Readers will remember my email alert from May 2016 highlighting the order of the Central Information Commission (CIC) in my case relating to disclosure of agenda items of the Union Cabinet Meetings and the monthly reports of work done by Ministries and Departments. The CIC recommended that the Cabinet Secretariat (Cab. Sectt) consider the possibility of requiring all Ministries and Departments to upload on their official websites the summary reports of work done by them every month. The Cabinet Secretariat had denied access to these reports in 2014 by invoking Section 7(9) of The Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act). The CIC brushed aside this argument and recommended that the Cabinet Secretariat consider the possibility of requiring ministries and departments to upload those portions of their monthly reports of work done which are not classified "top secret" or "secret". Readers will recollect that a public authority may reject access to information only on the basis of Sections 8 and 9 which explain under what circumstances information may not be disclosed to citizens.
Cabinet Secretariat issues circular for disclosure of monthly reports of work done by ministries and departments
It must be appreciated that the Cab. Sectt. has acted swiftly on the CIC's direction. Within about a month of the CIC's decision, that is, on 23 June, 2016, the Cab. Sectt. has addressed a circular to the Secretaries of all Ministries and Departments stating as follows:
"In order to ensure greater transparency and availability of information in public domain about the activities of the Ministries/Departments, it has been decided that henceforth, all Ministries/Departments may upload, on a monthly basis, the major achievements, significant developments and important events for the month in respect of their Ministry/Department, on their official websites."
I hope readers will appreciate that the objective of this effort is not to facilitate propaganda for the Central Government. The purpose of this effort is to secure compliance with Section 26(1)(c) of the RTI Act which reads as follows:
"26. (1) The appropriate Government may, to the extent of availability of financial and other resources,— X X X X
(c) promote timely and effective dissemination of accurate information by public authorities about their activities;" [emphasis supplied]
Section 26(1)(c) and Section 4(1) of the RTI Act which are about proactive information disclosure are very poorly implemented by most public authorities.
Meanwhile, in its April 2016 decision, the CIC directed Cab. Sectt. to continue to allow inspection of the agenda items of the meetings of the Union Cabinet. Cab. Sectt. has not issued any directive about the proactive disclosure of these items on its website. Last week I inspected the agenda items of the Union Cabinet meetings held between 01 January and 12 May, 2016. I have sought copies of these papers as well as the minutes of these meetings. I will post them online as soon as the information is furnished. I also asked that the Rules of Cabinet Procedure in regard to Proceedings of the Cabinet, 1987 be uploaded on the website. Cab. Sectt. is yet to take a decision on this issue, I was told.
What are monthly summaries?
Under the Rules of Procedure in Regard to Proceedings of the Cabinet put together in 1987, all Ministries and their constituent Departments are required to send a monthly summary of the work done to the Cab. Sectt. Please see Rule 10 on page 15 of the Rules. The obligation is to send a summary of important activities undertaken during a month and must also include details of proposal submitted to the Cabinet for its consideration. Information that is classified "top secret", "secret" or "confidential" must be reported separately along with those parts of the report that are not classified as such. These Rules were themselves "confidential" until the CIC directed its disclosure in 2011 in my case. So what I have is a numbered copy as readers can see on the title page. This is not available on any official website even after five years have passed since the CIC's order. Rules must not be kept secret if compliance is the goal. People should know what rules govern the working of a ministry or department. This information must be proactively disclosed under Section 4(1)(b)(v) of the RTI Act.
The August 2014 RTI Intervention
In August 2014 when I first sought copies of Rule 10 monthly reports submitted by 10 Ministries to the Cab. Sectt. for the months of May and June 2014, they transferred the RTI application to 27 departments under these Ministries asking them to reply to me directly. The purpose of the RTI application was to test compliance with this reporting requirement. Ministries named in the RTI application were chosen on the basis of the nature of work that they handled, such as Home, Defence and External Affairs, ministries working for the disadvantaged segments of society such as Women and Child Development, Social Justice and Empowerment and Tribal Affairs and one Ministry looking after a natural resource - namely, Water. It was a purely subjective criterion. Other RTI applicants might have chosen differently. Some departments replied, some did not. Some sent me detailed reports, others sent "NIL" reports. Main findings from this exercise are given below.
The findings from my first round of RTI intervention regarding Rule 10 in August 2014 are given below:
Departments that did not bother to reply
Under the Ministry of Home Affairs- the Departments for Internal Security, States, Jammu and Kashmir, Official Language and Border Management simply did not bother to reply to the RTI application transferred to them by Cab. Sectt.
Under the Ministry of Defence- the Departments for Defence Research and Ex-Servicemen have not bothered to reply till date.
Ministry of Women and Child Development has not bothered to reply till date.
Under the Ministry of Personnel which is directly under the Prime Minister, the Departments of Personnel and Training and Pensions and Pensioners Welfare have not sent any reply. DoPT incidentally looks after the implementation of both the RTI Act and the CVC and Lokpal Acts.
Under the Ministry of Finance, the Departments of Disinvestment and Financial Services have not bothered to reply while the most number of replies were received from its sister Departments such as Expenditure, Revenue and Economic Affairs.
Under the Ministry of Law and Justice, the Departments of Law and Legal Affairs have not bothered to reply. The Department of Justicetransferred my RTI application to its PIOs but I have not heard from them since.
The Ministry of External Affairs sent me a fee request for Rs. 92 which I paid within a week. They sent me a the monthly summaries after almost two months. The reasons for the delay were not explained.
Under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment did not send any information after transferring the RTI application to various PIOs.
Departments that sent substantive replies
The Ministry of Finance sent the most number of replies amongst the 10 Ministries. I received 27 replies from various divisions and sections of the Ministry. Of these, the Department of Economic Affairs, its Financial Markets Division, the Department of Expenditure, the Department of Revenue and the Division which looks after the Indian Economic Services Cadre sent substantive replies containing summaries of the work they undertook during the months of May and June . I had to pay additional fees only for a couple of these. Others sent me the information free of charge.
The Water Resources Ministry sent me a detailed monthly summary report for both months after collecting additional fee.
The Department for Disability Affairs also sent me a reply after initially dillydallying. They initially, said they do not have any information to supply, but a few days later they sent me the monthly summaries . I did not have to pay any additional fee for this.
Departments that sent "NIL" replies
Several divisions and sections under the Ministries that replied have sent "Nil" replies. For example, the under the Ministry of Finance - Foreign Investment Unit, Infrastructure Section, External Debt Management Division, PPP Cell, Capital Market Division, PD Cell of the Budget Division of the Dept. of Economic Affairs all said the information was "Nil" Some others have said they do not have any information of the kind I described in my RTI application or what I asked for did not pertain to their office.
2 Divisions of the Ministry for Tribal Affairs also sent "Nil" replies.
The Department of Administrative Reforms and Public Grievances under the Ministry of Personnel which is directly under the Prime Minister and the Commodity Derivatives Market Division, under the Ministry of Finance said they did not submit any proposal to the Cabinet. What they conveniently ignored was the requirement of reporting on all major activities they were involved in during those 2 months- this is a clear requirement under Rule 10. I have commented on this kind of a reply further down below.
The Ministry of Home Affairs sent three replies of which one was "NIL" and the other two said the information sought does not pertain to their office.
Departments that rejected the request for monthly summaries
Under the Ministry of Defence, the Department of Defence rejected the RTI application saying both monthly summaries were related to security of the State and therefore covered by Section 8(1)(a) of the RTI Act . This is a complete misreading of that clause. Information is exempt only if disclosure will prejudicially affect the security of the State. The PIO did not bother to explain how the entire monthly summary attracts this provision. DRDO conveniently claimed that it was exempt from the ordinary obligations of transparency under Section 24 of the RTI Act and did not have to reply to my request.
Whether these public authorities will now carefully analyse the contents of their monthly reports and make the non-sensitive portions public after the latest Cab. Sectt. circular remains to be seen.
Analysis of the situation
While some Departments take Rule 10 seriously and send reports of their activities to the Cab. Sectt. every month- such as some Departments in the Ministry of Finance and the Water Resources and Disability Affairs Departments (from my selection), others merely report when they have submitted a proposal to Cabinet. I am not sure what kinds of templates have been circulated to all Departments for doing this kind of reporting. However the template used by the BC (Japan) Divison of the Dept. of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Finance, straitjackets the reporting into specific categories. So if there is nothing to report under those categories, then a "Nil" report goes to the Cabinet Secretariat. This way the Cabinet Secretariat does not have any way of knowing what work actually went on in that Department. Some Ministries like that of External
Affairs or Water Resources or Departments of Disability Affairs and Revenue do not follow templates but report on all major activities. This gives an idea of what work is going on in each Department to the Cabinet Secretariat and the Prime Minister's Office both of which are responsible for the coordination of government work at the Centre.
I think a big reason for the so-called policy paralysis under the previous Government may have been due to the lack of adequate monitoring of the work of each department. If a report does not come at all, or a "Nil" report is filed, how will the Cabinet Secretariat or the Prime Minister even get to know if work is progressing well or has slowed down? Also, the Rules of Cabinet Procedure do not prescribe any penalty for not sending these reports. It is so strange that the Divisions in charge of Infrastructure, Commodity Derivatives Market or the PPP Cell had nothing to report over a 2 month period. All in all it looked like the feedback mechanism under Rule 10 was not be adequately functional- which is why there are slippages. This why the RTI interventions became necessary.
Monitoring compliance with the Cab. Sectt.s' circular in GoI and reporting systems in the States and UTs
Now that the Cab. Sectt. has issued the circular making it a task for the ministries and departments to upload their monthly reports on their websites, it is for the RTI fraternity in civil society and the mass media to keep a watch over compliance in the Central Government.
Advocators of transparency might like to find out if similar reporting mechanisms exist in the States and Union Territories. I am reminded of the Monthly Programme Implementation Calendar (MPIC) system that was initiated a few years ago in Karnataka. This system of reporting on the physical and financial progress of all developmental programmes for which there was a budget head was recognised as good practice in the Section 4 guidelines issued by the Department of Personnel and Training in 2013. There may be similar reporting systems in other States as well. I request RTI activists and supporters of the regime of transparency to make similar efforts for the implementation of Section 26(1)(c) of the Central RTI Act in all the States and Section 23(1)(c) of the J&K RTI Act in Jammu and Kashmir.