The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government had come to power with a promise to fight graft in its 2014 manifesto, a promise that reappears in its manifesto for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. We take stock of what the BJP has done to strengthen transparency and accountability in the five-year tenure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Undermining the Right to Information
“In terms of transparency the sunshine law guaranteeing, citizens their fundamental Right To Information has been under constant attack in the last five years.” said Anjali Bhardwaj, of the National Campaign for Peoples' Right to Information. (NCPRI). Until now there was not a single appointment to the 11 posts of Chief Information Commissioners since 2014, unless a court had intertwined in the matter. Out of the 11, only three vacancies were filled. It took a campaign and a Supreme Court intervention to ensure that the appointments were made to the post of the chief and the other four commissioners.
In its latest attack on the Information Commissions, the government has proposed to give all power to a bureaucrat-led committee to receive and take decisions on the complaints against information commissioners. Bhardwaj pointed out how the move should be seen as a “major setback for transparency in the country, a move targeted towards undermining the information commissioners and compelling them to cover up the inconvenient truths of the government.”
With its proposed amendments through the RTI Amendment Bill 2018, the Modi government had tried its best to weaken the original Act of 2005, giving the Centre unchecked power to decide on salaries and tenures of information commissioners. Only after protestors took to the streets across India during the Monsoon session of Parliament and growing pressure from activists, that the proposed amendments were dropped.
The Modi government failed to establish a Lokpal, let alone appointing one. The selection committee headed by the Prime Minister did not even meet once in the past four years. A reply to an RTI query in December 2018, exposed that, “no meeting of selection committee for has been held for almost 4 years”, making it clear that the process of selection of the Lokpal is shrouded in complete secrecy.
Information obtained under the RTI Act showed that the selection committee met for the first time only in March 2018 -- more than 45 months after BJP came to power. Bhardwaj, one of the petitioners in the case said, “appointments to institutions of accountability like the Lokpal, the CBI and the CIC have been shrouded in secrecy. The government has doggedly refused to provide information to citizens about who applied for the posts, their qualifications and the criteria used for shortlisting and selection.” Yet again, the Supreme Court had to direct the Central government in 2018 to put on the website all relevant details related to appointments to the CIC.
With the blatant dilution of the RTI law and the process of appointments of CIC’s, transparency and public trust in the system have taken a huge hit, thwarting the fundamental Right of Information of the citizens.
“The BJP has used a two-pronged approach to blatantly dismantle both institutions and laws that empower citizens to seek information from the government.,” said Amrita Johri of NCPRI. She added, “The CBI vs CBI controversy, and the illegal removal of Alok Verma exposed how the government was willing to crackdown on those who did not dance to its tunes. The BJP has tried its best to hide all inconvenient truths from the public eye, be it information about the Prime Minister’s educational qualifications, to larger issues such as the NSSO data on unemployment, those who dared to question the government were not even protected.”
Whistleblowers Act and Grievance Redress Law
With over 78 RTI-related deaths and 18 in 2018 alone, the Whistleblowers Protection Bill is left in the lurch, Bhardwaj says, “ This is primarily because it requires a small amendment. The amendments that the BJP government is so hell bent on can be made later as well. The fundamental problem is the lack of political interest in bringing these safeguards”
The activists also claimed that the amendment Bill introduced in Parliament in 2015 was an attempt to dilute several key provisions of the law. The Bill, among other provisions, proposes removal of the clause that safeguards whistleblowers. Among other provisions, it proposes removal of the clause that safeguards whistleblowers from prosecution under the Official Secrets Act for disclosing information as part of their complaint. "Threat of such stringent action would deter even bonafide whistleblowers and defeat the very purpose of the law, which is to encourage people to come forward and report wrongdoing," they said.
While the Lok Sabha passed the Bill, it is held up in Rajya Sabha, where MPs demanded that it be referred to the select committee, after which it has gone in cold storage.
As far as the Grievance Redressal Law is concerned, the Modi government in Parliament touted its “commitment” to bring in the legislation, oriented towards giving citizens legal rights to secure proper and timely delivery of government services and benefits. Weakening the legislation, the government came up with the Delivery of Services and Grievances Redressal Scheme-2015, which stated, “The ambit of the scheme inter-alia includes goods and services being offered by the public authorities of the Government of India (with some exceptions). The scheme also has provisions for administrative action with respect to delays, etc, in provision of designated services in specified timeframe.”
In March 2016, the government told Parliament that it was not looking at legal justiciable rights for delivery of services but had “prepared” only a scheme that would allow administrative action in case of deficiency in delivering services. When an RTI application was filed by Johri in June 2016, the government said the scheme had not been finalised, reflection of how the fate of this legislation has also been left in a lurch.
In the campaign for Lok Sabha elections, BJP president Amit Shah as well as PM Modi have been claiming that the National Democratic Alliance government has set a benchmark in ensuring transparency and accountability. But when one looks at key institutions and the political will behind the implementation of important laws, these claims stand busted.