Consentia on Multidisciplinary Research

CONTRIBUTION OF THE RIGHT TO INFORMATION

Theme: RIGHT TO INFORMATION ACT: “A JOURNEY FROM OPAQUENESS TO TRANSPARENCY”

PART I
INTRODUCTION

“There is not a crime, there is not dodge, there is not a trick, and there is not a swindle which does not live by secrecy. Get these things out in the open, describe them, attack them, ridicule them in the press, and sooner or later public opinion will sweep them away.”

–  JOSEPH PULITZER

In a democracy like ours, people and not the government is supreme. It is in these circumstances that every citizen of country has a right to know what the government is doing in its name to adjudge the performance of the government by getting information on each and every decision being taken by the government.[1] No democratic government can survive without accountability and the basic postulate of accountability is that the people should have information about the functioning of the government. It is only if people know how government is functioning that they can fulfill the role which democracy assigns to them and make democracy a really effective participatory democracy. One of the framers of the American Constitution, James Madison wrote

“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives. A popular government without popular information or the means of obtaining it is but a prologue to a farce or tragedy or perhaps both.” [2]

The citizen’s right to know the fact, the true facts, about the administration of the country is thus one of the pillars of a democratic state and that is why the demand for openness in the government is increasingly growing in different parts of the world.[3] India may be the world’s largest democracy, but it is still governed by a vast and powerful bureaucracy. For much of India’s history, that bureaucracy has been largely opaque and unaccountable, legitimized by leftover vestiges of colonial rule, such as the official Secrets Act, 1923. The Right to Information Act (RTI), passed in 2005, put that power into the hands of India’s 1.2 billion citizens, creating an information revolution that spread across the country. The RTI Act, spearheaded by Roy’s organization MKSS, was designed to level the playing field between the government and the people. It requires all authorities to appoint public information officers and to respond to requests for information within 30 days, giving citizens the power to demand accountability from bureaucrats and politicians. Moreover, the law has teeth- it is backed by tough fines for government officials who withhold information, which encourages compliance.[4] Right to Information had been held as implicit in the right of free speech and expression guaranteed under Article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution.[5] The Right to Information Act, 2005 has therefore been enacted to guarantee the right to information of the citizen. Justice S.Ravindra Bhatt has observed that

“By fell stroke, under the Act, the maze of procedures and official barriers that had previously impeded information has been swept aside. The citizens and information seekers have, subject to few exceptions, an overriding right to be given information on matters in the possession of the state and public agencies that are covered by the act. The enactment seeks to promote transparency, arrest corruption and to hold the government and its instrumentalities accountable to the governed.”[6]

The importance of RTI can be judged from the report of National Commission to Review the working of Constitution under the Chairmanship of Justice M.N Venkatachaliah, wherein it was pointed out as under: Government procedures and regulations shrouded in veil of secrecy do not allow the clients to know how their cases are being handled. They shy away from questioning officers handling their cases because of the latter’s snobbish attitude and bow-wow style. The traditional insistence on secrecy should be discarded.[7] In fact, we should have an oath of transparency in place of an oath of secrecy. Administration should become transparency and participatory.[8]

Democracy means government of the people, by the people, and for the people. However, if the citizens are ignorant of the decisions taken by the government and reasons advanced for the same there can be no government by the people. The public has a fundamental right to know what the government has been doing in its name.[9]

PART II
SUCCESS OF RTI

Rather than just providing ‘Information’ as defined technically, RTI Act has served to be an effective watchdog to make all those coming in purview of the Act to be extremely cautious to do their work only in accordance with rules and without any irregularities. The Indian President Shri Pranab Mukherjee said that the experience of first eight years of the RTI is that, it is an important instrument of improving governance.[10] In India, the RTI has helped providing legal empowerment by giving ordinary citizens the feeling that the government is accountable to them. In the first three years the law went into effect, more than two million applications spread across the country. Today, people use the law for everything from inquiring why a long-promised road hasn’t been built in their village, to getting access to subsidized housing loans without having to pay a bribe, to determining whether public health workers are actually showing up at their clinics. The RTI Act holds as much importance for the business sector, academics, media, and civil society. Employment, environmental standards, food security, human rights, and other key issues are inextricably linked to the right to information. The right to information, especially in regards to government transparency, bolsters the rule of law. Currently India scores just below the halfway point on the WJP Rule of Law Index for Open Government, however, the proposed amendments to the RTI stand to lower its ranking. [11] In the words of Aruna Roy[12],

“…perhaps the only real argument for the credibility of India’s government has been the enactment and implementation of the RTI Act which has kept the intent of a free and open system of governance afloat.” 

The enactment of RTI Act 2005 has been produced, consumed and celebrated as an important event of democratic deepening in India both in terms of the process that led to its enactment as well as its outcome. In the past few years, RTI has helped expose several scandals at the national and state levels including the ‘Adarsh Housing Scam’ in Mumbai, in which politicians and civil servants appropriated for themselves and their kin apartments meant for Kargil War widows; the mismanagement of the Commonwealth Games in 2010, and the irregularities in the allocation of 2G spectrum and licenses in 2008.[13] One of the simple and yet very powerful example of use of the RTI is a 30-year-old daily wage laborer Sadashiv from Banda district of Uttar Pradesh who secured grocery entitlement due to him on his ration card not only for himself but his fellow villagers after using the RTI tool to question the system. Another such example is of women in Chitrakoot in Uttar Pradesh who ensured that their children get the free school uniform and books under the central government’s education programme where within one month of filing of application, not only Bharthaul but students in all government primary schools in Chitrakoot area got their uniforms and books. In metropolitan area, the awareness level is still better and the condition of the government departments is still better. But these examples of poor and uneducated villagers using RTI Act are commendable. Such instances highlight the real power of the RTI Act.[14]

One of the biggest takeaways in the last eight years is that the Act has not been tampered with yet. Although the Government has tried to put statutory restrictions in the past, it failed to do so owing to tremendous public pressure.[15] According to study by Nayak’s organization[16], at least two million RTI applications have been filed with public authorities under the Union government and 10 State governments over the last one year. This is only for 11 jurisdictions. If one extrapolates the number to the entire country, this would stand to over four million queries in a year, a number equal to the electoral strength of four parliamentary constituents. [17]

 

 

PART III

CONCLUSION

By enacting the RTI Act India has moved from an opaque and arbitrary system of government to the beginning of an era where there will be greater transparency and to a system where the citizens will be empowered and the true centre of power.[18] The success of the landmark legislation is often credited to citizens who have been relentlessly harnessing it as an act of public good to redress personal grievances, to expose public scandals, and to compel authorities to be more accountable. But now, the RTI Act is being threatened. Indian government is considering amendments to the RTI Act in the coming session of Parliament that would clip the wings of the law by negating an order declaring that political parties are considered public authorities under the RTI Act. It is likely that these amendments will also seek to curtail other entitlements that have established the ability of the RTI to fight corruption and the arbitrary use of power by the government.  The Act has had dangerous repercussions as well, there have been violent attacks on RTI activists, and some have been killed like M.P activist Shehla Masood in 2011, Gujarat activist Amit Jethava and many more. With such blatant corruption within the system it is not surprising that so many activists are being killed.  It is high time to address these issues and also the democratic system needs a complete makeover. Unfortunately, if things do not change then the RTI Act will end up being a curse rather than a boon for Indian democracy.[19]

[1] Dr.J.N Barowalia, Commentary on The Right to Information Act  14 (Universal Law Publishing Co., 2006)

[2] Dr. R.K. Verma, Right to Information, Law and Practice 1.70 (Taxman Publication, 2nd ed.)

[3] S.P Gupta v. U.O.I, (1982) 2 SCR 365

[4] Radha Friedman, India’s landmark Right to Information Act under threat: Will it still be world’s largest democracy without accountability?, July 31, 2013 available at: http://worldjusticeproject.org/blog/india%E2%80%99s-landmark-right-information-act-under-threat-will-it-still-be-world%E2%80%99s-largest-democracy- [last visited on November 7, 2013 at 11:00 hrs.]

[5] Bennett Coleman v. Union of India, AIR 1973 SC 106

[6] Delhi High Court decision dated 3.12.2007 in WP(C) no. 3114/2007, Bhagat Singh v. Chief Information Commissioner, (2008) 146 DLT 385

[7] State of U.P v. Raj Narain, AIR 1975 SC 865, 1975 SCR (3) 333

[8] C.M. Bindal & Anshu Bindal, The Right to Information Act, 2005 23 (Ketan Thakkar, Snow White Publication Pvt. Ltd., 1st ed. 2009)

[9] Regina v. Shayler, [2002] UKHL 11

[10] One World South Asia, Pranab Mukherjee praises RTI on completing 8 years, September 2, 2013 available at: http://southasia.oneworld.net/news/pranab-mukherjee-praises-rti-on-completing-8-years [last visited November 10, 2013 at 18:00 hrs.]

[11] Friedman, supra note 4

[12] An Indian political and social activist who founded and heads the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathana – Workers and Peasants Strength Union.

[13]Anuja, Eight Years of The Right to Information Act, Livemint & The Wall Street Journal, Oct 10, 2013 available at:  http://www.livemint.com/Politics/LOL1i67xjQHTe3FgIB5y4J/Eight-years-of-the-Right-to-Information-Act.html [last visited November 9, 2013 at 10:00 hrs]

[14]India News Post, 4years of RTI: Grassroots users share success stories, October 11, 2009 available at: http://www.indianewspost.com/general/right-to-information-indianewspost/9343-4_years_of_rti_grassroots_users_share_success_stories.html [last visited November 10, 2013 at 16:00 hrs.]

[15] Venkatesh Nayak, Information Programmee of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative in New Delhi

[16] Id.

[17] Anuja, supra note 13

[18] Bharti Chibber, Right to Information Act: An Instrument for Stronger and Vibrant Democratic Process in India, XLVI Mainstream Weekly, 15 (March 29, 2013) available at: http://www.mainstreamweekly.net/article603.html [last visited November 12, 2013 at 15:00 hrs.]

[19] DP Bhattacharya, Attack on RTI activists on rise, Headlines Today, March 10, 2011 available at, http://indiatoday.intoday.in/story/whistleblowers-unsafe-attack-on-rti-activists-on-rise/1/131985.html [last visited November 4, 2013 at 11:00 hrs.]

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