Naïve about notings

BY darius| IN Opinion | 02/08/2006
How well-informed has the criticism of the government been on the amendments to the Right to Information Act?

You don`t say!

Darius Nakhoonwala


Last week, when the Cabinet decided to curtail public scrutiny of file notings by restricting access to them babble broke out, led mostly by the leader-writing tribe. Needless to say, they were practically unanimous that the government had betrayed not just the people of India but also its own mandate. There was, however, no sensible discussion of either the facts or the issues that surround file notings. I have seldom seen such ignorance of the way government actually functions.

The Hindu said that this would "effectively remove from the citizen`s purview information on how decisions are made in government offices and departments" as if the file tells you anything about that at all. Ask any civil servant and he will tell you that file notings mostly justify decisions already made verbally, not throw light on how actually a decision was arrived at. It can happen, but only in insignificant matters. Certainly it has nothing to do with the sort of popular nonsense we have seen on TV about bribes etc.

The Hindu went on, "Not content with these exclusions from the ambit of transparency, the Government now seeks to exempt all notings except perhaps those relating to social and development issues from the purview of the Act… For instance, the rationale behind transfers, appointments, and other selection processes in government will be shielded from public view." Talk about trivializing.

The Deccan Herald, usually more subdued and sensible, also fell into the trap. "The amended Act will enable citizens to only get to know what decision was made, not who made the decision or, more importantly, on what grounds. Access to notings was regarded as useful to dig out corruption. That has now been denied to the public."  But who is to  tell the paper that petty corruption has nothing to do with file notings.

The Indian Express said the decision was a "clear victory for those people whose old habits of stonewalling this Act was designed to circumvent, and who had lobbied for protection from it. The RTI amendment, therefore, mocks the ordinary Indian — or should we say the aam admi?...The UPA should also remember that once powerful lobbies for opaque governance are allowed a foot in the door, they never leave until the whole decor is changed to what it was. This government will have the unique distinction of both legislating for and starting the subversion of the right to information.

The Hindustan Times was no different. "The people have the right to know not only what government decision has been taken but why and how it has been taken. Therefore, the need to have access to the notings." True but whoever said that file notings tell the real story?

The Business Standard also said "The correct course would have been to specify the excluded categories and permit the disclosure of file notings in all other matters, rather than define the one area where file notings can be scrutinised. What the proposed amendment does, therefore, is to emaciate the RTI law and to drastically reduce its effectiveness."

I do beg to differ, not least because civil servants have lost the art of file notes.

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