Government withdraws RTI Act amendments

Under pressure from UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, the Manmohan Singh government Thursday withdrew the controversial amendments aimed at diluting the Right to Information (RTI) Act.

“The cabinet decided to withdraw the amendments to the RTI Act”

The campaign against the amendments was led by activist Aruna Roy, a member of the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council.

The withdrawal of amendments would mean it would be possible for the citizens to ask for information related to file notings, except on issues about national security, privacy and protection of commercial interest. The amendments had sought to restrict disclosure of file notings only to social and developmental issues.

Nikhil Dey, who works closely with Aruna Roy on the RTI Act told “It is an important decision. The amendments would have killed the RTI Act and there would have been no transparency in governance”

Roy even met Gandhi on the government’s plans to dilute the act. Chief Information Commissioner Satyanand Mishra was also not in favour of the amendments, said sources.

The RTI Act was introduced during the previous UPA government to bring more transparency in governance and fight corruption.

Orient policies for women, NAC tells government

Orientation of social schemes and policies towards women can help control the declining sex ratio in the country, a member of the National Advisory Council’s (NAC) working group on gender and sex ratio said here Tuesday.

“The national policy on declining sex ratio needs to look at all the laws pertaining to women’s issues. We are implementing the PCPNDT (Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques) Act very badly for which we could have fast track courts, and institutional delivery data can be made available at the district level,” said Farah Naqvi, member of the seven-member working group.

The census reported a decline in the sex ratio from 927 females per 1,000 males in 2001 to 914 in 2011.

The recommendations, drafted jointly by Naqvi and A.K. Shiva Kumar, hold that while framing a national policy on the declining sex ratio at birth, the government should consider a broader framework of women’s empowerment and ensure inter-sectoral planning and action.

“There is a need for a review of the cash transfer scheme. We have too few schemes benefiting poorer girls, but what about out schematic interventions for the middle and upper income households,” asked Naqvi.

The group has also suggested a national communication strategy.

Why no social security for unorganised workers : NAC asks government

The National Advisory Council (NAC) has pulled up the central government for failing to formulate a social security package for India’s 430-million informal sector workers even though the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act (UWSSA) was passed three years ago.

“The centre has not formulated a minimum social security package for all workers in the unorganised sector since three years of the passage of the act in 2008,” said a recent NAC communication to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

NAC said except for the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana (National Health Insurance Scheme), which covered close to 90 million people, little had been done to extend other social security benefits to the working poor in the country.

The passage of the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act in 2008 was a result of the collective effort of unions, cooperatives and NGOs. They were backed by the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganised Sector and the NAC, headed by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi.

“They (unorganised sector workers) contribute close to 60 percent of the country’s gross domestic product but remain amongst the poorest and most vulnerable sections of society,” said the NAC in its letter to the government.

It said the workers were engaged in multiple economic activities for survival, had no fixed employer-employee relationship and worked long hours for very low wages.

They also lacked sufficient access to income, food and basic social security such as healthcare, childcare, insurance and pension, it said.

Women, who constituted a large proportion of the informal workforce, were particularly vulnerable since they shouldered both productive and reproductive responsibilities, it said.

“They (women) are often engaged in the most hazardous of work and earn substantially lower wages than men,” said NAC.

Noting that the allocation of limited financial resources was the real bottleneck in the implementation of the act, NAC said there was little convergence between the various schemes being administered through the finance ministry (for pension), labour ministry (for health insurance) and women and child development ministry (for maternity benefits).



Aruna Roy: Jan Lokpal Bill impractical, undemocratic

Terming Anna Hazare’s Jan Lokpal Bill “impractical and complicated”, noted social activist and National Advisory Council ( NAC) member Aruna Roy said that giving widespread powers to an unelected body is a “threat to democracy”.

“Jan Lokpal is a bill impossible to implement. Also, it derails the checks and balances between the judiciary, executive and other organs of the democratic structure,” Roy, 65, who pioneered the right to information (RTI) movement in the country, told in an interview here.

“Not that we agree with the government Lokpal Bill. The Lokpal legislation should be thoroughly deliberated again by activists, lawmakers and all other stakeholders.

“We of course support the democratic right of Hazare to hold demonstrations and fast against the government. That is why we condemned the arrest of Hazare,” she said.

“But we have no meeting point with them, though we keep meeting each other at functions and meetings of common interest,” she added.

Asked about the huge public support Hazare has drawn, Roy said: “There have been huge gatherings in support of NGO-sponsored agitations, like the Narmada Bachao movement. It might not have got similar publicity, as live TV was not there then.”

Roy and her fellow activists in the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information (NCPRI) have prepared an alternate version of the Lokpal bill, which will be presented to parliament’s standing committee.

Roy, a Magsaysay award winner, said the Jan Lokpal bill is a “giant, complicated exercise” as it tried to extend from the prime minister to a peon.

“It wants to bring the higher judiciary into its ambit, which otherwise should have been under the Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill, 2010,” she said.

She felt that the suggestion of dual duties — curbing corruption and redressing grievances — under the Jan Lokpal was not feasible.

“The Jan Lokpal is a threat to democracy as a powerful, non-elected agency can lead to abuse of power and abuse of authority. Power corrupts and absolutely power corrupts absolutely,” she quipped.

“Grievance redressal should not be the role of the Lokpal; it should be the work of the executive.

“See, wages of lakhs of workers in the NREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) in Rajasthan have not been paid. But that is because the shortage of bank staff and other bureaucratic delays,” she said.

The massive organisational setup suggested in the Jan Lokpal will lead to corruption and inefficiency, she cautioned.

“You may be able to find 11 Lokpal members of integrity, but it is difficult to create a clean set-up of thousands of staffers and hold them accountable,” Roy said.

The government-drafted Lokpal is also deficient on several fronts, she added. Since it excludes cases under the state governments, there can be no probe against cases like the Adarsh housing society scandal, the Commonwealth Games scam and illegal mining in Karnataka.

She said excluding the prime minister and the higher judiciary was wrong. “This is a wrong practice. Nobody should be above the law,” she said, adding that there should be certain safeguards. “Like both the Lokpal and the Supreme Court should agree on a probe against the prime minister.”

Roy also suggested that the Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill should be revised to facilitate effective action against the higher judiciary while the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) should be strengthened to probe junior officials.

The whistleblowers’ protection bill too should be revised to deal with the increasing attacks and threats against RTI activists, she suggested.

“The Lokpal bill should not become an issue of adamant stances, political rivalries and personality-driven agitations. What we need is a sincere, detailed debate for legislation of immense social significance and public concern,” she said.

Roy, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer from 1968 to 1974, resigned from the government as the clouds of Emergency were gathering. She took to social work in the Social Work Research Centre in Tilonia in Rajasthan, founded by her husband Sanjit ‘Bunker’ Roy, another Magsaysay award winner.

However, she professionally disassociated from her husband in 1983, reportedly for ideological reasons, and founded the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathana (Workers and Peasants Strength Union) in 1990 in Devdoongri in Rajsamand district of Rajasthan.

Roy’s campaign for right to information led to the enactment of the RTI Act – in Rajasthan in 2000 and five years later at the national level.

Anna Hazare plans fast unto death for strong Lokpal bil

Veteran social activist Anna Hazare Monday said he is starting a “fast unto death” to press for the demand to involve civil society in formulation of the anti-graft Lokpal (ombudsman) Bill.

“I will fast unto death, as announced earlier, as the prime minister has refused to form a joint committee with civil society members in it for the formulation of the Lokpal Bill. Even if I lose my life, I will have no regret, my life is dedicated to the nation,” Hazare said at a press meet here.

The Magsaysay Award winner activist, along with others, will go to Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial at Rajghat at 9.00 a.m. Tuesday morning, after which the activists will stage a march from India Gate to the Jantar Mantar, a stone’s throw from Parliament House, where Hazare will begin his fast.

Activists also called upon the nation to join the fast.

“I appeal to the nation to join the hunger strike, and support this anti-corruption movement,” said activist Arvind Kejriwal, who with former Supreme Court judge Santosh Hegde and Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan has drafted the Jan Lokpal Bill, the civil society’s alternate to the government drafted bill.

The Jan Lokpal Bill calls for setting up Lokpal and Lokayuktas (in states) independent from government’s control. In the activists’ version, investigation in any case will have to be completed in one year, and punishment would be a jail term of minimum 5 years and maximum of life imprisonment.

The government’s version recommends a prison term of minimum 6 months and maximum 7 years as punishment for corruption.

The activists strongly rejected the Lokpal bill drafted by government.

“Government says its committee will draft the bill. Who are there in the committee… (Agriculture Minister) Sharad Pawar who has been involved in land scams in Maharashtra, or (Communications Minister) Kapil Sibal who does not see any corruption in the 2G scam,” Kejriwal said.

“The government is supposed to make legislation for the people. If they make their laws without keeping in mind what people mind, it’s as bad as the British ruling India,” said Hazare.

“Government’s Lokpal bill is useless,” said former Indian Police Service officer Kiran Bedi.

Talking about a meeting with some members of the National Advisory Council, which is an advisory body to government, Kejriwal said that even the NAC members agreed that the Jan Lokpal Bill was good.

“They agreed that the government’s version of Lokpal Bill is toothless and agreed with almost all clauses of the Jan Lokpal bill,” he said.

He, however, added that this did not raise their hopes as the government mostly rejects the reccomendations of the NAC.