being kept away from prying eyes because there’s something dodgy that’s being kept under wraps. Misappropriation of public funds and schemes is a classic case where the RTI’s can-opener prowess has been invaluable. Almost a million people have sought information under this law last year and as more people take matters less for granted and understand the value of not taking everybody’s word for what it is, this number will grow.
So aren’t there frivolous RTI claims made? Of course there are. Demanding to know whether Sonia Gandhi is suffering from a disease or not, to my mind, is none of anyone’s business – even if this ignorance may result in confusion about who’s flying the UPA plane in her absence. A query about who’s next in charge in the UPA hierarchy is a valid question; not whether the chairperson’s secret smoking habit has busted her health.
But the Prime Minister let something more out as he told information commissioners not to entertain matters that infringe on people’s, well, metaphorical private parts. And this is where the hair inside my ear hidden away from public view stood up to catch what he was saying, “Blanket extension of the Act to such bodies (entities involved in public-private partnerships) may discourage private enterprises to enter into partnerships with the public sector entity,” adding as a trail-off that “a blanket exclusion on the other hand may harm the cause of accountability of public officials”.
What was that about? That the RTI can unlock secrets that have affected public functioning is known, especially to those folks listening to the PM’s valedictory address at the Seventh Annual Convention of the Central Information Commission (pause for breath). But if I’m one of those bureaucrats who usually come running, slip a mental salute-cum-“Salaam saab” before folding one’s spine to bend and then another origami-fold later crawl, what will I hear in the Prime Minister’s on-paper innocuous statement?
This is a rough translation of Singh’s statement as heard by a supplicant bureaucrat who doesn’t want to be shunted too often before he retires at his home currently being built in Ghaziabad:
“Guys, there will be some nosey-parkers out there who’ll want to use the RTI to find out why the government issued a tender and then decided to go into business with some company who didn’t necessarily make the grade at that point. What’s the point of going into all that, eh? What matters is that decent enough business ensues and the economy is in good shape. If we start getting caught up in explaining why we did this and not that, with that private enterprise and not the other one, we’ll not make any progress. Then, I’ll start blaming you for policy paralysis. But that doesn’t mean you don’t facilitate RTI inquiries that you think are fit and within the law’s parameters. Do what you believe is right. By the way, how are your son’s college studies in Delhi going?”
The PM has spoken earlier about how “all this negativity” isn’t good for the reputation of the country – and by “negativity” he hadn’t meant the cases of public corruption swirling about, but the media coverage of the pile-ups. Could it be that in a “nudge-nudge wink-wink, say no more, say no more” way, Manmohan Singh has, in a similar vein, told RTI officers to avoid “all this negativity” when they’re processing files of public-private partnership dealings? I’m sure I’m reading too much into it. But the real question is: did some information commissioners read too much into it too?
Image By- Swarnabha Banerjee