Readers may remember the furore in the Rajya Sabha of Indian Parliament (Upper House) on 9th July
when an Hon'ble Member raised an issue of destruction of files of historical value as alleged in news reports published that day. Several members expressed their concern over this alleged files destruction. First, the Union Minister for Law and Justice denied that any file of historical importance was destroyed and the Government agreed to come out with a statement two days later. On 11th July
, the Union Home Minister made a statement in the House denying that any files of historical significance were destroyed. He reported that 11,100 files containing an unspecified number of papers were destroyed between June-July, 2014
pursuant to the directions of the Prime Minister to the Secretaries of all Departments. This matter was discussed again next week on the 14th, with the Home Minister giving some more clarifications on the issue. The unofficial verbatim text of the debates for the 9th, 11th and 14th of June are accessible on the Rajya Sabha website at: http://22.214.171.124/debatenew/newshow.aspx
. Please look under the records for debates during the Zero Hour on those days. I am not circulating a copy of the debates as that would amount to violation of the practice and procedure of Parliament. Only official and corrected versions of the debate may be published by any person.
Having read news reports of the debate on the destruction of a large number of files, I submitted a request for information under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act) asking the following information. The reply received is keyed below each query (see attachment):
1) A clear photocopy of the list containing the subject matter of each of the 11,100 files and records that were weeded out/destroyed by your Ministry along with a clear indication of their categorization- such as Category A’, ‘B’ and C’’ accorded to them prior to such destruction;
Reply: List of files which are destroyed is being compiled. This can be made available in due course on payment of requisite fee. You may write to us if so desired.
2) The number of the Officer(s) of your Ministry along with their designations who authorised the clearing of the said files and papers (names are not required);
Reply: A copy of letter No. NIL dated 05.06.2014 from the Cabinet Secretary is attached. Para (f) thereof refers.
3) The designation(s) of the representative(s) of the National Archives that were present at the time of weeding out of the said files as required under para #113 of the Central Secretariat Manual of Office Procedure (names are not required);
Reply: -do (i.e., same as above reply).
4) A clear photocopy of the half-yearly report of the records weeded out during the latest clearing exercise, prepared by your Ministry for submission to the Director General Archives, as per Rule 9(4) of the Public Records Rules, 1997;
Reply: No such report has been sent to National Archives of India.
5) The exact number and subject matter of files originally classified: “top secret”, “secret” and “confidential” that were declassified and deposited with the Director General, National Archives of India under Rule 7(3) of the Public Records Rules, 1997, if any;
6) The exact number and subject matter of files accorded with the security classification: “top secret”, “secret” and “confidential” that were weeded out, if any;
7) A clear description of the manner of disposal of the records that were cleared, namely the number of files incinerated (burned) and/or shredded."
Reply: Record Retention Schedule of MHA is available on the website of MHA (Website:mha.gov.in). This list can be made available on payment of requisite fee.
What is problematic with this reply?
The Public Information Officer's reply is more vague than the Home Minister's statements in the Rajya Sabha for the following reasons:
1) Even after more than a month of destroying the 11,100 files, the MHA does not have, in one comprehensive list, details of all files that were destroyed.
Having looked at records management practices in some detail during my decade-long career of advocating for transparency in government, I find it surprising that the MHA went about destroying files without even preparing a list of files for review, first. The Home Minister stated in the Rajya Sabha that records were weeded out in accordance with Para #113 of the Central Secretariat's Manual of Office Procedure (CS-MOP). Para #113(4) states that the Department records room must send a list of files ripe for reviewing and destruction/ archivisation in January each year in quarterly lots. The PIO's reply that the even the list of files that were weeded out has not been compiled till date indicates that the procedure for properly identifying files for weeding out was simply not followed.
The CS-MOP is available at: http://darpg.nic.in/darpgwebsite_cms/Document/file/CSMOP.pdf
Further, Section 4(1)(a) of the RTI Act states that all public authorities including the MHA must index, catalogue, computerise and network the records they hold in custody. If the MHA's divisions did not have a preliminary list of files to be reviewed for destruction, how exactly did the weeding out process take place? Did the 500 officers whom the Home Minister stated as being involved in the weeding out exercise, simply walked to the records rooms or the shelves where the old files were kept and started weeding them out one by one? The refusal to give details of this process both to Parliament when the issue was debated and now when a request is made under RTI, is shocking to say the least. What worsens the case is the audacity of the PIO's reply sent more than 30 days after the request was received in the MHA that the information will be given only on payment of fees. Under the RTI Act it is simply not open to a PIO to charge any fees for giving information after 30 days. Nor can the supply of information be deferred to a date beyond 30 days.
2) The Home Minister informed Parliament that 500 officials were involved in the weeding out exercise. No further details were given. When I asked for only the designations of such officers because officers of all grades and ranks are not permitted to authorise destruction of official records, a vague reply is given to me. Para (f) of the Cabinet Secretary's letter only states that the entire process of weeding out files must be done in accordance with rules of record keeping including digitisation within 3-4 weeks.The PIO's reply to this query is simply not a sensible reply at all. Let alone the names, even the designations of the officers who authorised destruction of files is being denied under the RTI Act in a roundabout manner. This is not in keeping with the promise of transparency that was made when this Government took over the reins of power in Delhi. Citizen taxpayers have the right to know who authorised the destruction of files, as the salary billl for the officers' time spent on this work is footed by them.
3) Para #113(2) of the CS-MOP requires that records that are more than 25 years old be reviewed for archivisation in consultation with the National Archives. However the PIO's reply indicates that National Archives was not consulted at all during this weeding our process. So how old were the records that were weeded out is a serious question which was not satisfactorily answered either in Parliament or in response to my RTI application.
4) Para #113(7) of the CS-MOP requires that Category 'A' and 'B' records that are not weeded out be sent to the Archives for preservation, if not required for reference within the Department. These records are meant for preservation for 25 years or more. However the PIO's reply indicates that no file classified 'top secret', 'secret' or 'confidential' was sent to the National Archives in June-July, 2014. It is only obvious that files of shorter lifespan would also not have been sent to the Archives for preservation as they may not contain information of historical value that is worth preserving. What then was destroyed in June-July 2014 is a mystery that neither the Home Minister's reply in the Rajya Sabha nor the PIO's reply clarifies. The only saving grace is that no classified record (i.e., top secret, secret or confidential) was destroyed. Even there we simply have to take the MHA's word for it.
5) The PIO's reply to my query about the manner of destruction is also vague. According to the CS-MOP records may be destroyed either by shredding or burning. The answer to my query has to be "one of the two" or "both" depending upon the choice of mode of destruction made by the MHA. Nevertheless I looked through the MHA's website but could not find the record retention (RR) schedule anywhere on the website. The 3-4 line explanation given under Section 4(1)(b) RTI manuals under clauses (iii), (iv), (v) and (vi) is childish and shows scant respect for a law made by Parliament. These manuals have not been updated since they were first drawn up several years ago. See: http://mha.nic.in/infoundrsec
However is readers find the RR schedule on the MHA's website, kindly alert me and I will reconsider my views on this subject.
The Hon'ble Home Minister and his senior officers have a lot of 'homework' to do if they are to truly deliver on the Hon'ble Prime Minister's promise of increased transparency in the Central Government's actions and greater accountability to the people of India. This kind of transparency cannot be accomplished through Twitter or Facebook or other social media. What is required to be done is something akin to what Norway has done with its offcial records. See http:oep.no The meta data about all files generated and held by public authorities is published online. A request under their RTI law may be made for any of these documents through this website. If a requested document is not covered by any exemption, it is emailed to the requestor within a week. I have received some official documents in this manner when I tested out this facility. India has a lot of work to do if it wants to join the groups of nations that practise the transparency they preach.