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Right to ‘limited’ Information Act?

Mar 26, 2012

Beware! The government of India is going after the Right To Information (RTI). For evidence read on and find out how it is trampling on transparency through back-door law making.

If the Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority (NSRA) Bill, which was referred last year to a standing committee on science, technology, environment and forests, is any indication, the Government appears set on stealth bombing the Right to Information Act. It is difficult otherwise to explain the resolve with which the committee is endorsing amendments that could possibly have no purpose other than curbing information on issues related to nuclear safety and radiation.

These amendments are being pushed through despite strong protests by the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) and other like-minded institutions, which have pointed out that the RTI has enough armoury to safeguard sensitive information related to nuclear safety. 

Transparency? What is that?

Far from even discussing the amendments, the main report of the Committee, gives the Bill a clean chit in respect to transparency. “The Committee feels that the efficacy and success of a Nuclear Safety Regulatory Authority can be gauged on four core values, i.e., competence, independence, stringency and transparency. The current Bill seems to meet the three criteria but it lacks somewhat on the count of independence.”

Just as inexplicable is the fact that the Committee has found nothing objectionable about an amendment to the RTI Act that rams through a new exemption under Section 8, meant to protect sensitive information about nuclear safety matters and commercially sensitive information of nuclear technology holders.

Similarly, the Committee is comfortable with expanding Schedule 2 of the RTI Act to include a nuclear safety regulatory authority that the Central Government proposes to establish for strategic purposes in future. If enacted, this piece of legislative engineering would ensure that this yet to be born authority would be insulated from the RTI Act.

The Committee has recorded its complete satisfaction on these points and recommended retention of Clause 25 in totality. Neither the majority of the members nor the Central Government representatives seem to have spared much thought to the impact that such amendments and exceptions might have on the transparency regime established by the RTI Act.

Despite sending detailed arguments that Section 24 does not permit the exclusion of strategic nuclear safety regulatory bodies and their exclusion through an amendment is both a misuse and a violation of the letter and spirit of the RTI Act, the Committee has remained unmoved. Nowhere in its report has the Committee found it necessary to justify why Section 8 of the RTI Act needs to be amended.  It is almost as if it believes that the best way of securing the transparency and consequently accountability in matters relating to nuclear and radiation safety is to hack away at the RTI Act.

Thus far the only dissenting voices in this committee of near unanimous support for the amendments have been two CPI (M) members. They have rightly argued that there does not seem to be much appreciation of the necessity to maintain maximum degree of openness and transparency in civilian nuclear safety matters. The only mention of transparency, they have observed in a dissenting note, is in Section 20(2)(c) which states, “The Authority shall ensure transparency by systematic public outreach on matters relating to nuclear safety without disclosing sensitive information and compromising confidentiality of commercially sensitive information of technology holders.”

However, there is no word on how exactly the government would  “ensure transparency and public outreach.” Without such clarity can rules ever be framed to protect transparency at a subsequent stage?

What needs to be done?

To correct the situation, it would have to be made mandatory for the NSRA to: a) upload and maintain at its web site all the pertinent documents relating to regulatory decision‐making; b) give public access to all information pertaining to its safety norms as also to its Annual Reports and the minutes of its board and various advisory committee meetings. Public must also have easy access to its Safety Evaluation Reports, which detail decision making on important safety issues. In doing so, precautions would obviously have to be taken to ensure that no proprietary information relevant to maintaining physical security is publicly revealed.

The second addition we propose is a Section enabling the creation of a Local Information Body (LIB) near each major nuclear facility, consisting of members of panchayats and gram sabhas and official representatives of the state, district and nuclear facility management. The LIB ought to be headed by a senior representative of the Authority and meet periodically.

The third proposed addition is a provision, which requires the Regulatory Authority to organize and conduct open public hearings at crucial junctures of setting up and operating any nuclear facility, which could potentially have major public safety and environmental impact.

Most of us are aware that several thousands villagers in Kudankulam, Tamil Nadu are protesting the nuclear facilities being established there. Without going into the merits of their case, it needs to be noted that some of the protesters have sought a copy of the Site Evaluation Report and the Reactor Safety Analysis Report under the RTI Act. The Nuclear Power Corporation of India, which is implementing the Kudankulam project, has rejected the RTI application and first appeal. The matter is now before the Central Information Commission.

Given that the government has such a track record on transparency, the justified fear is that the NSRA Bill will make it even more difficult if not impossible to get any information with regard to nuclear and radiation safety matters – information that people have a fundamental right to get.

What next?

The Committee has made several recommendations for changes in the NSRA Bill and although these are not binding on the Government, the Department of Atomic Energy and other concerned departments and ministries will revisit the Bill. The Government has not yet announced its plans for consideration of the Committee’s recommendations. If any recommendations are accepted, amendments to the Bill will still have to be approved by the Cabinet. So we still have an opportunity to weigh our views upon the Prime Minister, Dr. Manmohan Singh who is the Minister‐in‐charge of the Department of Atomic Energy and Mr. V Narayanasamy, Minister of State who piloted the NSRA Bill in the Lok Sabha.

(This story is excerpted from a email communication of Mr Venkatesh Nayak, Programme Coordinator, Access to Information Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative)

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