GUEST POST BY VENKATESH NAYAK
Readers will remember that one of the major decisions that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government took during the first week of its assumption of power in May 2014 was to abolish the mechanism of Group of Ministers (GoMs) that was a legacy of the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government. According to media reports more than a 100 GoMs and Empowered GoMs (EGoMs) established by the UPA Government were abolished. Apparently there were two reasons behind this decision:
a) it was a move to overcome delays in decision-making within Government; and
b) to give the concerned ministries more space and freedom to perform their jobs efficiently and become accountable for their functioning.
This act of abolishing GoMs and EGoMs was hailed as a signal of breaking away from past practices which had allegedly led to "policy paralysis".
A day later in June 2014 while checking the official press release from the Prime Minister's Office on the Press Information Bureau (PIB) website I found that the actual number of GoMs abolished was 21 and the number of EGoMs abolished was 9.
Copy of the order abolishing GoMs denied under the RTI Act twice
On 4th June I sought a copy of the order of the PM abolishing the GoMs and EGoMs under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act). The Public Information Officer (PIO) of the PMO promptly transferred the request to the Cabinet Secretariat. It was strange that it had to be transferred there because the PIB news release clearly said that it was a decision of the PM. In just a couple of days the PIO of the Cabinet Secretariat transferred this part of the RTI application back to the PMO reasoning that it was a decision taken by the PM. More than 3 weeks later, the PMO sent me an interim reply stating that "the matter has been referred to the office for providing inputs". It is not clear which office the PIO was referring to. After another 3 went by, the PMO's PIO sent a reply with a paragraph long input from an Under Secretary. The gist of the input was that the PM had approved the abolition of the 21 GoMs and 9 EGoMs on 30/06/2014 and that decision had been ratified by the Union Cabinet on 18/6/2014. The PIO did not attach a copy of the decision of abolition to his reply. .
Instead of filing an appeal, I decided to seek a copy of the order abolishing the GoMs and EGoMs through a second RTI application in September 2014, thinking that the PMO may be ready to supply a copy of the order this time as the matter had gone cold. In my 2nd RTI application I sought not only a copy of the decision to abolish, but also a copy of the Cabinet Note which was referred to the Union Cabinet to ratify the PM's decision. Under the exiting Rules of Cabinet Procedure no decision is taken by the Union Cabinet about any official matter without a Cabinet Note being put before it for discussion.
Surprisingly, the PMO transferred my 2nd RTI application also to the Cabinet Secretariat. This time the CPIO of the Cabinet Secretariat rejected my request invoking Section 8(1)(i) relating to exemptions for Cabinet papers. Soon after, I filed a first appeal arguing that the decision was taken and the matter was complete and over, so the records should be disclosed under the proviso of Section 8(1)(i). In February this year, the First Appellate Authority (FAA) rejected the first appeal on very curious grounds. Although the PIB release and the reply to the 1st RTI application stated clearly that abolition had been decided and ratified by the Cabinet, the FAA let the cat out of the bag stating that there were "residual issues". So the matter was not complete or over despite the decision being taken and ratified (2nd attachment- only the FAA order is scanned as it contains the crux of the RTI application and the PIO's reply). I will of course file the second appeal soon, but even this will be a futile exercise until the Chief Information Commissioner is appointed at the Central Information Commission. All 2nd appeals relating to the PMO and Cabinet Secretariat go the Chief Commissioner according to their Work Distribution chart. So the resolution of this matter is contingent upon the appointment of the Chief Information Commissioner.
Juvenile law changes referred to a Group of Ministers
Today a media house has reported that a GoM has been formed by the NDA Government to look into amendments proposed in the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Act, 2000.
So the big question that arises from these developments is- what happened to the initial decision of the NDA Government not to use the GoMs mechanism for carrying out any official work? If the decision was indeed taken by the Hon'ble PM and ratified by the Union Cabinet, what is so problematic with disclosing a copy of the order? If the decision has been taken and ratified, why are there 'residual issues'? What are these 'residual issues'? T
Or was the decision itself taken and ratified in reckless disregard for its impact on the working of Government departments on pending issues? Why establish a GoMs afresh in 2015 after deciding to abolish the entire mechanism in 2014? So do GoMs continue to have value for the NDA Government as they did for the UPA Government?
The PMO needs to come clean on this needless controversy. As a duly elected Government the NDA has every right to choose its mechanisms for taking decisions within the four corners of the Constitution and the laws of the land. Nobody questions that right. But the Government also must live up to its promise of accountable governance by making information about such routine matters transparent. Or else the Quest for Transparency mentioned on the PMO website will remain only a 'Quest' with little 'transparency'.
[Venkatesh Nayak is the Programme Coordinator, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi, and a well-known RTI activist]