In an important and welcome observation, the second Administrative Reforms Commission has recommended scrapping of the 83-year-old Official Secrets Act (OSA) saying it was out of place with the regime of transparency in a democratic society. In its first report, submitted to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh by the Commission Chairman Veerapa Moily it advocated a slew of measures for “effective implementation” of Right to Information Act at all levels including judiciary and legislature. It suggested that the Official Secrets Act of 1923 be repealed and suitable safeguards to protect the security of the state incorporated in the National Security Act (NSA).
There is no doubt that the biggest problem with the OSA is that it facilitates clandestine deals, arbitrary decisions, manipulations and embezzlements. By legalizing secrecy in administration, the OSA remains a barrier towards having an open and accountable government. Once the OSA is scrapped or at least rationalized, the transparency that it will renew, with every detail being exposed to the public view, should go a long way in curtailing corruption in public life.
A few ago the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) had circulated a “Zero Tolerance Action Plan on Corruption” to all the State governments wherein it was observed that obsolete laws and time consuming bureaucratic procedures are the breeding ground for corruption. The CVC had likewise recommended what is called ‘the principle of the sunset laws’ so that no law will be on the statute book for more than five years or ten years unless it is re-enacted and re-promulgated after careful examination. The CVC was of the view that obsolete laws should not be allowed to clutter the system. The recommendation of the Moily Committee calling for the scrapping of the OSA is therefore in tune with the sunset principle and an important pre-requisite towards a corruption free system.
That the right to information is the key to good governance and having, already acquired a legal framework under the Right to Information Act it therefore makes non-sense of continuing with an archaic clog such as the OSA. If one may say so, having the OSA is completely flawed and continuing with this veil of secrecy may well defeat the very purpose of giving constitutional sanction to what is undoubtedly a revolutionary piece of legislation (RTI) to have been inked. It therefore makes sense for the government to do away with this old remnant of the British Colonial system. As an occupying political power, the British colonizers could safeguard their vital interests under the cloak of secrecy provided by the OSA. An independent India that was sovereign and a democratic republic had no need of such a system that was antithetical to a regime of transparency and more so when political power was itself derived from the people.
The spate of corruption scams and abuse of authority within the system goes to show the want of a legal framework to address the mal-functioning of the State’s polity and administration which continues to work on the British Colonial practice of the Official Secrets Act. There is no doubt that this lack of transparency happens to be one of the main causes for the all pervading corruption taking place. Knowing that the barrier to information is the single most important factor responsible for corruption in the system, the ground that gives birth to this rot has to be unsoiled. For this, the law that promote illness in the system has to be got rid of before it kills the body politic.