In a move that is seen by many as a setback for transparency and accountability in governance, the government has quietly diluted the proposed Whistle-blower’s Protection Bill by blindly copying portions of the Right To Information (RTI) Act that offer exemptions to revealing information.
The bill is likely to be introduced in the Rajya Sabha soon. What has upset many people who have been lobbying for a bill to protect whistle-blowers is the secretive manner in which the changes were introduced.
“Neither has the government bothered to upload the text of these amendments on its website nor has the Rajya Sabha secretariat bothered to upload this notice of amendments on its website,” said Venkatesh Nayak, programme coordinator for Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), which works on accountability issues.
In fact, Nayak noticed that blindly adding the exemption clauses of the RTI Act will ensure that whistle-blowers aren’t able to attach any evidence to their complaints, defeating the very purpose of the proposed bill.
For instance, the RTI Act exempts giving information on the ground that the information is prejudicial to the country’s “sovereignty and integrity”. Such an exemption is so broad that it could be used to discourage revelations from any government department.
Similarly, information that could affect international relations or incite an offence too are exempted. “But these are so vague and so broad that they could result in anyone getting penalised, and therefore discourage people from blowing the whistle, let alone protect them,” said Nayak.
Worse, cabinet papers and notes can’t be attached by a whistle-blower if they are being considered for a cabinet decision. While this may apply to the RTI Act, the purpose of whistle-blowing is to prevent bad decisions from coming through. By putting a clause in place, activists and experts feel it will prevent whistle-blowers from speaking out.
“I don’t think these provisions can be applied on everyone,” said Nikhil Dey, of the National Campaign for the People’s Right To Information (NCPRI), which was the moving force behind the earlier Act. “Whistle-blowers are critical for a country. If they are throttled in this manner, we will never know the truth.
However, if there are legitimate grounds of national security, we could look at creating ombudsmen who could be arbitrators for such kind of whistle-blowers and filter out sensitive information. Either way, we must recognise how important whistle-blowers are.”
Senior officials of the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), which has been working on the proposed Act for over a decade, say that the latest revelations by American Edward Snowden has led to the introduction of these new clauses in the bill.
Snowden, who was working with the American technical intelligence agency, NSA, exposed how they were wantonly snooping on citizens around the world.
The Indian government fears that such kind of revelations will be prejudicial to the “interests and sovereignty” of the nation. Either way, in the absence of any public debate, the proposed Act is in danger of being rendered ineffective.