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Making the Right to Information (RTI) work in Defence

Amit Cowshish is a former Financial Advisor (Acquisition), Ministry of Defence and presently a Distinguished Fellow with the Indian Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses. Click here for Detailed Profile
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  • August 21, 2017

    Disposing of an appeal late last month, the Central Information Commission (CIC) advised the Ministry of Defence (MoD) to ensure probity and accountability in defence procurements. Though the advisory is in the context of the absence of any mechanism to apprise the vendors of the reasons for withdrawal or rejection of their proposals,1 this is not the only issue that needs to be addressed to bring about transparency and accountability in the system.

    In fact, it is also not so much about the absence of a mechanism as it is about the tendency to be reticent, uncommunicative and unresponsive in regard to matters relating to defence acquisitions. Take, for example, the chronic delays at every stage in the procurement process, which is arguably the most agonising aspect of the entire system for the vendors.

    Delays take place in opening of the technical offer after submission of the bids, conducting the field trials, carrying out the staff evaluation, completing the contract negotiation and even in awarding the contract after all stages have been crossed, not to mention the delay in releasing the payments to the vendors. The reasons for such delays are seldom, if ever, conveyed to them.

    Retraction of the Request for Proposal (RFP), especially at later stages in the process, without assigning any reason, is not uncommon. This is quite distressing for the vendors who invest a substantial amount of time and money in participating in defence tenders and are left with no choice but to keep on extending the validity of their commercial offer as long as it keeps them in the race.

    The CIC’s advisory has come not a day too soon. It needs to be complied with not just in letter but also in spirit by making the system responsive to the sensitivity of the vendors. This can be done by adopting a few simple measures which, broadly speaking, can be clubbed under three categories: proactive disclosures, quick response to the stake-holders’ queries and better management of requests under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act).

    Section 4 of the RTI Act lays down the obligations of the public authorities. Under sub-section 1 (b), information was required to be published within 120 days of the notification of the Act in respect of the items listed therein, such as the particulars of the organisation, its function and duties, norms set for discharge of functions, etc. This requirement has been fulfilled as all such routine information is available on the RTI portal of the ministry.

    What is not available on the portal in any meaningful way is the information required to be made public every year under sub-section 1 (c) & (d) and sub-section 2 of Section 4 of the Act. While the former requires the public authorities to publish all relevant facts while formulating important policies or announcing the decisions which affect the public, and provide reasons for its administrative or quasi-judicial decisions to the affected persons, sub-section 2 goes a step further.

    It requires the public authority to make a constant endeavour to take steps to voluntarily provide as much information as possible to the public at regular intervals through various means of communications, including internet, so that the use of the RTI Act by the public to obtain information can be minimised.

    These are the areas the ministry needs to focus on, both in letter and spirit. Several policy decisions have been taken by the government in the recent years but very little useful information has been made public about the considerations based on which those decisions were taken. Introduction of the procurement category ‘Buy (Indian Designed, Developed and Manufactured)’ is a case in point.

    There are also several issues of general interest, such as the progress of various procurement programmes from the time the Request for Information (RFI) is issued, decisions taken in the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) meetings, award of contracts, performance of offset contracts, reasons for retraction of the Request for Proposals (RFP), on which information can – and should – be routinely disclosed.

    The ministry could consider tasking the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) or engaging some experienced consultants as Transparency Officers to sift through the applications received under the RTI Act and adopt other means to identify all areas of general interest for making proactive disclosures related to those areas in a standardised format.

    There is a wide scope for disclosing much more information in the annual report of the ministry than is the case at present. Apart from the statistical data and other information concerning various acquisition programmes, the annual reports could throw light on issues like defence manufacturing in India and contemporaneous issues like the state of ammunition holding which are in the public eye at a given point of time.

    There is also a need to review the system of handling the RTI matters. With more than 80 Central Public Information Officers (CPIOs) handling the task in the ministry and the Service Headquarters, it is quite a task to make out to which CPIO a particular request for information should be addressed. No wonder then that it is not uncommon for the applications to keep getting transferred from one CPIO to another as no one seems to be aware as to where the information asked for by the applicant actually resides.

    This is not in consonance with the spirit of Section 7 of the RTI Act which prescribes a maximum of 30 days for disposal of applications. There should be only one CPIO for each department who could forward the RTI applications to the right persons within the department. But this can be of help only if there is a greater willingness to part with the information.

    The term ‘information’ defined in Section 2 (f) of the RTI Act includes ‘any material in any form, including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, press releases, circulars, orders, logbooks, contracts, reports, papers, samples, models, data material held in any electronic form and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a public authority under any other law for the time being in force’.

    This is a very broad definition which virtually rules out the possibility of any information being denied. And yet, it is not uncommon for the CPIOs to turn down the request on the grounds that the information sought by the applicant does not qualify as ‘information’.

    Also not uncommon is denial of information under Section 8 (1) (a) of the RTI Act which exempts ‘information, disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign State or lead to incitement of an offence’. What gives this an interesting twist is the fact that, all too often, the denied information is found splashed all over the media or is available in the Standing Committee Reports.

    If nothing else, the realisation that denial of information has to be a rare exception will inevitably lead to more responsible decision-making and a greater accountability in the system. This should also pre-empt ill-informed debates and speculation in the public domain, promote some serious academic research in defence studies, bring down the number of requests for information under the RTI Act, 2005 and save precious time of the parliament spent on repeatedly asking questions related to such issues.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.

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