RTI Act puts library in a quandary

Anita Joshua

NEW DELHI: Constitutional expert A. G. Noorani’s attempt to access the ‘Haksar Papers’ in the Nehru Memorial Museum & Library (NMML) under the Right to Information (RTI) Act has put the institution — with a sizable collection of “closed papers” such as the Edwina-Nehru correspondence which has never been accessed by anyone — in a quandary.

Since the Government funds the NMML it is a public authority and the public can access all papers in its collection. According to an expert committee set up by the NMML, categories such as “closed collections” or “restrictive access” have become redundant under the RTI unless they qualify for exemptions provided under Section 8(1) of the Act.

Given the fact that the NMML has built its collection primarily through donations, it has a number of private papers which are “closed.” While some have never been accessed by anyone, select scholars have been allowed “monitored access” to some documents as per conditions laid down by the donors.

Change in situation

The situation has changed under the RTI though Mr. Noorani was the first person to use the Act to secure access to documents.

This prised open the issue for the institution and it became part of the agenda of the NMML Executive Council last weekend.

The Council was informed about the advice of the expert committee set up to look at the NMML’s access policy in the light of the RTI.

As per the experts, the NMML would have to change its existing 30-year embargo on documents and it can no longer deny access to private papers more than 20 years old. Earlier, archival rules provided for a 30-year embargo. Under the RTI, this embargo has been reduced by 10 years.

In the case of private papers, the only concession is that the donor is allowed a hearing after which it is for the RTI mechanism of the institution to take a view. This is an area of particular concern for the NMML and the fear is that apprehension of disclosure under the RTI would discourage people from sending their papers to the institution.

Conceding the point, particularly vis-À-vis privacy, Shekhar Singh of the National Campaign for People’s Right to Information said the best alternative for the institution under the circumstances would be to advise donors of closed papers to take them back since the rules of access had changed. However, the RTI activist — who was among the eight experts consulted — said even this would be subject to the understanding arrived at between the donor and the NMML at the time of making the donation.

Faced with the need to tailor its access policy in line with the RTI, the NMML has decided to convene a meeting of archive managers from across the country later this month to review the prevailing practices, including the limitation on the quantum of material that can be reproduced.

Under the RTI, every public institution has to provide photocopies of whatever information an applicant seeks whereas the NMML now allows only a quarter of a file to be photocopied in the lifetime of a scholar for fear of creation of parallel archives.

The Hindu : National : RTI Act puts library in a quandary