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A culture of Secrecy

  • IASbaba
  • September 24, 2020
  • 0
UPSC Articles
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GOVERNANCE / POLITY

Topic: General Studies 2:

  • Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation 
  • Important aspects of governance, transparency and accountability

A culture of Secrecy

Context: While transparency is a cornerstone of democracy, today’s India is cultivating secrecy

Some of the recent examples where culture of secrecy is being promoted

  1. Electoral bonds introduced in February 2017
  • They allowed anonymous donations to political parties and, therefore, protected the privacy of the donors.
  • The Election Commission of India (ECI) criticised the opacity of this financial mechanism and described it as “a retrograde step”.
  • ECI held that Electoral Bonds would prevent the state from ascertaining whether a political party has taken any donation in violation of provisions under Section 29B of the Representation of the People Act, which prohibits the political parties from taking donations from government companies and foreign sources
  • Electoral bonds also made it impossible to check whether a company was giving to parties more than what the Companies Act (2013) permitted, that is 7.5 per cent of the net average profit of the three preceding financial years.
  1. Sealed Envelope Procedures
  • Sealed envelope has become modus operandi in several Indian institutions, including the Supreme Court (SC)
  • In the case of political funding (by electoral bonds or otherwise), SC in 2019 directed political parties to submit the details of donations received to the ECI in sealed cover. 
  • The Assam administration had to show the progress it was making in the implementation of the National Register of Citizens by submitting reports in sealed covers
  • When Justice Gogoi was accused of sexual harassment, the panel formed by the SC found “no substance in the allegations” on the basis of a report it had received in a sealed cover that was not disclosed even to the complainant.
  1. RTI Act diluted
  • Vacant Posts: Government did not fill vacant information commissioner posts in the Central Information Commission (CIC) between 2016 and 2018
  • After the SC intervened, some appointments were made in January 2019, but four posts remained vacant, a clear indication of the government’s lack of interest.
  • Huge Backlogs: The backlog of pending appeals had reached 30,000 cases in late 2019 as the CIC has become a rather dysfunctional body.
  • Restriction on RTI: Queries about phone tapping are not responded to anymore by CIC. 
  • High Rejection of RTI requests: In 2016-17, the home and finance ministries rejected close to 15 per cent of the applications they received while the RBI and public sector banks rejected 33 per cent. 
  • The RBI, for instance, refused to give any information about the decision-making process that led to demonetisation.
  • Government amended the RTI Act to limit the power of the CIC
    • The five-year fixed tenure for the Chief Information Commissioner and information commissioners was abolished. 
    • Their salaries were not fixed any more — as with Election Commissioners — but notified separately by the government.
  1. Whistleblower’s Protection Act diluted
  • Whistleblowers can now be prosecuted for possessing the documents on which the complaint has been made.
  • Issues flagged by them have to be in “public interest” and should not be “affecting the sovereignty and integrity of India”, related to “commercial confidence” or “information received in confidence from a foreign government”.
  1. Data Phobia
  • Data phobia has resulted in the non-publication or alteration of some statistical information by government organisations. 
  • 108 social scientists wrote an open letter in 2019 inviting the government to “re-establish institutional independence and integrity to the statistical organisations”.
  • The National Crime Records Bureau has been affected by delays (its 2017 report was released in October 2019) and deletions.

Conclusion

Transparency is not only necessary for maintaining a democratic polity, it is also necessary for making the economy work

Connecting the dots:

  • Critically assess the efficacy of the Right to Information (RTI) as a tool of accountability and transparency in governance.

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