Consentia on Multidisciplinary Research

RIGHT TO INFORMATION ITSELF UNINFORMED TO PUBLIC: AN IMPASSE

(I) Prologue

 “A popular Government without popular information or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy or perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own Governors must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.” – James Madison

 Accountability and transparency are the very essence of a democratic system of governance. In a democracy, the principle of “Accountability” holds that the democratic government must be answerable, must take responsibility of its actions and must be reasonable towards the sovereign or to some superior external body. Likewise, “Transparency” requires that the decisions and functions of the government must be open to scrutiny of the sovereign and that the sovereign must have the right to access such information.[1]

During the Indian republic in 1950, the people of India gave themselves the largest Constitution ever and solemnly resolved among them self to constitute India into a Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic[2]. This made India the largest democracy in the world with the lengthiest Constitution ever found and the “People of India”, the sovereign of the nation. The people being the sovereign and having resolved as above mentioned have adopted the Democratic form of Government in the nation to realize their resolution.

Hence, India being a democratic nation in the Grund Norm, the “People of India” makes themselves the “Sovereign” and confers on the organs of the Democratic Government i.e. the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary, the responsibility to make, execute and interpret the laws and rules in public welfare. Like every other democratic nation, in India also both transparency and accountability in government’s functioning are unavoidably important for appropriate governance because any authority that has got some public power must also be responsible to the public and in absence of accountability and transparency the government is more likely to succumb to corrupt practices.[3]

Therefore, following the inevitable principle of accountability and transparency in the governance of democracy, the democratic form of government thus adopted, must also be accountable and its’ decisions and actions must be reasonable and open to public scrutiny by the sovereign public of the nation.

Many of the problems of governance in India flow from the lack of transparency. Improved transparency reduces rent-seeking and inefficiency. The Right to Information Act, 2005 was the first step in this direction, thereby giving the power in the hands of the public to make the government functionaries accountable to their actions and confirming transparency in their functions. The foundation for the Right To Information was laid in India in the year 1975 by a landmark judgment of the Supreme Court in the case State of U.P. v. Raj Narain[4], in which it ruled that “The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything, that is done in a public way, by their public functionaries. They are entitled to know the particulars of every public transaction in all its bearing. The right to know…is derived from the concept of freedom of speech.” This ruling was significant because it interpreted the Right to free speech and expression enshrined in Article 19(a) of the constitution as inclusive of the Right to Information, thereby giving the right of people to get information, the status of a Fundamental Right.

Fundamental rights are basic natural rights guaranteed to everyone under the Constitution and every person has the freedom to exercise them, under reasonable limits, independently without any external interference. But the basic prerequisite for exercising a right is the awareness about the existence of that right. A right cannot be exercised effectively by a person in his personal benefits and growth unless he is aware about the very existence and the manner of exercising his right. The same stipulation is also true for the Right to Information of the citizens of the country. The very right as it is inclusive in the right to Freedom of Speech and Expression under Article 19(1)(a) of the Constitution is available only to the citizens of India but Indian citizens are themselves unaware of the existence of this very right as their Fundamental Right. This has become an impasse on the path of making our democratic form of Government accountable and the governance transparent.

The basic object of the Right to Information Act is to empower the citizens, promote transparency and accountability in the working of the Government, contain corruption, and make our democracy work for the people in real sense. The problem of non-identification of this legislation among public has weaken the Right to Information Act resulting in degradation its objective. This paper focuses on one of the very crucial escape that has evidenced the weaker implementation of objective of the act. Right to Information Act is a public offering law that seeks to provide information from public authorities but an indispensable part of any law relies in circulation and acknowledgement of that particular legislation which Right to Information Act has failed to promote. The authors in this paper have endeavoured to bring to lime light the efforts made so far in the implementation and spreading awareness of the Right to Information Act and the efficacy of the efforts thus made. Moreover the author tries to suggest and recommend the methods by which the awareness about the citizen’s Right to Information can be better increased and the people in need thereby could be actually empowered to enforce their rights and to make their own government accountable.

Objectives:-

The paper has been designed to fulfil following objectives, which could contribute and facilitate to enhance understanding of the role of Right to Information in present time and its benefits thereon:-

  1. To understand the importance of Right to Information and its awareness among the people and particularly the disadvantaged communities of the society.
  2. To critically analyse the effect and outcomes of the government run awareness programs under the RTI Act.
  3. To make suggestions and recommendations for proper and timely achievement of objectives of the RTI Act.

Research Methodology:-

The doctrinal method of research has been used, which involve collection of data from both primary and secondary sources. The researchers have relied on primary sources like statutes, rules, judgments related thereto and Secondary sources like books written by various eminent authors, articles etc. Use of internet also became very relevant to find out the most updated, relevant and apt information which helped me in exploring the subject from various dimensions.

 


 

(II) The Uninformed Right to Information

“Democracy requires an informed citizenry and transparency of information which are vital to its functioning and also to contain corruption and to hold Governments and their instrumentalities accountable to the governed” – RTI Act, 2005

It goes without saying that an informed citizen is better equipped to keep necessary vigil on the instruments of governance and make the government more accountable to the governed. The commencement of the Right to Information regime in India in 2005 marked the initiation of a new movement toward making of an informed Indian citizenry. The right to information is implicitly guaranteed by the Constitution as a Fundamental Right under Article 19(1)(a). However, with a view to set out a practical regime for securing information, the Indian Parliament enacted the Right to Information Act, 2005 and thus gave a powerful tool in the hands of the citizens to get information from the Government as a matter of right.[5] The law is very comprehensive and covers almost all matters of governance and has the widest possible reach, being applicable to Government at all levels including Union, State and Local as well as receivers of government funds.

If we look at the history of the RTI Act then it is not so that the right to information was not recognised before enactment of the Right to Information Act, rather the right had been recognised, although ineffectively, by the Indian Parliament before the Act also. The Parliament had enacted the “Freedom of Information Act” in the year 2002 in order to promote, transparency and accountability in administration. Later, the Government envisaged that “Freedom of Information Act” will be made more “progressive, participatory and meaningful, following which, decision was made to repeal the “Freedom of Information Act, 2002” and enact a new legislation in its place. Accordingly, “Right to Information Bill, 2004” was passed by both the Houses of Parliament on May, 2005 which received the assent of the President on 15th June, 2005. “The Right to Information Act, 2005” was notified in the Gazette of India on 21st June, 2005. The “The Right to Information Act” became fully operational from 12th October, 2005.

The basic objective of enactment of the Right to Information Act, 2005, as the act itself provides is that, as the Constitution of India has established a Democratic Republic and for the proper functioning of a democracy and to contain corruption and hold the Government and its instrumentalities accountable to the governed, an informed citizenry and transparency of information are vital. The Right to Information Act has been therefore enacted for the constitution of a Central Information Commission and State Information Commissions for setting out the practical regime of right to information for citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities, in order to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority, and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.[6] Therefore, the law empowers Indian citizens to seek any accessible information from a Public Authority and makes the Government and its functionaries more accountable and responsible.

After the enactment of the Act in 2005, during the period of its implementation, we have witnessed many anticipated and unanticipated consequences of the Act and after an experience of more than 8 years with the Act the fact cannot be denied that the RTI Act has adequate “teeth” to bring in transparency and reduce corruption as Different stakeholders under the act have at times played an important role in carrying forward the RTI regime and have helped the government in inculcating a culture of transparency and accountability in the working of public authorities, but at the same time it has also to be accepted that the Act has not yet reached the stage of implementation which was envisioned at the time of its enactment. Therefore it has to be recognized that still there are many issues to be addressed at various ends for effective implementation of the Act.

There have been many discussions and debates about the effectiveness and impact of the Act since its enactment. The Civil Society Organizations and Government agencies have been continuously engaging themselves in the debate over various aspects of the Act and its effectiveness. There is a broad consensus that the implementation of the Act needs to be improved to achieve the objectives. One of the most important and concern deserving responsibility which the Act imposes on the Government is provided in Section 26 of the Act. Section 26(1)(a) provides that

“The appropriate Government may, to the extent of availability of financial and other resources develop and organise educational programmes to advance the understanding of the public, in particular of disadvantaged communities as to how to exercise the rights contemplated under this Act”[7].

Basically the purpose of the concerned provision is to spread the awareness among the citizen, and particular the disadvantaged communities, about their right to information and the ways and means to exercise it and the task to do so has been assigned to the government.  The well known basic presumption in law making is that as soon as the parliament passes the law and it is published in the Official Gazette of India it is in the first hand presumed that the every citizen of India is aware of the law governing them and therefore a citizen in the case of the breach of that law cannot take the plea that he/she was unaware of the law he breached because ignorance of law in no excuse for a person in our country. But the case with the laws related to Right to Information is quite different, in this case it cannot be presumed that the law is known to every citizen of India as soon as it is published in the Gazette because the concerned law is something related to the Basic Rights of people and proper governance of a democratic system, therefore some additional efforts are required to be made to spread the awareness about the act and the right attached to it so that the law may be properly implemented. Therefore, the law makers have through section 26 put an onus on the Government to take appropriate steps towards making the people aware of law and particularly the rights attached to it.

Following the guidelines provided in Section 26, the government has, no doubt, taken various steps towards making the general public aware about the RTI Act and the method to use it as a right, the Government has from time to time being conducting various awareness programs for the same but the facts and figure as established from various surveys provides that since the enactment of the act the government has not been efficient in fulfilling the task.

In one of the assessment programs in order to make the assessment of the work done so far towards the implementation of the RTI Act the Department of Personnel and training, the nodal department of the Government of India had engaged PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) for assessing and evaluating the level of implementation of the Act with specific reference to the key issues. The authority conducted several surveys to assess the level of implementation and submitted its final report in June 2009. The outcomes of the surveys conducted on the issue of public awareness toward the Right to Information Act are very unsatisfying. The final report provides that the awareness of the RTI Act is low at 15%. Further the quality of “awareness” (within this 15%) is significantly low. As expected, the awareness level in weaker section of the society is much lower as compared to the general category.[8]

Some of the noteworthy facts established by the report are that:

  • Only 12% of the rural population and 30% in urban population were aware of RTI Act
  • Only 12% of the women and 26% of men were aware of RTI Act
  • RTI Appellants at First Appellate Authority and Second Appellate Authority were not fully aware of their rights.
  • The current public awareness is primarily a result of “RTI investigations” done by the journalists and the efforts of the Civil Society Organizations.
  • The awareness of the public on their rights as an appellant under RTI is minimal.[9]

Therefore, it may be inferred from the above facts and figures that the RTI Act in its present scenario is suffering from the problem of non-identification among a majority of the population of India and its awareness, practice and exercise in confined to only a very small section of the society, which is surely not according to the aspirations of the makers of this law.

 An indispensable part in the proper implementation of any law relies in the circulation and acknowledgement of that particular legislation, which the Right to Information Act fails to promote. The problem of non-identification of this legislation among public has weaken the Act resulting in degradation of its objective. The problem has actually evolved from the side of policy makers who failed to recognize the importance of publicizing and promoting the objectives of the act with an enhance documentation on procedural aspects therein. Common people may have the knowledge about the name and objective of the Right to Information Act but they are still untouched with the true assistance that covers with proper implementation of the act. As far as the people belonging to the poor, under privileged and disadvantaged community, which includes the majority of the population of India, are concerned, they are, despite of the fact the that the Act itself in Section 26 talks particularly about making the disadvantaged community aware about the Act, still completely unaware of the fact that something like Right to Information Act exists.

The RTI Act specifically makes the mention of the disadvantaged community of India in Section 26 because it is the poor and disadvantaged community population of India which is most of the time in desperate need of the enforcement of their rights and the Right to Information is not only a right in itself but it also opens the doors for enforcement of other rights of the common people. Therefore, specifically for the poor population of India the RTI Act has made the relaxation in fees and cost of seeking information and has made it free for below poverty line people in the proviso of Sub clause 5 of Section 7 of the Act, so that the under powered may be empowered.

But despite all this, the authorities designated for proper implementation of the objective of the Act have, even after eight years of the enactment of the Act, failed to address the problem of unawareness among those BPL families about Right to Information Act. Practically speaking, this act will not surpass its intent unless even a rag picker doesn’t know about his Right to get information from the public authorities and the procedure to file an RTI application in the Government departments. Government howsoever has made partial efforts to make Right to Information Act more efficient and answerable to public but in long run it seems to have failed in its overall objective as the vulnerable class is still vacate with its right to information. So as to trace the basic problems with Right to Information Act, first step is to make it available and circulate before public, who actually is the end beneficiary of this Act.

 


 

(III) Recommendations

 

The Right to Information Act makes it the responsibility of the appropriate Government to create awareness among citizens on their rights under the Act. The Act mentions the responsibility of the appropriate Government to develop and organise educational programmes to advance the understanding of the public, and the disadvantaged communities in particular, on how to exercise the rights outlined in this Act under Section 26(1)(a).[10]

But the below par conditions of the awareness programs being conducted by the government towards spreading the awareness of RTI Act and their inefficiency in fulfilling the aspired ambition, as is evident from the outcomes of various assessment programs, signals towards the gloomy fact that the efforts made by the government in this direction are insufficient and ineffective.

Therefore the author makes the following recommendations for efficiently spreading awareness of the RTI Act among the general public:

  • The Right to information, now being a Fundamental Right of every Indian Citizen which he gets right from his birth as an Indian as there are no age limits to exercise ones right to get information, must be introduced in the school syllabus of children because today the Right to Information and the Right to Education stands on the equal footing as fundamental rights of every India citizen. The Right to Education makes the right to get elementary education a Fundamental Right of every child. Moreover, making the children aware about their Fundamental Rights along with their duties has always been the central objective behind providing elementary education to the children. Therefore, following the same, the school going children must be made aware of this Fundamental Right of theirs. As a result of this we can at least confirm that our future generation would at least have the awareness about the fact they have got something like Right to Information as their Fundamental Right and can use it when required. This mode of spreading public awareness about RTI may not have an immediate effect, but in the long run it will surely prove to be an effective tool in achieving the objectives of the RTI Act.
  • The Government need to adopt some management techniques of branding to spread the knowledge of RTI. The right information like other public welfare schemes of the Government like NREGA, Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, Indira Awas Yojna etc., is also required to be developed as a “Brand”. The government must Conduct branding and promotion campaigns in the remote rural areas to educate the citizens about the use of RTI Act so that a curiosity may be developed among the people about RTI, and then the people in need will themselves learn about using RTI either for their personal interest or for the benefit of public in large.
  • A person do not take the concern of a particular thing unless he do not notice some benefits coming out of that thing and this is the main reason behind the failure of the Government run awareness programs that these programs have failed to introduce the general public with the benefits of the proper use of their Right to Information. There are certain problems of governance particularly in the rural areas of the country, problems such as:
  • Inconsistencies in the Public Distribution System.
  • Inconsistencies in the BPL ration cards.
  • Inconsistencies in the construction of roads, etc., from Gram Panchayat funds.
  • Villagers not receiving Voter ID and Aadhaar cards.
  • Non-receipt of minimum wages at Government works.
  • Irregularities in scholarship distribution.
  • Bad quality food served under the Mid Day Meal scheme.
  • Irregularities in the selection of beneficiaries of Indira Awaas Yojna scheme.
  • Irregularities in the selection of the beneficiaries of Old Age and Widow Pensions scheme.

are common to most of the villages in the country. Therefore, in the awareness programs the main focus must be on making the people aware about the benefits they can get out of their right to information and how they can enforce their other rights under different Government schemes using by it appropriately.

  • The traditional sources of information such as radio, news paper etc. can play a vital role for reaching the remote and rural areas so the awareness may be spread particularly among the people belonging to poor or disadvantaged community.

In addition to this, a transparent and accountable democratic system is not only the interest of a particular government or an individual but it is the need of every citizen of the country who aspires to live a dignified and empowered life. Therefore, for the proper implementation of the above mentioned recommendations, one of the most important requisite is that, the people such as RTI activists, Social workers, NGOs etc who are already empowered with the knowledge of their Right to Information and therefore keeps on using the same for public purpose and welfare, must also contribute with the Central and State Governments in their efforts for better implementation of the Act and the Governments must take their valuable suggestions because only a person with experience and knowledge of the ground reality can help make something better than before.


 

(IV) Epilogue

RTI has till now been a revolutionary step towards making of a transparent and accountable form of democratic governance system. The Act has seen many hills and slopes in its voyage of 8 years whereby many challenges were resolved to make it more efficient and ensure its smooth functioning. Despite of some short comings, particularly in the implementation side, the RTI Act has proved to be an important tool in the hands of those aware citizens of the country who work for public welfare such as Civil Society members, journalists and NGOs. But the voyage does not end here, the RTI Act is a young Act and it still has a long way to go in its voyage to get its objectives, as there are still some fundamental problems that are needed to be taken into concern and be resolved under the Act.

The actual success of any legislation depends on the ways adopted by the makers and executors of the law in making the presence of that law between the needy and deserving classes of the society, likewise, the real success of the RTI act can only be brought by making its presence between the people who are in desperate need of some power in their hands, so that they could enforce those rights of theirs, for which they have been starving since long because of their vulnerability. But the efforts made by appropriate Governments and Public Authorities in the name off spreading awareness have been restricted to publication of rules and FAQs on websites. These efforts have not been helpful in generating mass awareness of the RTI Act among the people in need. Therefore, now the time has ripened for the government to take some effective and efficiently actionable steps as recommended above, so that the Act can be made an effective tool of good governance.

Moreover, the Right to Information Act being a bridge of information between public and government departments is needed to be protected from destruction, which is only possible by making its foundation brawny. Since foundation of the act lies in well exerted circulation and publication of the legislation so as to reach to the needy citizens and thereby making the Right to Information Act furtherance in its purpose. Moment the first setback is resolved will result in further spotlighting more issues that are needed to be determined. With a strong foundation, any quandary arising in the Right to Information Act will be easy and uncomplicated to be deciphered.

[1] “Accountability and Transparency: Essential Principles” http://www.democracyweb.org/accountability/principles.php (Accessed on 16/01/2014)

[2] Preamble, Constitution of India, 1950

[3] Supra Note 1

[4] State of U.P. v. Raj Narain, AIR 1975 SC 865, Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Private Ltd., And Others, v. Union Of India and Others, 1985 (001) SCC 0641 SC, S.P. Gupta v. Union of India, AIR 1982 SC 149.

[5] “Guide on the Right to Information Act2005”, Ministry of Personnel, Public Grievances & Pensions Department of Personnel & Training, 2009

[6] Right to Information Act, 2005

[7] Section 26(1)(a), Right to Information Act, 2005

[8] Understanding the Key Issues and Constraints in implementing the RTI Act June 2009, Study on RTI, Final Report, rti.gov.in

[9] Ibid.

[10] Supra Note 7.

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