Case for a Duty to Publish Act

The Times of India
Publication Date: 
Sunday, 12 December 2004

Dear Sonia Gandhi,

Let me congratulate you as head of the National Advisory Council on drafting a new Right to Information (RTI) bill for the coming Parliament session. Corruption and nepotism have spread like cancer because the public has no information on what is happening to revenues and expenditures. Your new bill will empower citizens to demand details of contracts and procedures, exposing corruption and nepotism.

Improving on the 2002 Act, your new bill provides for annual disclosures on operations by departments, monetary penalties on errant officers, and an independent appellate authority at the centre and state levels to enforce deadlines on releasing information. Hopefully, the many exemptions in the earlier law will be pruned.

I welcome the new proposals, but feel they do not go far enough. A better approach has been proposed by Parth Shah of the Centre for Civil Society. We need a Duty to Publish (DTP) Act rather than a Right to Information (RTI) Act.

Eight states have implemented their own RTI legislation, but not ended corruption or secrecy. The deep-seated bureaucratic culture of giving the minimum possible information remains. Getting information out of governments is like getting water out of stone. Besides, if you do not know in advance where hera-pheri is going on, you cannot even ask for the relevant information.

Far better would be a Duty to Publish (DTP) law that makes it obligatory for the government to put all relevant information on contracts, spending and revenue on websites for public viewing. This would shift the onus of transparency from citizens to the government.

Instead of citizens having to ferret out every little bit of information, the government would have to justify keeping any information at all from the public. Transparency would be the norm, not something to be extracted by petitions and tortuous procedures.

People might tell you that it is physically impossible to copy millions of pages from all government files for public viewing. But, thanks to the advance of the internet, cyberspace has created an infinite amount of space for storing and viewing documents.

Storage has become dirt cheap: millions of pages can be compressed and stored at almost zero cost. Extracting relevant information from millions of pages has been made easy by the development of search engines (like Google): just type in a few key words and all the files with those key words are displayed for your examination.

Problem: most government files are paper files. A major effort is required to scan all of them and feed them into appropriate websites. But we have a veritable army of Class IV employees who, with a limited amount of training, can do the scanning and feeding. This is a mechanical task requiring minimal skills.

Still, the paper-to-computer transformation is unsatisfactory. So you should, simultaneously, aim to create a paperless government that functions entirely by computer and internet.

Malaysia has long been working to achieve a paperless government. India, as a world leader in information technology (IT), needs to do the same. You, madam, can steal the thunder from Chandrababu Naidu on this one. A paperless government will, by itself, reduce the scope for corruption, and what remains can more easily be exposed through a DTP website.

Technology has now reduced the price of IT so dramatically that all government offices can be equipped very cheaply. After hovering around $1,000 in the 1990s, the price of a powerful personal computer has fallen today to $500. Using Linux open-source software rather than Microsoft, Wal-Mart is able to sell PCs for just $200. And AMD has now come out with a Personal Internet Communicator for just $138 or Rs 6,000!

In inflation-adjusted terms, this is as cheap as a typewriter in the 1970s. PCs are available in India for Rs 10,000. At such low prices, 100% computerisation of government offices will not be expensive at all. Training staff to use computers will probably present greater difficulty.

Many government offices, especially in rural areas, suffer from erratic electricity. But HCL’s recent RP2 model has an in-built Uninterrupted Power Supply mechanism, that keeps going for hours when the electric supply fails. Moreover, by 2006, the new Wi-Max technology will, with some broadband expansion, make possible universal internet access across the country at minimal cost.

In sum, technology has greatly reduced the cost of both paperless government and DTP at just the right time. It makes the Right to Information concept somewhat obsolete.

So, Madam Sonia, please upgrade your Right to Information bill into a Duty to Publish bill. Call it part of a new IT With a Human Face approach. Opposition IT stalwarts like Chandrababu Naidu and Pramod Mahajan will writhe with envy.