Draft rules and dissent

ON March 31 this year, the Union government released the draft Right to Information (RTI) Rules, 2017, for public consultation. The draft rules, all 22 of them, were ostensibly proposed to implement the RTI Act in a better manner. However, within days of their release the rules became controversial, with civil society groups and opposition parties criticising them and an international non-profit even terming one of the rules a “death sentence” for RTI users.

But the criticism of these draft rules, which are yet to be notified, was not only limited to civil society and the opposition parties. Frontline has learnt that voices critical of the new rules have been raised within the government too. M. Sridhar Acharyulu, a serving Central Information Commissioner, has sent a 10-page response to the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), the nodal government department that drafted and released the rules.

Acharyulu’s response, accessed by Frontline, expresses the former law professor’s suggestions and deftly worded criticisms about the draft rules in extensive detail. It raises questions about several problematic rules, seeks their withdrawal or redrafting, and flags at least one as “illegal”.

The Central Information Commission (CIC), a 10-member quasi-judicial body, is the topmost adjudicating authority for all requests made by Indian citizens seeking information from public authorities under the RTI Act. Government officials are legally obliged to follow directions and orders passed by the Central Information Commissioners. However, the commission was not consulted by the DoPT when the RTI rules were drafted, even though their actual implementation is the chief responsibility of the commission itself. This is a fact that Acharyulu emphasises at the beginning of his response.

In recent years, dissenting voices from the CIC have been, at best, sporadic and rare. Acharyulu’s detailed and nuanced response to the new rules is, therefore, significant for its straight talk to the DoPT, which reports directly to the Prime Minister’s Office.

The response may be broadly divided into two sections: the first contains his suggestions for the possible introduction of new, detailed procedures that are not there in the draft rules and the second comprises comments on the draft rules proposed by the DoPT. In the comments, Acharyulu raises questions and makes suggestions for rules he is evidently not impressed by.

Published in frontline.in