Skip to main content

Cabinet Secretariat can't deny access to agenda of Union Cabinet after meeting

By Venkatesh Nayak*
In a decision issued recently in one of my cases, the Central Information Commission (CIC) has ruled that under The Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act), the Cabinet Secretariat (Cab. Sectt.) cannot deny access to the items on the agenda placed before the Union Cabinet after a meeting is over. The CIC has also advised the Cab. Sectt. to put in place a mechanism to monitor Departments and Ministries for their compliance with the requirement of sending monthly reports of work done by them to the Cab. Sectt. The CIC also said that is advisable for the Ministries and Departments to upload the “unclassified portions” of their monthly reports to Cab. Sectt. on their respective websites. A copy of the CIC’s order along with the RTI docs and related documents are accessible on CHRI’s website.

Background to the RTI case regarding Cabinet agenda items

Readers may recollect, since 2008-09 I have been using RTI to seek disclosure of the agenda items discussed by the Union Cabinet after each meeting is over. I have circulated these agenda items via email alerts to readers. The general practice of the Union Government is to issue press releases on the decisions taken by the Cabinet after each meeting. While the Cabinet meetings were held every Thursday under the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government advanced them to Wednesday every week after assuming power in 2014. Special Cabinet meetings are held as and when required. The decisions of the Union Cabinet which the Government elects to disclose are uploaded on the Press Information Bureau (PIB) website. However the entire agenda placed before the Union Cabinet for each meeting is never disclosed proactively despite the RTI Act being in place for more than a decade.
When I submitted an RTI application for the agenda items discussed by the NDA Cabinet from August 2014 onwards, the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) rejected the request invoking Section 8(1)(i) of the RTI Act relating to Cabinet confidentiality. The First Appellate Authority (FAA) upheld this order stating that it was up to the concerned Ministries to take the call about whether the matter discussed by the Cabinet was decided upon and the matter was complete or over. The RTI application, the CPIO’s reply, my first appeal and the FAA’s order are accessible on CHRI’s website.
In my second appeal, before the CIC, I argued that the agenda items of the Union Cabinet meetings have been disclosed regularly in the past and there is no reason why such practice should be discontinued under the new political dispensation.Despite the Cab. Sectt. repeating its objection to disclosure in its response to my 2nd appeal (which reached me by post a day after the hearing at the CIC), the CIC has ruled that there is no reason why the practice of disclosure must be discontinued. However, in its order, the CIC stopped short of directing the Cab. Sectt. to disclose the agenda items proactively although I had prayed for the same arguing that proactive disclosure would put an end to my RTI applications on the subject. Unless the Cab. Sectt. makes a decision of proactive disclosure, the agenda items will have to sought through formal RTI applications even now.

Background to the RTI case regarding monthly reports of the ministries and departments

In the same RTI application to the Cab. Sectt., I had also sought a list of departments and ministries that had not submitted their monthly reports to the Cab. Sectt. for the months of October-December, 2014. Under the Rules of Procedure in Regard to Proceedings of the Cabinet, 1987 (Rule 10), every ministry and department is required to submit a report of the works done during the previous month by the 10th of the next month. These Rules themselves were a confidential document until the CIC ruled in favour of their disclosure in my 2nd appeal case in 2011. Although the Cab. Sectt. has never disclosed these Rules on its website I seem to be the only person outside government to have a numbered copy of these Rules.
When I sought copies of the monthly reports submitted by 10 Ministries in 2014, the Cab. Sectt. transferred the RTI application to 27 departments in these Ministries to respond to me directly. While some of the departments sent me copies of their monthly reports prepared under Rule 10, the Department of Defence invoked Section 8(1)(a) relating to national security to refuse access. Strangely, some of the departments sent me copies of their “nil” reports filed with the Cab. Sectt. It was almost like admitting that no work was done that was worth reporting to the Cab. Sectt. by these departments. Some other departments replied that they had not been submitting any such report under Rule 10. So the purpose of the current RTI intervention was to find out whether all ministries and departments were complying with Rule.
The CPIO of the Cab. Sectt. invoked Section 7(9) of the RTI Act to reject this part of the RTI application, even though the RTI Act permits rejection only for reasons stated in Sections 8 and 9. Apart from pointing out this illegality in my 2nd appeal, I argued that disclosure of this information was a requirement in light of the Hon’ble Prime Minister’s exhortation made at the inaugural session of the 10th Annual RTI Convention organised by the CIC in October, 2015, that all citizens should have the right to ask questions and demand accountability of public authorities. As this statement was made after the 2nd appeal was filed, I cited it in an addendum to my 2nd appeal submitted to the CIC on the date of the hearing (see pages 27-30 of the RTI docs).
The CIC has now advised the Cab. Sectt. to put in place a mechanism for monitoring compliance of ministries and departments with their reporting obligations under Rule 10. It has also advised the Ministries and departments to consider proactively disclosing the “unclassified” portions of the monthly reports proactively on their websites. Rule 10 permits the submission of monthly reports in 2 parts- sensitive matters as reports classified “secret” or “top secret” and non-sensitive information as “unclassified reports”. However, nothing in the Cabinet Procedure Rules require the proactive disclosure of the “unclassified reports”.

Why this RTI intervention?

Thanks to the wisdom of the advocators of RTI in 2004-05 which Parliament accepted, Cabinet papers can be disclosed under the RTI Act in India subject to certain restrictions such as, completion of the decision-making process and non-applicability of other exemptions listed in Section 8(1) of the Act. In other countries like the UK, Canada and Australia, Cabinet papers are not disclosed to the public unless they are 20-30 years old, depending upon the country’s policy/law on access. The Indian model is a major departure from this trend. Nevertheless, the proceedings of the Cabinet in India continue to remain under wraps, except for the decisions that the Government elects to announce. The “need to know” principle continues to rule at the highest level of the executive. The situation is the same at the level of most State Governments. Transparency applies not only to panchayats, municipalities and the district administration but also to the highest decision-making bodies in the States and at the Centre.
I hope readers will use the the attached CIC’s order to compel publication of the the agenda items discussed by the State level Cabinets. I also hope readers will use this order to put pressure on the Ministries and Departments in the Central Government to make their monthly reports public regularly. This can be a panacea to the “policy paralysis” in governments that often gets blamed on RTI. If the monthly reporting system is complied with and strengthened, the symptoms of “policy paralysis” can be detected early on and correctives applied in a timely manner. RTI can be used as a constructive tool for this process of governance reform.
If similar reporting systems exist at the level of the States, RTI users may engage with the departments to make such reports public. If such systems do not exist they may advocate for the adoption of such reporting systems. Some RTI users in India have been seeking transparency in the functioning of the State level Cabinets. I hope they will use the attached CIC’s order in their interventions henceforth.

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

Comments

TRENDING

Mental health: We talk of poverty figures, but not increase in suicides since 2014

By IMPRI Team Highlighting  the issue of mental health and addressing the challenges involved, # IMPRI Gender Impact Studies Center (GISC) , IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi organized a panel discussion on Institutional Support for Mental Health and Wellbeing under the #WebPolicyTalk series The State of Gender Equality – #GenderGaps . The discussion was chaired by Prof Vibhuti Patel, Visiting Professor, IMPRI and Former Professor, Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai . The distinguished panel included – Prof Anuradha Sovani, Former Professor and Head, Department of Psychology, and Former Dean, Faculty of Humanities at SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai and National Core Committee member and Ethics Committee Chairperson, Association of Adolescent and Child Care India ; Dr Soumitra Pathare, Director, Centre for Mental Health Law & Policy at Indian Law Society, Pune ; Dr Swati Rane, Founder CEO at SevaShakti Healthcare Consultancy, Mumbai and Founder V

Dishonesty, corruption, manipulation and sustainable growth of mediocrity

By Arup Mitra* The theory of mediocrity would suggest that the meritorious who are always small in number as a nature’s gift will be dominated by a vast number of mediocre as the latter cannot withstand the inferiority they suffer from. By subjugating the merit, they derive a pleasure of having established their superiority. Such processes are functional in all spheres in life though the field of art is the worst sufferer. An artist mind is most sensitive and those who are meritorious in this lot possess exceptionally different traits. This makes them more vulnerable and, on the other hand, it paves the path of the mediocre to cast their shadows all around. Unjust and strong criticisms are sufficient to detract many. In developing countries, the modes of subjugation are many. Individuals do not hesitate to take recourse to criminal means as the subconscious prevalent with vengeance, accesses easily the outlets for execution. The lack of civility and the power of money form a unique com

Beyond Naxalbari: Defective tendencies, mechanical copy of Chinese path

By Harsh Thakor* Naxalbari Movement in May 1969 ushered a new era in Indian history. The scenes were reminiscent of a spiritual renaissance with Marxist political consciousness elevating at an unparalleled scale. This year it was its 55th anniversary on May 25th. Similar to time of Naxalbari agricultural workers and the peasantry are enslaved with burden of debts and globalization has entangled them like an octopus.Corporates have virtually alienated tribals. Inspired by the Chinese Revolution and Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution Naxalbari movement upheld the concept of agrarian revolution protracted peoples War and New Democratic Revolution, revolting against the revisionism of the CPI and CPM. It formulated that India was still engripped by semi-colonialism and semi-feudalism since 1947, with landlordism only abolished on paper and economy bounded to service of foreign capital. Naxalbari inspired the peasantry and other oppressed sections that they could form their own organs of

How India, Bangladesh perceive, manage Sunderbans amidst climate change

By IMRPI Team The effects of climate change have been evident, and there have been a lot of debates around the changes to be made locally to help and save the earth. In this light, the nations met at the COP 26 conference recently. To discuss this further, the Center for Environment, Climate Change and Sustainable Development (CECCSD) , IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi , organized a panel discussion on “COP 26 and Locally Led Adaptations in India and Bangladesh Sunderbans” under the #WebPolicyTalk series- The State of the Environment – #PlanetTalks . The talk was chaired by Dr Jayanta Basu, Director, Non-profit EnGIO, Faculty at Calcutta University and an Environmental Journalist, The Telegraph , ABP . The Moderator of the event, Dr Simi Mehta, CEO and Editorial Director, IMPRI , started the discussion by stressing the talk on the living conditions of people living in the Sunderbans Delta from both the countries, i.e. India and Bangladesh. According to the report

NEP: Education must shift away from knowledge, move to teaching students

Dr Anjusha Gawande* The Education sector in the globe is changing dramatically. Many manual jobs may be captured over by machines as a consequence of multiple spectacular advances in science and technology, including the machine learning, and artificial intelligence. A professional workforce, particularly one that includes mathematics, computer science, and data science, as well as multidisciplinary competencies in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities, will be in incredibly popular. As a result, education must shift away from knowledge and toward teaching students, how to be creative and transdisciplinary, and how to innovate, adapt, and process information differently in innovative and rapidly changing sectors. The education development agenda at the global level is represented in Goal 4 (SDG4) of India's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which was adopted in 2015. Ministry of Education has announced the National Education Policy 2020 (NEP 2020) on 29.07.2020. In J

40 per cent of Australia’s population reported having No Religion in 2021 Census

South Asia Times, a Melbourne-based news site, says , Australia’s 2021 Census shows, there is ‘no religion’ surge in the country amidst religious diversity: The 2021 Census has revealed increasing diversity in the religions Australians identified, reflecting continuing changes in the country's social attitudes and belief systems. Christianity is the most common religion in Australia, with over 40 per cent (43.9 per cent) identifying as Christian. This has reduced from over 50 per cent (52.1 per cent) in 2016 and from over 60 per cent (61.1 per cent) in 2011. As in earlier Censuses, the largest Christian denominations are Catholic (20.0 per cent of the population) and Anglican (9.8 per cent). While fewer people are reporting their religion as Christian, more are reporting ‘no religion’. Almost 40 per cent (38.9 per cent) of Australia’s population reported having no religion in the 2021 Census, an increase from 30 per cent (30.1 per cent) in 2016 and 22 per cent (22.3 per cent) in 20

Inflation targeting in India: Why RBI should focus on stabilizing the real economy

By Kaibalyapati Mishra, Krishna Raj* Inflation is a piece of bad news. In recent months, the pressure of hyperinflation that is galloping hope of the common man has stayed in the limelight with the fear of a continuous prevalence. The onset of COVID followed war trodden global equations and the resultant crude oil price menace, this ripping effect of inflationary tendencies has over-burdened the recovery process in India. With a surge of 15.08% in WPI and 7.79% in CPI, the turbulence has invited strict actions from the central bank in terms of hiking interest rates with an upward calibrated stance. Amongst these tumultuous situations, several structural questions have started gearing the discussion up in the academic and technocratic fora. Questions about the flaws of the existing framework of inflation targeting, its replication in real terms and possible viable alternatives are reasonable to be discussed. In this piece, we discuss the flaws of the inflation targeting framework in the

Addressing challenges of digital divide, public awareness, inclusive development

How is digital awareness propelling rural development in India? A note by S M Sehgal Foundation: *** John Rawls in his path-breaking book titled, A Theory of Justice, proposed the two following principles that can easily be extended to empowerment and development of all citizens of a country, and in this context, the diverse population of India. (1) Every citizen is entitled to equal rights along with basic liberties (2) Social and economic inequalities are to be balanced in a way such as to: (a) Provide the greatest benefit to the least advantaged, (b) Provide equality of opportunity for all offices and positions. Inclusive growth is a relevant policy goal for the people of India that will result in both growth and inclusion, and follow the Rawlsian “maximin” principle. The target should be to maximize the welfare of the poorest. As we complete 75 years of independence, the diversity and divide in India is still stark and negatively skewed. With a large population still dependent on a

Impact of climate change on Gujarat pastoralists' traditional livelihood

By Varsha Bhagat-Ganguly, Karen Pinerio* We are sharing a study[1] based learning on climate resilience and adaptation strategies of pastoralists of Kachchh district, Gujarat. There are two objectives of the study: (i) to examine the impact of climate on traditional livelihood of pastoralists of Gujarat state; and (ii) to explore and document the adaptation strategies of pastoralists in mitigating climate adversities, with a focus on the role of women in it. In order to meet these objectives, the research inquiries focused on how pastoralists perceive climate change, how climate change has impacted their traditional livelihood, i.e., pastoralism in drylands (Krätli 2015), and how these pastoral families have evolved adaptation strategies that address climate change (CC)/ variabilities, i.e., traditional livelihood of pastoralists of Kachchh district, Gujarat state. Pastoralism is more than 5,000 years old land-use strategy in India; it is practised by nomadic (their entire livelihood r

West Bengal police inaction in immoral trafficking case of a Muslim woman

Kirity Roy, Secretary, Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM) writes to the Chairman, National Human Rights Commission, on Muslim woman victim trafficking, police inaction, and need immediate rescue: I am writing to inform you about a case of illegal trafficking and profuse police inaction regarding the same of a marginalized Muslim teenager named Anima Khatun (name changed), daughter of Mr. Osman Ali. The victim and her husband had been residents of the village Daribas, under Dinhata police station Cooch Behar district since their marriage in 2014. Six months following their marriage, Anima Khatun along with her husband, sister-in-law, sister-in-law's husband as well as her in-laws shifted to Delhi in search of work. They stayed there for 2 years after which they all came back to their native village. They stayed at their native residence for about one month and then they went back to Delhi. In Delhi, Anima was in touch with her family till the next six months, after which t