Making RTI work
Editorial in DNA February 27, 2008

Given India’s notorious red-tapism, corruption and lack of official accountability, the importance of the Right to Information Act (RTI) cannot be overestimated. Since the RTI was implemented in October 2005, Indians have taken to it in a big way, sensing an opportunity to get information on matters critical to their local communities and to citizens in general.

In this state alone, no less than a whopping 2,17,182 queries have been filed between October 2005 and August 30 last year, most of them at the revenue department. The trend is similar across India. For long they have been on the receiving side of official apathy; now the tables have truly turned.

Now the city has got its first information commissioner in the form of Ramanand Tiwari, currently additional chief secretary of Maharashtra Urban Development Department. He will assist Suresh Joshi, the state’s chief information commissioner. This appointment is to be welcomed, because Mumbai needs a high-level officer to manage this important department. But it is a job that comes with a crucial responsibility and one that Tiwari will surely realise — the citizen’s needs have to be met.

Why state the obvious? Because we have still not fully realised the real significance of this vital law. On the one hand there are stories of frivolous applications for information, like the one about a girl from a village in UP who wanted to know what happened to the box of ladoos she had couriered to US President George W Bush. But such extreme cases, however ridiculous, cannot be the reason why such a legislation should be diluted or done away with.

The bigger problem is that the bureaucracy has still not fully come to terms with the full import of RTI, or if it has, then there have been attempts to ignore it. We have heard of all kinds of impediments, from the silly to the sinister, that are put in the way of the applicant. Then there are departments and ministries which find various excuses to stay out of the ambit of the RTI Act; in one recent case even the PMO was cagey about giving information on the disappearance of Subhas Chandra Bose.

India has no law like in the US where archival material automatically comes into the public domain after 30 years. Most citizens will want information on things that touch their lives; but the general principle of openness should apply everywhere, and that is not happening.

The Mumbai commissioner will undoubtedly be flooded with enquiries about civic and other localised matters. Equally, he will find his colleagues in the bureaucracy being occasionally difficult about releasing such information. At those moments, we do hope he will put aside his babu’s hat and come out on the side of the citizen for whom the RTI was created in the first place.

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