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ARTICLE: CORPORATE SECTOR UNDER RTI
Tuesday, 31 January 2012 09:22

CORPORATE SECTOR UNDER RTI


Recently, this discourse came to the forefront that should the corporate sector also come under the ambit of Right to Information (RTI). The came as a result of the current Infosys chief, Mr. S. Gopalakrishnan, rejecting outrightly the idea of bringing corporate under the ambit of the RTI Act. Infosys being a renowned representative of the India Inc, this issue soon snowballed into a debate forum.

 

As the discourse builds up with participants on both sides of the spectrum equally sounding to be logical, further elaboration from the Emeritus Chairman of Infysys is eagerly awaited. The influence that Mr. N.R. Narayana Murthy wields over civil society is far greater than what one would expect to flow from his official position as the emeritus chairman of Infosys.

 

It is good that this eagerly awaited anamoly has come to the public forum. Corporate governance, too, would have remained an issue confined to the end pages of company annual reports, or the subject matter of post-luncheon discussions in industry for a, had it not been for his forceful advocacy of governance issues, which eventually led to the industry adopting a stringent code of ethics on corporate governance, as well as important changes in the law. In other words, when Mr. Murthy speaks, the decision-making world listens. So, one assumes, would Infosys, the company he founded, and with which his name is still inextricably linked in the public mind.

 

RTI Ambit:

Which is why it was disappointing to see the current Infosys chief, Mr. S. Gopalakrishnan, rejecting outright the idea of bringing corporate under the ambit of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. The RTI Act is itself under attack, with a beleaguered government rattled by a series of scams – many exposed with the help of the RTI Act – mounting a campaign to push for dilution of the existing provision.

 

Meanwhile, the bureaucracy, whose acts of omission and commission have been ruthlessly exposed by RTI activists, chimes in with its own attempts to ensure that information is not shared. In fact, even the Prime Minister himself has lent his voice to the “re-look at RTI” chorus. So, when Infosys, with the implied weight of Mr. Murthy behind it, comes out strongly against it, the demand is bound to be looked at even more sceptically than it already is.

 

“The RTI was created for a specific purpose to bring in certain level-playing field between citizens and the government. But to expand that beyond that (purpose)…. We should be very careful,” Mr. Gopalakrishnan said at a recent Confederation of Indian Industry meeting.

 

His argument against getting private enterprises under the RTI ambit was that there are industry-specific regulators entrusted with the job of public oversight.

 

There is also the argument that private enterprises, by definition, fall outside the purview of monitoring by government bodies, and that any private enterprise is accountable, first and last, to its shareholders alone.

 

There is considerable merit in such arguments.

 

It is also valid to argue that private enterprises should, apart from complying with the laws of the land, be held accountable only by their shareholders who have invested their capital in the venture.

 

While all these arguments make for a good case against bringing the private sector under the RTI, the demand to bring private enterprises, at least party, under the RTI ambit is not as unreasonable as it is made out to be.

 

The government is the single biggest customer in the country. A plethora of goods and services required by the government are provided by the private sector, and one can justifiably argue that any private entity which provides something under contract on behalf of the government is engaged in public activity which is indistinguishable from that of the government, and should, therefore, be covered by the same laws.

 

Then there are so-called public-private partnerships (PPPs), which fall into a more grey area. While most PPPs are technically private entities, a significant part of their assets are contributed by the government, in addition to funding.

 

Blurred Distinctions:

As the dividing line between what is provided by the government and what is provided by private activity gets increasingly blurred as a result of reforms and downsizing of government, in general there are a growing number of facilities and services which used to be considered the responsibility of government but are today carried out by the private sector.

 

It is not unreasonable to ask that such activities, at least, be open to scrutiny by the people for whom  they are meant, and in whose name they are carried out.

 

The ‘regulator’ argument is also deceptive. First off, there are very few independent, constitutionally empowered regulators in India. Even in sectors where a regulator exists, such as telecom or power, there has been considerable dissatisfaction amongst ordinary consumers about how effectively such regulators are actually safeguarding their interests. Besides, there is an anomaly in recognizing the right to information (of a kind, at least) of a shareholder, whose actual investment in a company many be as low as a rupee, while completely excluding the right to know of the enormous section of the public which actually keeps the private sector alive and well – the consumer.

 

“The consumer is king” is a dearly held motto of the private sector. Doesn’t the king has a right to know, then?