IT has been more than two years since the Right to Information Act (RTI) came into force in October 2005. Immediately after its enforcement, a concern was expressed in certain quarters about adequate efforts not being made by all those concerned to implement the Act in its true spirit. It was felt that vested interests were making an all-out effort to sabotage the Act.
A lot of hue and cry was heard when there was an attempt from within the government to water down certain portions of the Act by excluding the details of information contained in an official note sheet on the pretext of administrative necessity and for securing the officials against victimisation. But in this all, people failed to realise that the Act was in its infancy and would take its time to start working to its potential. And it was not very late before people actually started realising the power of the right emanating from this particular Act. Now they seem intent on using the right enshrined in the Act for anything and everything pertaining to their civil right in democratic India.
While there were very few petitions seeking information under RTI to begin with, today there seems to be a deluge of such requests in almost all government departments and agencies. It has not only resulted in increased confidence among the general public about the utility of RTI in ferreting out information from the government on a subject of their interest, the same has also made the different government departments more transparent and responsible than they had ever been, something which was the real purpose of this Act.
The many path-breaking decisions and judgements consequent to sundry appeals for information under RTI by the Central Information Commission and various State Information Commissions, the veil of secrecy hanging over the official records has slowly been lifting, resulting in substantive dilution of the draconian Official Secrets Act, 1923. Now, after several landmark decisions and judgements of the Central and State Information Commissions, it is the reinterpretation of the same ‘larger public interest,’ which is being proffered as a ground on which various wings of central and state governments should be sharing the information with the common public of this country. Even though today the right to seek information under RTI has come into its own and has become a powerful tool for exercising one’s democratic rights, one feels that still a lot needs to be done to further strengthen and reinforce this right before it can really become a genuine weapon of popular control exercising benign influence over the different government bodies.
Many government departments and bodies including the judiciary have made it costlier for the masses to seek and access information. The price to seek and obtain information has been made prohibitive by many agencies defeating the very intents and purposes wherefore RTI was conceived. Since it has been left to various state governments and autonomous government bodies to frame such rules relating to the various charges for information sharing, they have found an excuse in the same by way of making the same ridiculously high.
While these prohibitive costs to seek information do discourage non-serious information seekers, they also repel the many genuine ones who are not well-off enough to be able to foot the bill for the purpose. However, there are specific provisions in the Act about the inadvisability of charging anything from people below the poverty line. But one has to understand that there are many millions others in the country who, even though above the poverty line, are no better. These people are financially, definitely not in a position to spend a princely sum for seeking and obtaining information under RTI. Then, there is a practical problem, which has come to the fore after the requests seeking information started to flow in, thick and fast. The problem relates to the shortage of staff and officers for attending such requests. It is because of this that there has been an overload of pending requests with different information commissions and government bodies. Since there have been many landmark judgements by now wherein specific pecuniary penalties have been imposed upon many government servants for deemed deliberate failure to provide information in time and since such penalties have to be footed from one’s own pockets, government staff and officers are found to be on their toes now to attend to such requests and provide the requested information within the statutory 30 days’ period as per the Act. Today, when many government departments and bodies are already reeling under the shortage of staff and officers in these times of downsizing and rationalising of the size of the government employees, the normal functioning of these departments and bodies is severely getting hampered. As non-compliance under the Act results in personal financial loss including the fear of departmental proceedings, a government staff or officer is more than keen to attend to RTI requests before anything else.
Some of these problems have arisen also because of the fact that many government departments and bodies have still not put the requisite in-house information into the public domain as they are supposed to do under RTI. Many government departments have still not notified the Assistant Public Information Officer (APIO), Public Information Officer (PIO) and the Appellate Authority (AA) as warranted by the Act. This has resulted in many such RTI petitions being shuffled around among various government departments and officers on the pretext that one has not been notified as APIO, PIO or AA to be able to entertain such a petition or that the desired information is not readily available in sharable form frustrating the purpose of the Act further.
The Right to Information Act is merely an instrument that lays down the statutory procedure in the exercise of this right. It is, therefore, necessary that all exceptions and denials of the right to information must necessarily conform to the restrictions that bear a nexus to those mentioned in Article 19 (2) and to none others. So there is an urgent need to do some further soul-searching as far as implementation of the Act is concerned. If we are able to modify and further refine the RTI Act, one is sure that the powers granted to a common citizen in India shall go a long way in strengthening and reinforcing our democratic foundations.