Sunday, March 27, 2011

Where words come out from the depth of truth!

“Privacy is for individuals, the governments try and use secrecy sometimes for legitimate reasons, sometimes for legitimate period of time and most often, for illegitimate reasons. The problem with secrecy is that how do you know it is not be abused.”

Julian Assange (EnC of Wikileaks ) in an interview to The Hindu

Mr. Assange is my latest hero. I have always been a great admirer of Google and its two founders because they showed the way for free flow of information, information about anyone and anything available to everyone. Even the thought is so liberating. I know it is clichéd to say that Information is power, but I also know that it is very true. Free flow of information – availability of it in public domain is however not easy to ensure. Of course, at times it leads to disasters – personal, professional, political and even global; but still the power of information came flooding us with Google. At least it opened the world before frogs-in-the pond like me. Almost everything you want to learn/know/check is just a click away. Good, bad and ugly- world at its naked best is in front of us….but then there is a catch. Google’s world is the cyber world and there was still a big bad world of non-cyber nature which was behind the curtain. An iron curtain one should say. There was hardly any way a commoner can peek behind the curtain. In most countries there are legislations, privileges, rules ensuring “official secrecy”.

There is usually miniscule information in the public domain on political decision making, diplomatic push and pull and the way destinies are written for millions of us. Some years back India adopted a Right to Information law. The idea was to make the governance transparent. All public offices are now open for the common man. This however, happened only in letter, the intent part has been missing badly. The law is today more abused than used. In every public office bureaucrats consider it a big victory if by quoting some or the other clause, or by some clever word play they can refuse the information being asked or at least maintain some level of ambiguity. People are taught to write notes and opinions in a way that it cannot be “caught under RTI”. How very often, my flustered subordinates would complain that I am not being a true “PIO” (Public Information Officer) as I am always in favor of giving all information. Somehow in the Government, we love to conceal information, even if there is nothing wrong in our papers. Let alone RTI, official try their level best to deny and delay documents and information to even statutory audit. Giving information to the clients (common public) in public offices is a taboo. Even giving acknowledgement of papers/application received is often grudged. I guess in our hearts we know that we may not be doing the right thing right way and also, we do not mind the wrong way to ensure never getting caught. The fear applies to politicians, businessmen and diplomats too.
The way Mr. Assange and his organization have opened the floodgate for this concealed information that may be illegal in some countries but surely unstoppable. Of course the Governments of the world are reacting in a very predictable way – therefore, attempts at personal defamation, arrest warrants and discrediting the information. Recently on a couple of occasions our top leaders were found “lying “ publicly and when caught, quoting the technical and legal details tried to get away. First the Radia tapes, then CVC appointment controversy, then ISRO-Devas deal and now the wikileaks. Times are tough for the people who were safely hidden behind the iron curtain. As usual, in my weekly phone call I discussed the issue of Mr. Thomas’s appointment as CVC with my grand Uncle and we got into very philosophical mood. He, as usual told me tales of his times. The stories reach to the core of concept of justice and fair play, so I am tempted to re-tell them here. In British India, an aggrieved employee filed a case against his office (i.e. the crown). In the court he gave details of a file which if produced before court would prove his point. The office was asked to produce the file. A newly recruited babu put up a note to the head of his office urging him to use the privilege of the Crown and not to give that file as in all likelihood- government would lose the case, if the file is given. The head, a seasoned British bureaucrat, replied that the file may be produced before the court immediately. He added that the purpose of having courts is to correct the wrongdoing and dispense justice and if the Government is wrong, it must lose the case. There was of course no “right to information” in those days and if the privilege of the crown was claimed, even the court could not get the information. The employee won the case against the Government in the next hearing. Of course, we do not believe in things like justice, fair play and honesty in those puritan ways any longer. Very recently, one of country’s highest public offices did everything from pressurizing to lying to deny information asked by a scrutinizing agency. I watch such happenings every other day and they no longer shock us. But then there are exceptions, in one of his previous offices my husband had a subordinate who was a proven trouble maker. He had messed up his personal and professional life and was generally disliked by everybody. As head of that office, hubby had his share of problems with this person and was not at all sympathetic when he heard that this person had won a court case against the Government. The case was related to his promotion which this person felt was wrongly denied to him. It was a complicated case and hubby along with most others in the office felt that the government should appeal against the verdict. His arguments went for vetting at his HQ. Except for his Director (Admn) everyone was for appeal even in the headquarters. So the Director - convinced that justice demands this trouble maker should be promoted – referred it for legal opinion. Office lawyer said they should appeal. Next it was sent to the Ministry, they also felt the government should appeal. Undeterred Director decided to refer the case to Ministry of Law. My hubby was flustered with this sympathy. He narrated in detail about the conduct of this person and how he has created many embarrassments for the office. The HQ senior was unperturbed, his argument was that the person’s conduct otherwise should not affect his case and even a troublemaker, deserves justice. The Ministry of Law opined in favour of the petitioner and the case was dropped by the Government. I often ask the question, how I would have behaved if I was in place of his senior. Would I have allowed my opinion to be coloured by the employee’s behavior? Can I see justice is such pure terms?

I do not know the answer. But every time I get an RTI petition, even if I know that the person is seeking the information to defame the Government, to settle some petty score or creating trouble, I find it difficult to refuse or delay. I cannot take abuse of a law as an excuse for denying use of it. Think about it – how good it feels if you know you are being treated fairly. How satisfactory one feels if one knows that he got his due. Then why do we want to keep the public information private – hiding it from the very people it is meant for.


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MARCH said...

Is not it strange that the country which believes in सत्यमेव जयते has its rulers and bureaucrats afraid of Truth and striving so hard to hide it rather than using the same brain and energy to reveal it? This strange behaviour crops up from the lack of confidence in the paper’s flawlessness, ‘Even if there is nothing wrong in their papers’. Disregard for accountability towards the general public is the main culprit. Who are they (the general public) to ask? A typical manifestation of the ruler and subjects mindset. People in the government sector work for their bosses. They feel they are only accountable to their bosses. It’s very difficult to find Government Servants who refuse to follow bosses dictates which are against basic principles of public service and even lesser who dare to record the same in the files. They oppose their bosses but only against the policies affecting their perks and benefits. What is lacking; willpower or concern?

Whatever good or bad use the RTI act may have been put to, Govt officers are aware of this never before powerful tool in the hands of their true masters i.e., the general public. ‘Work for the boss mindset’ is changing though woefully slowly. Bureaucrats no longer approve the proposals submitted by subordinates in good faith Subordinates too have become conscious of what they propose in the file and they don’t forget to highlight the circumstances in which a decision is taken even disclosing the correct origin of the decision that they are ordered to ‘propose’, so that they are not held responsible for something if they are ‘proposing’ under orders from higher authority.

Though the dishonest and greedy will always find one or two loopholes left to escape responsibility, even those who subscribe to high moral values sometimes are tempted to behave unethically. When they are caught they have to create one or the other rationalisations to prove the act as ethical. One of my friends had forwarded me this list of ethical tests which I find extremely useful to test any decision in case of dilemma:
1) Does it violate the obvious “shall nots”? Although many people realize that “thou shall not lie, or cheat or steal” they do it anyway. So instead of thinking of a way around such prohibitions (e.g. by convincing yourself that “it’s acceptable in this situation”) avoid violating these well-established societal rules altogether.
2) Will anyone get hurt? Philosophers consider an action to be ethical to the extent that it brings the greatest good to the greatest number. Thus if someone may be harmed in any way as a result of your actions, you should probably rethink your decision; it’s probably unethical.
3) How would you feel if your decision was reported on the front page of your newspaper (after someone digs it out using RTI)? If your decision is really ethical, you wouldn’t have any reason to worry about having it made public. (In fact, you’d probably be pleased to receive the publicity). However, if you find yourself uneasy about answering, this question affirmatively, the decision you are contemplating may be unethical.
4) What if you did it 100 times? Sometimes an unethical action does not seem so bad because it’s done only once. In such a case, the damage might not be so bad, although the action still might not be ethical. However, if the act you’re contemplating appears to be more wrong if it were done 100 times, then it’s probably also wrong the first time.
5) How would you feel if someone did it to you? If something you are thinking of doing to another really is ethical, you would probably find it acceptable even if your situations were reversed. Thus, if you have any doubts as to how you’d feel being the person affected by your decision, you may wish to reconsider.
6) What are you gut feeling? Sometimes things just look bad-probably because they are. If you actions are unethical, you probably can tell by listening to that little voice inside your head. The trick is to listen to that voice and to silence the one that tells you to do otherwise.

MARCH said...

Admittedly, considering these questions will not transform a devil into an angel, but in case some Govt Servant really wants to avoid the embarrassment on things getting dug out by the public using RTI, they are useful to avoid the misdeed before they are done.

Atoorva said...

Dear March, as a public servant at times even after taking all precautions, I will commit mistakes...SO what!! I should be open to admit them and I see no problem as long as there was no malafide . Its not the confidence of quality of decision but the vanity which prevents us from parting with information.
Who am I to judge or question why the person needs the information- its his prerogative to ask and my duty to provide. But then...even the best of officers do not want what we call "RTI mess!!"