INTERVIEW: Amod Kumar: YOUNG DISTRICT MAGISTRATE ON RTI AMENDMENTS

INTERVIEW: AMOD KUMAR
YOUNG DISTRICT MAGISTRATE ON RTI AMENDMENTS
Amod Kumar is the District Magistrate of Faizabad District in U.P. Previously, as DM Sitapur he created a computer based mechanism 'Lokvani' for his district, which made information available suo moto to the people even before the RTI Act came into existence. This programme is slowly being adopted by other DMs in U.P. Amod Kumar thinks that Lokvani could be a very good tool to implement RTI. In an interview with Sandeep Pandey he expresses his views on the proposed amendments to the RTI Act.
Q: What do you feel about the proposed amendments to the RTI Act by the Union Cabinet?
A: Many of the junior officers like us in bureaucracy were very happy with the passing of the act. But now we feel that it would also become like hundreds of highly unused acts. The proposed amendment to the RTI Act by the Union Cabinet is going to significantly weaken what was truly a marvellous piece of legislation duly deserved by the people of India. Now that we are able to see how the amendments are going to cripple the Act one cannot but admire the architects of this Act.
Q: Do you agree with the argument that revelations of file notings will deter officers from putting down their frank opinion?
A: The issue of file notings is generating lot of controversy. The PMO claims that 'file notings on the most important and vast bulk of government activities has now become possible for the first time' but the fact is that the original Act did not exclude file notings specifically and there are people who have accessed file notings using the RTI Act in the past. There is obviously some misunderstanding being created. People have a right to know the file notings so that they'll learn how important decisions are being taken in their name. Without the file notings the applicant seeking certain information will not get the complete picture and will remain unsatisfied. The honest officers in the establishment are quite comfortable with the idea of their notes being made public since they have nothing to fear about. They always judge a case on its merit. However, one knows how the decision making process in India is often influenced by political pressure and money power. It is officers involved in decisions of these kind who would oppose the notings being made available to the public. But in cases like these it becomes even more imperative that decision making process is known to the people so that irregularities are exposed and corrective steps may be taken. Otherwise, we will continue to function with all our decisions hijacked by influential people. Hence in either case whether the decision making process is according to the rules or faulty, the people have a right to know. The argument that officials will be deterred from making frank opinions is simply not true because it is only when there is some ulterior motive that people don't give frank opinions. On the contrary, the file notings being available in public domain will give the officials a very good excuse not to oblige their political bosses. Life will be straightforward and simpler for the bureaucracy if everybody knew that every file noting will be available for inspection by the public. Only under such circumstances can we be sure that decisions are being made in a fair manner.
Q: What about transfer and posting related decisions? Do you think people have a right to know how these decisions are being taken?
A: Personnel related information like that of transfers and postings must also be available for public scrutiny to ensure that there is no irregularity here. The decisions about transfers and postings are quite arbitrary and the people learn about them only from the newspapers. People are virtually left to the mercy of the powers that be in this matter. Why cannot a people have to right to determine who their District Magistrate should be? Or atleast, they should know how they came to have a particular person as their DM, or why was the previous DM transferred out of their District even though she was doing so well. It is now a well known fact that money changes hands for plum postings or often political pressure is brought to effect transfers. Making the decision making process about transfers and postings transparent will ensure that these decisions are taken in a logical and democratic manner.
Q: What are your views on examination related information being made available to the candidates after the process of examination is over?
A: Same is the case with examinations. People should have access to the record of performance of individuals in examinations. Just like the process of transfer and postings, sometimes the examinations are also conducted in quite arbitrary manner and examinees often have no clue whether the results announced are the outcome of a fair process. There is no reason, why a candidate, after the process of examination has been completed, should not be allowed to see her performance and even others'. Transparency in this matter would bring about accountability in this process and will be better for the general health of the society.
Q: The Cabinet also proposes to exclude itself from the this Act. The Cabinet has to take lot of sensitive decisions. Do you think they are justified in excluding themselves from the Act?
A: It doesn't make sense when on one hand you have allowed the people of this country to watch on TV from their houses the conduct of the supreme decision making body of this country and there is an attempt to hide behind a veil the deliberations of a subset of this assembly, the Council of Ministers. Just like the parliament proceedings, the Council of Ministers should also have the courage to subject conduct its business to public scrutiny. When we expect our Gram Panchayats to take all their decisions in open meetings and are extremely critical of Pradhans who hold closed door meetings, why should the Council of Ministers be allowed to take their decisions behind closed doors?
Q: What about identities of people writing sensitive reports, recommendations, etc? Do you think they should exposed?
A: It is not a good idea to hide the identities of those who have recorded notings, made inspection, gave recommendations, etc. Again like other matters, here too, fairness and accountability of the people in a position to influence important decisions will be established only under a transparent process.
Q: You do not seem to be in favour of any kind of secrecy. What makes you such an ardent supporter of the culture of transparency?
A: In general the culture of transparency will ensure that decision makers are careful and take the right decisions following the correct process. The honest officers will thrive and be suitably rewarded by the public and the not so honest ones will be forced to change their ways of working. Ultimately the people of this country, to whom all officials and leaders owe their existence, will the biggest winners and we will have a more authentic version of democracy. As the sensitivity towards human rights, equality and democracy increases globally, the Indian bureaucrats and leaders will have to learn to become accountable to their people. They must leave the Right to Information Act passed last year intact in the interest of their masters, in whose name they had passed it in the first place.
Dr Sandeep Pandey

(About the author: Dr Pandey was awarded Ramon Magsaysay Award for emergent leadership (2002), did his PhD in Mechanical Engineering, U.C., Berkeley, 1992 before heading back to India to become a social activist. Took out a 1500 km Global Peace March for nuclear disarmament from the Indian nuclear testing site Pokaran to Sarnath, a place where Gautam Buddha delivered his first sermon after attaining enlightenment, beginning 11th May and ending on 6th August, 1999. Presently with Program on Science & Global Security, Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University for 5 weeks. He can be contacted at: ashaashram@yahoo.com)

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