Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Right to Information Act

All public functionaries agree that transparency is the key to effective governance and they are all for it. Such bravado, however, goes out of the window when the guns are actually trained on them. Transparency within the judiciary serves at least two important purposes—it decreases the opportunities for corrupt practices and promotes public confidence in the institution. Given these vital roles, it is surprising that there should be stiff judicial resistance to making public whether members of the higher judiciary are submitting declarations about their financial assets as they are expected to. Such declarations after all were supposed to be made to the Chief Justice of India and the Chief Justices of the respective High Courts in accordance with a 1997 resolution adopted at an all-India Judges Conference. Against this background, it is inexplicable that the Supreme Court should block the Central Information Commission’s (CIC) order asking it to provide this information to an applicant under the Right to Information Act (RTI).
The Court’s decision to challenge the order in the Delhi High Court—High Courts are the final court of appeal under the RTI Act—is both unprecedented and, under the circumstances, quite unnecessary. It would have been far more sagacious had the Court simply made the information—which the CIC rightly described as “innocuous” –available.
Transparent System
Ever since RTI came into effect, it has forced the Indian State, notorious for its stonewalling ways, to open up. In a recent order, the CIC, which oversees RTI, has declared all political parties should disclose their IT returns. The reason given by the CIC is that information on the funding of parties is a democratic imperative and is in public interest.
In the US, for instance, the Federal Election Commission, an independent regulatory body keeps records of campaign finance and enforces laws on the limits and prohibitions on contributions. Anyone can log on to their website and access the latest campaign, finance information on presidential candidates or on those running for other offices. One can also find out the names of individual or corporate fund givers, how much they have donated and to whom. Though this by no means foolproof—slush funds do find their way to election candidates—it is a remarkably transparent system.
Larger Issues
Transparency and accountability in the judiciary, however, are larger issues that go well beyond the question of the applicability of the RTI Act. Since the Chief Justice of India K G Balakrishnan assumed office, he has earned a well-deserved reputation of being responsive to public and professional concerns. He needs to ensure that not just the answer to the question whether all the judges have declared their assets but also the details of the assets themselves are placed in the public domain.
Despite clear pronouncements from the highest bodies, there seems to be almost no movement in the direction of financial transparency by the political establishment. This is what prompted this effort by the civil society which seems to have run foul of the Court.
Governance of the country cannot improve unless systemic reforms are carried out in the political system. The political establishment is not going to do these it is used to the existing system.
However, when it comes to being opaque, the executive and the judiciary are mirror images. Therefore, it is imperative that civil society utilises progressive laws like the RTI more to demand what is our right to know.

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