India-leaks:RTI, weak governance helping info escape from govt hands

What’s common between foggy movements of two army battalions, the government auditor’s assessments of large notional losses to the exchequer and a letter from the army chief to the PM on his unit’s preparedness for war? The information in each of these instances in the past six months, was marked ‘secret’ in official files, but screamed its way to the public, forcing the government into damage-control mode.

Leaky Govt Goes in a Daze as Secrets Become Public

Information leaks in governments are nothing new, but they are stinging more now. “They are more frequent and the issues more critical,” says independent journalist Nalini Singh.
“In most cases, an institution of importance has been the target.” The other difference is how the leaks are happening. Politicians and corporates, with their agendas, are prolific generators and feeders of information to a scoop-hungry media, as was revealed in sordid detail in the leaked phone taps of corporate lobbyist Niira Radia in late-2010. The flow of such information is now being shaped by circumstances (infighting in government) and a potent informationgathering weapon (the Right to Information Act).
“The RTI Act and the current Parliament has led to more public debates,” says NK Singh, former finance secretary and a member of the Rajya Sabha. “Overall, it reflects in the lack of effective governance, dynamics of unsettled equations within the government and a weak leadership.”
CAG draft reports have leaked consistently ever since it started making damning assessments of government entities: for example, its comments on 2G telecom licences, CWG contracts, and RIL’s oil and gas field in KG basinMinistries Asked to Track Down Leaks 
V Narayanswami, minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), says in most cases the reports were leaked before the ministry concerned officially reacted to CAG’s claims. “In many cases, there is a substantial difference between the final and draft report, which is lost in the public debate,” he says. Narayanswami adds the government is concerned about the leaks of draft CAG reports and letters to the PM. “We are watching the situation. It is to do with the attitude of people who handle vital information.”
A senior government official says, on condition of anonymity, that the PMO has informally asked ministries to track down leakages at the department level; further, the Lok Sabha speaker and vice-chairman of Rajya Sabha have asked CAG head Vinod Rai – the auditor is accountable to Parliament – to pin accountability and evolve a system to stop the leakage of draft reports. “The government will step in once the House directs it to look into the matter,” he added.
A New Delhi-based media tracker and lobbyist for a large business group says, on condition of anonymity, leaks are acquiring a life of their own because the government is at “war with itself ”. “You don’t need a Dhirubhai (Ambani) versus Nusli Wadia, or the two warring Ambani siblings, to raise a public debate on a secret government document,” he says. “The warring ministers have now replaced them.”
One recent instance in which ministerial differences simmered and spilled on to the media, via managed leaks, was the standoff between the home ministry, headed by P Chidambaram, and the finance ministry, headed by Pranab Mukherjee, on the status and mandate of the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI). The UIDAI’s primary mandate is to give unique identity cards to all Indians. So, it receives its funding from the finance ministry, but its mandate overlaps with that of the National Population Register (NPR), which is housed in the home ministry. The second half of 2011 saw scores of stories on the UIDAI’s functioning and authority, based on letters and file notings leaked from the two ministries.
More formally, the RTI Act — which can be invoked by any Indian citizen to ask the government for certain information on its functioning — has become a weapon to ferret out information not in the public domain.
For instance, the BJP, the main opposition party, has an RTI cell that operates at both the central and state levels. Headed by Supreme Court lawyer Vijay Garg, its stated objective, in his words, is to “weed out corruption” in high offices. He says officials of the cell not only source information through the RTI route, but also process it to pinpoint stories for the media.
“We were able to bring out the letters written by (former) finance minister Pranab Mukherjee to the PM on the 2G spectrum scam after going through 1,000 pages of information,” says Garg, national convenor of BJP’s RTI cell. In 2011, through an RTI, Garg asked PMO for all communication on 2G licence allocation.
From this, he zeroed in on a finance ministry letter that was “seen” by Mukherjee and which essentially implied that P Chidambaram, the finance minister at the time of licence issuance, could have stopped the spectrum allocation on a first-cum-firstserve basis but did not. This revelation played an important part in the Supreme Court subsequently over-ruling government policy and scrapping the 122 licences handed out in 2008.
Another prolific RTI activist Subhash C Aggarwal claims he was the first to source this information – “20 days before the media made a headline of it” – but it was tucked away inside 500 pages of information. He says he never processes information and shares everything with recipients, be it journalists or civil-society activists.
Aggarwal, a textile trader, says he has no political affiliations in these matters. “My idea is to expose anything that is in public interest,” he says. “I have been approached by political parties, but I believe in remaining independent.” Aggarwal says he has filed about 4,000 applications since the Act was notified in 2005, and that he generates information ideas from conversations with “government insiders who meet him informally”, journalists and ex-government officials.
He has also sourced, among other things, information on land allotments to political parties, the poor attendance records of some cabinet ministers, and audio recordings of meetings of the joint drafting committee on the Lokpal Bill that showed the government subdued civil-society voices.
A senior official in the PMO says many of these activists know what they want and where to find it. As an example, he says, they quote numbers of specific letters and raise questions on them. “The arbitrary way in which information is sought by a single person, with detailed references, only reinforces the suspicion that it is being aided by people within the system,” he says, not wanting to be named. “You could see it as an overdose of transparency,” says former cabinet secretary TSR Subramaniam.
While this might be the season of political intrigue, it’s corporates who are normally the source of powder kegs of information. Last week, for instance, a Delhi court allowed the prosecution of Reliance Industries and three of its officials under the Official Secrets Act. This matter dates back to October 1998, when CBI team recovered photocopies of four government documents in the office of RIL’s then group president V Balasubramanian; the documents were marked ‘secret’ and were allegedly of interest to RIL.
Most large business groups with interests in allocation of natural resources – for example, oil blocks, coal and limestone mines, telecom spectrum – have full-time employees who act as lobbyists, and public-relations firms, managing the ministry and the media. Lobbyists, typically, spend a few hours every day in the ministry relevant to them. They cultivate relationships, shadow the movement of their files, keep a pulse on the policy drift, track the appointments of the minister and senior bureaucrats, and try to see file notings. On a parallel track, publicrelations firms act as an intermediary between these companies and the media.
Both lobbyists and PR firms tend to have access to ministry documents. When the Ambani brothers wrangled over the supply of gas from the K-G Basin, necessitated by a split of their business interests, an abundance of ministry communication flowed to journalists. “Technology has changed the modus operandi of such leaks,” says former home secretary GK Pillai. Earlier, documents leaks were primarily photocopies. “All you need now is a smart phone,” adds Subramanian. “Documents are scanned and mailed to the targeted recipient in seconds without leaving a trace.”
Subsequently, company lobbyists engage in selective leaks. Typically, the greater the import of an issue for them, the more they invest in it. In one case, the winner of a 4,000 mw ultra-mega power project (UMPP) was disqualified after it emerged that the financial worthiness of the winning bidder was not in line with the project conditions. Though the eventual decision was taken by the government, documents casting doubt on the financial fitness of the winner found their way to the media in copious quantities and may have played a part in the government’s decision to call for a rebid.

(courtesy: SOMA BANERJEE  & Economic Times)

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