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Disclosing RTI statistics does not jeopardise national security

By Venkatesh Nayak*
The Times of India carries a news report about the non-compliance of well known security and intelligence organisations with their obligation of reporting RTI applications statistics to the Central Information Commission (CIC) in India.
As on date, the Government of India has notified 25 security and intelligence organisations as exempt from the ordinary obligations of transparency under the right to information (RTI) Act like their parent departments and ministries and other public authorities. However, they are required to provide access to information if it relates to allegations of corruption and human rights violation. Such information must not be withheld under the RTI Act.
So, it goes without saying that such exempt organisations must also appoint public information officers and first appellate authorities under Sections 5(1) and 19(1) respectively. By logical extension of this statutory requirement, they must also submit their reports to the CIC under Section 25 of the Act about the number of RTI applications received, amount of fees collected and details of cases where access to information was rejected.
Our findings about the compliance of such exempt organisations with their obligation of reporting to the CIC suggest:
(1) 11 such organisations (44%) have never reported RTI stats to the CIC even once between 2005 and 2014. They are:
  • NTRO and National Security Council Secretariat (both under the Prime Minister’s Office)
  • R&AW, Aviation Research Centre, Special Frontier Force and Special Protection Group (all under the Cabinet Secretariat)
  • Directorate of Enforcement, Central Economic Intelligence Bureau and Financial Intelligence Unit, India (all under the Finance Ministry)
  • National Investigation Agency and NATGRID (both under the Home Ministry)
(2) Central Bureau of Investigation under the Ministry of Personnel, the nodal Ministry for implementing the RTI Act, has stopped reporting RTI statistics since 2012 after it was notified under Section 24 of the RTI Act.
I would like to respond to a few issues which readers of the Times of India news report raised in their comments.

Should security and intelligence organisations not be transparent?

Some readers of the Times of India story left comments questioning the motives of the study, and also for reporting the story. Part III of the Constitution and the anonymity of cyberspace afford them the privilege to do so. By holding such a position, such readers end up disrespecting the security and intelligence organisations which faithfully report RTI statistics – like the Intelligence Bureau (IB) and the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) for example.
None of the 11 non-compliant organisations may have lost any of their personnel in conflict areas like the CRPF has year after year. Yet the CRPF is not only reporting RTI statistics regularly, but is reducing its rate of rejection year on year even as the number of requests for information keeps growing. The IB and the CRPF have no problems with giving such harmless information, but some “intelligent readers” have problems with such disclosures without any justification. Disclosing RTI statistics does not in any manner jeopardise national security – external or internal.
In fact, undue secrecy severely compromises national security and breeds corruption. In 2011 the Delhi High Court ordered an audit into the finances of NTRO- an unprecedented move – on the petition of a former employee who was aware of allegations of mismanagement of public funds (for details click HERE).
Most of the intelligence agencies like IB, NTRO and R&AW are not established by any law made by Parliament. Many of them do not have their budget and expenditure figures mentioned in the documents submitted to Parliament for approval every year. There is simply no Parliamentary oversight on their functioning. A private member’s Bill (click HERE to dowload) tabled in the previous Lok Sabha to subject these agencies to a legislative framework lapsed with the dissolution of the House. Interestingly, a former employee of IB has filed a Public Interest Litigation suit in the High Court of Karnataka questioning this supra-legal status of intelligence agencies.
Should we dub these conscientious citizens “anti-national”, who threaten India’s national security? Or should we describe them as “5-star activists trying to influence the judiciary” – a phrase that has been made more fashionable of late? There is an old saying, “Only the foot knows where the shoe pinches”. It takes a former employee to expose the wrongdoing of such agencies even in the face of the Governments’ reluctance to implement the Whistleblowers Protection Act.
While recognising people’s right to know, in 1975, the Indian Supreme Court said: “In a government of responsibility like ours, where all the agents of the public must be responsible for their conduct, there can but few secrets. The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything, that is done in a public way, by their public functionaries. They are entitled to know the particulars of every public transaction in all its bearing.”
Surely the Court was not making exceptions for everything about intelligence and security organisations. For secrecy to remain legitimate it must serve a well-recognised set of public interests or public purposes. Mere whims and fancies or age-old practices cannot legitimise secrecy.
If voters-taxpayers abandon their right to ask questions and demand accountability for wrongdoing, democracy will die a sure and quick death. It is nobody’s argument that all intelligence and security agencies must become fully transparent. Only the feeble-minded who do not have the patience to listen or comprehend what the proponents of transparency have to say rant against such imagined positions. Confidentiality of sensitive information created or held by such agencies is a must- but it cannot be allowed to become a blanket of secrecy to be awarded in perpetuity for all things commonly perceived to be “intelligent” or “secure”.
For those who are interested in knowing more about the principles that should govern both transparency and confidentiality in the working of such intelligence and security agencies, there is an excellent compilation of basic principles of RTI in the context of national security which is gaining widespread recognition as Tshwane Principles. Readers may like to go through these principles by clicking on: http://www.right2info.org/exceptions-to-access/national-security
Others may continue to lament on the latest ‘fashion trends’ set by stars of whatever numerical strength.

*Programme Coordinator, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, New Delhi

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