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Make transparency a patriotic duty

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From: Indian Express By: Nihal Koshie Published at: July 16, 2017
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Soon after the GST regime was rolled out, the Hon’ble Prime Minister announced that the Registrars of Companies (RoC) had struck 100,000 shell companies off their rolls. Addressing chartered accountants in Delhi on July 1, 2017, Mr Narendra Modi said this historical decision was a sterling example of how tough decisions can be taken if “patriotism” served as the inspiration.

The 3,000-strong gathering welcomed this announcement with thunderous applause and the media reported it as another step in the direction of curbing the influence of black money, stemming the tide of corruption and cleaning up the economy, as part of the demonetisation exercise that was launched on November 8, 2016.

So far, so good. This author spent more than an hour looking for the list of companies struck off the rolls by Delhi’s RoC, in vain. The website of the Ministry of Corporate Affairs only displays a public notice from April this year, inviting objections from any person on the proposal to terminate more than 26,000 registered companies for being “defunct” and not seeking ‘dormant’ status formally under the law.

This is not to doubt the veracity of the Hon’ble PM‘s announcement. Instead this is one of the indicators of how compliant public authorities are with the transparency requirements of the Right to Information Act (RTI Act). This 12-year old law places a duty on every public authority to place all relevant facts and figures while announcing decisions that affect the public at large. The ‘termination’ of shell companies eminently qualifies to such treatment. Yet, there is very little detailing of action taken by the RoCs.

Since October, 2005 almost every government has breached its obligation of transparency repeatedly. The bureaucracy has fought shy of graduating from transparency on a “need to know basis” (where the government decides what people should or should not know) to openness founded on the “people’s right to know” as streamlined by the RTI Act.

It comes as no surprise that the government has repeatedly refused to disclose details about the November 2016 demonetisation exercise as well, despite attracting enormous public support. The citizenry is required to applaud and cheer every decision but it simply cannot be trusted with the details of the decision making process, it seems.

Making sense of the “method” behind the treatment meted out towards transparency by the erstwhile UPA and the current NDA regimes is difficult to rationalise. Although the enactment of the RTI law was hailed by many as a historic juncture, next in importance only to India’s independence from colonial rule, and the UPA Government showcased it as one of its biggest achievements, the then Prime Minister certainly did not seem convinced of its value. On several occasions, Dr. Manmohan Singh voiced his concerns about the “misuse” of the RTI law although it turned out later that his office did not have any factual data to back up this claim.

Even before the RTI law could reach its first anniversary, the UPA Cabinet decided to amend it to keep file notings or the deliberations of bureaucrats and ministers in any decision-making process away from the public gaze. Thanks to the very vocal opposition from those who had used the RTI law to dramatic effect to expose corruption and wrongdoing at various levels, this proposal had to be shelved.

Nevertheless, the UPA was instrumental in setting up a gigantic data portal that enabled any person to track the manner of implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi Rural Employment Guarantee Act in real time. Few initiatives taken by governments in other developing countries could match this transparency initiative. This was not all. Tour reports of ministers and senior bureaucrats visiting abroad were required to be made public, MOUs with and earnings of public private partnerships were made transparent and templates were issued to make panchayats, government schools and hospitals in villages to volunteer information about their working.

In complete contrast with his predecessor, Prime Minister Modi is the most vocal advocate of transparency that India has seen till date. Not only did the NDA make transparent and accountable government as its springboard to capture power, while celebrating the 10th anniversary of the RTI Act, the PM urged the public authorities to study the trend of information requests from citizens. Bureaucrats were advised to examine what categories of information people were seeking again and again and if they could be disclosed voluntarily so that people’s need to seek information through RTI applications is progressively reduced- in fact the very purpose of the RTI Act. Till date, no such exercise has been reported by any ministry or department at the Central level. The bureaucracy seems to be sleeping over this commonsensical and practical idea.

Next, in April, 2016, the Central Information Commission (CIC) issued a progressive recommendation requiring the Government to publicise the details of work done by every ministry and department. The Cabinet Secretariat took uncharacteristically rapid action on this recommendation and issued a circular to all ministries requiring them to publish reports of major achievements, events and occurrences and decisions taken every month. More than a year has passed since then, compliance remains extremely poor (less than 10% of the ministries are complying with this directive). In fact, the Government confessed that it did not have a mechanism to monitor the implementation of its own circular, when quizzed by two members of the Lok Sabha in March, this year.

Or take the case of the Naga framework agreement signed in August 2015 with much fanfare. Reporting on this big breakthrough where at least one Naga faction agreed to come to the discussion table, the Government assured that details of the agreement would be publicly disclosed soon. Almost two years have passed, but the Government has stubbornly refused to disclose any details of this agreement despite the topic coming up for debate again and again, most recently, during the recent Assembly elections held in Manipur.

The CIC also upheld the decision to keep the entire matter under wraps in a case filed by the author. While some Naga spokespersons are openly commenting on the content of the negotiations, the citizen-taxpayer, it seems, has to wait for the official will to turn in favour of transparency to ascertain the truth behind their claims.

It is not as if the NDA Government has paid only lip sympathy for transparency by preaching from the pulpit without any follow-up. Soon after coming to power the NDA Government amended the conduct rules applicable to bureaucrats of all ranks- making transparency and accountability as core values that should inform their working. Nevertheless, the policy level commitment to transparency has not translated into actual practice at the cutting edge level of the administration belying the promise of open and minimum government.

Why is the bureaucracy fighting back against transparency instead of toeing the line? Why is the political executive unable to get the administration to deliver on this commitment? This contrast between the words and the actions of the UPA and NDA Governments requires in-depth study.

In the interim, it might help if transparency were declared a “patriotic duty” to secure compliance from the administration. Few other values seem to be attracting as much attention and action in these turbulent times.

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