SHILLONG recently played host to the Third National Convention on the Right to Information. More than 1,000 RTI activists from across the country converged on the Soso Tham auditorium, the venue for the pow-wow. Organized by the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information, the Shillong Convention came after five years of the RTI Act’s being enacted in 2005 and which has been extensively used in Meghalaya. The second and third day of the workshop saw 15 parallel sessions on different key issues plaguing the country being discussed in focus groups which later shared their outcomes at the plenary.
Twelve significant resolutions emerged but, to my mind, some were particularly path-breaking. They included a resolution on the use of funds by faith groups and religious institutions. Participating in the workshop were young church leaders from Meghalaya and other North-east states. Holding that India was a country where honesty and integrity in public life had been glorified and upheld in religious scriptures such as the Vedas, Upanishads, Bible and Koran, and that India was today one of the most corrupt countries in the world, the faith and anti-corruption group resolved to break the culture of secrecy within all faiths. They said fundamentalism which led to blind faith in religion was a major impediment to seeking information. The convention made a pointed reference to the use of public funds for exclusive religious purposes even while the basic needs of people within the faith were denied. This resolution comes in the wake of several allegations being leveled at church-based institutions in the North-east that tended to obtain huge public funds on the eve of their religious conclaves on the pretext of constructing or repairing roads leading to the venue. Elected representatives used such opportunities for plying voters, especially if the religious functions were held on the eve of elections. However, church groups are not the only offenders. There is a culture of secrecy in the use of public funds by different religious groups and their being outside the ambit of the RTI Act was seen as problematic since the Act says anyone availing of public funds is subject to scrutiny.
Another resolution which could be path-breaking in many ways and which came from the group deliberating on the use of the oppressive instruments like the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act was to bring all security and intelligence agencies within the ambit of the RTI Act. It may be mentioned that AF (SP) A gives unfettered powers to security forces operating within a “Disturbed Area” – the term used to designate certain conflict regions in the country, such as Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, parts of Meghalaya and Jammu and Kashmir.
Army generals across the board have argued that their men cannot operate in conflict regions with their hands tied. Their contention is that if they have to abide by normal laws such as the Criminal Procedure Code they would not be able to deter militants from subversive and violent activities.
The AF (SP) A has, over the years, been used to round up and kill anyone even distantly connected to a militant. A young man, V Narzary from Bodoland, asked the eminent panel on the dais, which included retired Chief Justice of Delhi High Court AP Shah, whether the RTI could be used with retrospective effect. He shared a story that happened some years ago in his village.
Narzary said five daily wage earners were allegedly picked up by the Army from the village. Some days later the newspapers reported that five hardcore militants were gunned down by security forces. Narzary said the whole village knew that the five villagers were innocent daily wage-earners and not militants, as claimed by the Army. But with the draconian AF (SP) A as a tool in the hands of security forces, they could operate with impunity and not be held accountable by anyone for anything seen as an anti-terror operation.
But going beyond the AF (SP) A, there is in this country a number of intelligence agencies that operate in a climate of ambivalence. The Army, Navy and Air Force each have their intelligence gathering units. There is the Intelligence Bureau and the much talked about Research and Analysis Wing, the latter operating mainly on foreign soil. In recent times, the Raw has come in for sharp criticism over the use of huge amounts of public money which is unaccounted for. While the operational part of the organization may be beyond the ambit of the RTI, since it would mean declassifying all information, the use of public funds cannot be said to be beyond the pale of the RTI, the resolution said.
Moving the resolution, Shekhar Singh, who is said to be the anchor for the RTI movement in the country said, “We believe exemptions under Section 24 of the RTI to intelligence and security agencies are irrational and not in the national interest and that the exemptions should be withdrawn forthwith to enable a free and fair interrogation into their acts of omission and commission.”
Very often, undue focus is put on the Intelligence Bureau, India’s premier outfit for internal security. But the IB apologists say it is part of the Union home ministry and it is largely held accountable by the Union home minister himself, if not by Parliament. There is a committee of parliamentarians that can go into the details of the IB’s functioning and call certain actions into question. It is the Raw that has largely been outside any accountability paradigm and has, therefore, tended to function with a licentiousness that is seen as unacceptable and perhaps violates the democratic ethos of the country.
Being one of the many departments under the Prime Minister’s Office, this organization has escaped both financial and operational scrutiny. The Prime Minister cannot be expected to give his undivided attention to the functioning of the Raw to the exclusion of so many other departments under him. This has given India’s external intelligence agency a larger than life image and its operatives the license to operate in a laissez faire climate of non-accountability.
What RTI activists like Aruna Roy and her team believe is that all agencies that have the proclivity to squander public funds on activities they cannot be held to scrutiny for should be demystified. People have a right to know what these agencies do in the name of internal and external security. Military intelligence units in the North-east, for instance, operate solo and do not often share intelligence. Each one guards its turf as a sacred space, perhaps because sharing inputs would also mean sharing resources. There is a lot of money spent by this country on intelligence gathering by different agencies. It is possible that they might be gathering the same information but spending separate financial resources that are always beyond any public scrutiny. Can a poor country like India squander such resources in gathering information that is neither always actionable nor exclusive to any one agency?
Another far-reaching resolution that bears mention is one that seeks to bring all partners in a Private-Public Participation model — private companies having access to public funds, political parties, trade unions, cooperative societies and NGOs — under the ambit of the RTI. This is relevant for the North-east where many power projects have been endorsed surreptitiously and in a climate of opacity between private power producers and the ruling parties and governments and have no stamp of transparency or public participation in them.
While resolutions are basically aspirations, they require a constant, determined push before they are finally implemented. But what is important is the commitment of thousands of RTI activists across the country to see better governance through greater transparency in government functioning. This will hopefully reduce corruption to a large extent.
*The article is written by Patricia Mukhim.
*The writer is editor, The Shillong Times, and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Courtesy: The Statesman, India)
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