Transparency is the answer
The Delhi police recently swooped down on some low-level government functionaries who were stealing documents from government departments. The police later discovered that these officials—who were photocopying documents on an industrial scale and then selling them to business consultants and large corporations — were just bit players in a larger conspiracy comprising a complex web of bureaucrats, consultants and business houses. Among those arrested was Santanu Saikia, a former journalist, who was thriving on this apparently lucrative business. Interestingly, till the time of writing no one has really hinted at the involvement of a ‘foreign hand’ or alleged that the documents were being leaked to foreign countries or companies. The net outcome of this clampdown has been that bureaucrats or ‘public servants’ are being discouraged to meet the public and especially those people described as ‘information seekers’. A senior official is being appointed to find ways to block the flow of information in the name of security. This has serious implications for those who make a living from gathering information and crunching it. Journalists and lobbyists will be badly hit if the government begins to zealously build walls of secrecy around itself.
These moves are decidedly anachronistic. What will the government gain by hiding decisionmaking? Who will really benefit from it? Also, how was the government hurt when its documents were leaked? As well, would the honchos of top corporate houses know about the process of decision making on key subjects through leaks alone or would they have the necessary access to the ministers and senior bureaucrats to know the bases on which decisions are made? No one is foolish enough to believe that the Ambanis, the Essars or the Tatas really need low-level government employees to photocopy documents for them. In reality, the drafts of government policies often come from business houses or chambers of commerce. Some of the states don’t even have the competence to draft their own budgets and here again industrial houses with formidable resources are pressed into service to put together a ‘business-friendly budget’. This has usually meant preserving monopolistic tendencies and preventing other business houses’ access to local markets. In fact, Raghuram Rajan, the Reserve Bank of India Governor, has expressed his concern over the inability of state governments to craft a good budget. In short, when you don’t have competence to take coherent decisions on policy issues then what are you trying to hide? Perhaps incompetence! This latest endeavour to plumb all the leaks in the system has come from politicians in their sixties and seventies who aren’t cognizant of how dramatically the world has changed since people got access to the Internet. They are of the firm belief that governments can only function in secrecy and when no one is asking uncomfortable questions. This is utter nonsense as many governments have found to their embarrassment! We are living in an age of transparency and nothing highlights it more than the dramatic impact WikiLeaks has had on the world. When WikiLeaks got its hands on a trove of US government documents and exposed it through a network of media organisations, it showed how criminalised democratically-elected governments have become. Worse, these governments—especially the US government—misinterpreted national interest to wage wars and destroy countries. Millions have been killed in the Middle East and Afghanistan after the US unleashed war on terror. WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange, who is paying for his foolhardiness in taking on the US and is holed up in one room of the Ecuadorean embassy in London, made it amply clear that people weren’t willing to take governments at face value. Citizens have been empowered by information available on the Internet and want greater participation in decision making. As a rule, they are uncomfortable with opacity and lack of access to knowledge that is the sole preserve of elected officials or bureaucrats. They do not want to be treated as the sudras of yore who were blinded if they tried to read holy scriptures. If the government wants to build its credibility then it should endeavour to become transparent so that there is little need for people to be pilfering documents. Also, it would serve as a check on the government that may try to reward those cronies or foreign companies that may have funded the organisation, and so on, in the past.
It may be recalled that Saikia, in an earlier brush with the Official Secrets Act, ran into a sympathetic judge who asked the government: “How can all government documents be declared as classified?” It’s time the elected representatives elect to be different!