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Authorities seek transparency from foreign funded NGOs, but deny mundane RTI info

Sujatha Singh, former foreign secretary
By Venkatesh Nayak*
According to media reports, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is working on a fresh set of rules aimed at tightening the controls on foreign-funded NGOs. According to the news report, “NGOs would be mandated to have a website on which they will be required to put out the details of each foreign inflow for public viewing within 48 hours of receiving the funds. This will include the source of funds, the intended activity for which the funds are expected to be used and the details of its partner NGOs in that specific project, disclosed a senior government official. Annual audited reports for previous years should also be made public, the official said.” (Click HERE)
This move is said to be directed by the Prime Minister’s Office for putting in place a mechanism for monitoring foreign funding NGOs. This is said to be based on several recommendations received from the Intelligence Bureau (IB) earlier. Any move to bring in more transparency of entities working in the public sphere is welcome. As such all Annual Reports submitted by foreign funded NGOs to the MHA are publicly accessible on its dedicated website. The new Rules, when notified, will require registered NGOs to be transparent about the foreign funding they receive in real time. Many such NGOs already make their annual audited reports public in a proactive manner. Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative’s annual reports and audited statement of accounts up to the financial year 2013-14 are accessible HERE.

Proactive disclosure of budget and expenditure by public authorities under the RTI Act

Section 4(1)(b)(xi) of the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act) requires all public authorities at the Centre and in the States to disclose their annual budgets, as well as details of planned expenditure and reports of disbursements made during every financial year. Section 4(1)(b) does not apply to the IB, so it is not obligated to either have a dedicated website or disclose any information relating to its budget or other activities. Being a notified organization under Section 24 of the RTI Act, IB is required to provide information pertaining to allegations of corruption or human rights violation only, and nothing else.
Ironically, transparency is being preached by an entity which is very cagey about disclosing any information about itself unlike other organisations similarly notified under Section 24 of the RTI Act, such as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), Financial Intelligence Unit, Sashastra Seema Bal, Assam Rifles, and National Investigation Agency. All these agencies have their own dedicated websites which disclose a considerable amount of information about their working.
The Indian Missions Abroad (IMAs) such as High Commissions and Embassies are also covered by the RTI Act. However, they have not been declared or recognised as ‘public authorities’ by their parent Ministry – Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). Although they have appointed Public Information Officers (PIOs), they do not submit RTI statistics of applications received and disposed under Section 25 of the RTI Act, separately. Their RTI data is included in the RTI statistics of the Consular, Passport and Visa (CPV) Division of MEA. However, they are also required to disclose information about themselves proactively under Section 4(1)(b) of the RTI Act. CHRI has done a rapid study of the track record of IMAs with particular reference to proactive disclosure of their budgets under the RTI Act. Our main findings are as follows:
  • Only 2.45% IMAs (3) have displayed budgetary information for the latest year, namely, 2015-16 on their respective websites – Austria, Madagascar and Uzbekistan.
  • Almost 50% of the IMAs (60) have either not displayed budgetary figures for any year or do not have dedicated websites or the relevant website or webpage does not open up on any popular browser (despite trying to access it on different days).
  • A little more than 10% of the IMAs (13) have displayed budgetary figures for the financial year that ended recently, namely, 2014-15.
  • A little more than 17% of the IMAs (21) have displayed budgetary figures for the year 2013-14 only.
  • A little more than 7% of the IMAs (9) have displayed budgetary figures for the year 2012-13 only.
  • A little less than 10% of the IMAs (12) have displayed their budgetary figures for the year 2011-12 only.
  • The IMAs of Australia, Iceland and Syria have not updated their budgetary figures since 2010-11.
  • The IMA in Denmark does not mention the year to which their budgetary figures relate.
  • In India’s neighbourhood, IMAs in China, Nepal, Pakistan and Myanmar have not displayed budgetary figures at all, while the IMA in the Maldives does not seem to have a dedicated website. 
  • The IMA in Bangladesh has displayed budgetary figures for 2014-15 while the IMAs in Afghanistan, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka have displayed their budgets up to 2013-14 only.
Detailed budgetary data is available with the MEA but they have not been able to get all the IMAs to update their websites with this information. Given this track record of the MEA with just 122 IMAs, how will the Home Ministry monitor and regulate financial disclosures by the 43,500+ registered NGOs that receive foreign funding and that too within 48 hours is anybody’s guess. This maybe another example of extension of the license inspector raj in the social sector.

People do not have the right to see papers relating to the appointment and exit of Foreign Secretaries

After the unceremonious exit of Sujatha Singh, ex-Foreign Secretary (FS) earlier this year, I filed an RTI application asking for the Cabinet Note, file notings and list of persons who attended the meeting of the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet (ACC- despite knowing fully well that the ACC comprises of the Prime Minister PM and Home Minister only, the idea was to ascertain whether the Foreign Minister was a special invitee to this meeting).
As the order of retirement of the erstwhile FS and the appointment of the new FS was uploaded on the website of the Department of Personnel and Training, I filed the RTI with them. They transferred it to Cabinet Secretariat (Cab Sectt). As the Cab Sectt did not respond even after 50 days, I filed a first appeal explaining the reason for delay. Now the Cab Sectt has denied access to the Cabinet Note and the list of people who attended the ACC meeting as well as all related file notings. Instead they have given me some explanation of “recorded facts” about the exit of the FS and the appointment of the new one. It is obvious that they do not want to officially reveal the true story behind the unceremonious exit of the last Foreign Secretary. The PIO is also claiming that access to ACC minutes under RTI is sub-judice at the Delhi High Court (HC).
The PIO’s reliance on the Delhi HC cases for denying access to information is completely misplaced. None of the Delhi HC judgments/orders I cited in my RTI application have been stayed till date. Even with regard to the four cases that the PIO is referring to, there is no stay order against any judgment of the Delhi HC. The orders stayed are CIC’s orders which have no relationship with the cases I cited in my RTI. I did cite Dr Sharatchandra’s case in my RTI, but despite searching the Delhi HC website thoroughly, I could not find any stay order against the single judge bench’s order.
In my RTI I had referred to a case decided by Delhi HC relating to Pramod Kumar Jain about ACC minutes. They have cited a case relating to Praduman Kumar Jain instead. Even in that Praduman Kumar case there is no stay against any order or judgment of the Delhi HC. So that order of the Division Bench of the Delhi HC in that case stands intact. Further, the PIOs’ contention that the matter is sub judice is not a valid ground for denying access to information under the RTI Act.
The issue of ACC minutes is not just an administrative matter. The appointment of officers or their voluntary retirement is undeniably matters of public interest. They perform public duties and are paid salaries drawn from the taxes contributed by citizens. The Foreign Secretary represents India at so many international fora and takes so many decisions about foreign policy to ensure that India’s interests are protected and promoted. They may be officially designated as Secretary to the Government of India, but they are essentially public servants. It would not be farfetched to say that they are the Foreign Secretary of India representing the people’s interests in the comity of nations and not merely that of the government of the day.
Citizens have the right to know the complete details about their appointments and retirements, especially when they result in controversies. People have the right to know the details of the circumstances of their appointment and exit. Yet the Cab Sectt believes in secrecy. They do not seem to be interested in practicing the promise of increased transparency in government that the Prime Minister has made time and again to the citizenry. Is this another case of the political executive not being able to rein in the bureaucracy in recent times?

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

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