A column by Dr Bharati Chhibber, Lecturer in Political Science, Delhi University, appearing in mainstreamweekly.net on 29 March 2008:
Right to Information Act : An Instrument for Stronger and Vibrant Democratic Process in India - Mainstream Weekly

Right to Information Act : An Instrument for Stronger and Vibrant Democratic Process in India

The Right to Information (RTI) Act of 2005 promises to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority. This Act is supposed to enable people to responsibly scrutinise government officials and legal processes. The Act emanates from what the Indian Constitution guarantees itself. Under Article 19 (1) (a) the Constitution guarantees every citizen freedom of speech and expression with certain restrictions. Logically to allow the exercise of freedom of speech and expression effectively the country needs an informed civil society.

In 1975 itself the Supreme Court observed that in a responsible government as ours, where all the agencies of public service must be responsible for their conduct, there can be only few confidential matters. The people of the country have a right to know the details about the functionaries’ function. In this context, Supreme Court judgements have made it mandatory for candidates to disclose certain information while contesting elections.

The RTI Act states that public authorities shall make known the particulars of facilities available to citizens for Public Information Officers. According to Section 7 of the Act within 30 days of the receipt of the request, either the information be provided on payment of fee if any or the request rejected and the reason(s) mentioned. If information sought for concerns the life or liberty of a person, the same shall be provided within 48 hours. There is a provision for appeal within 30 days. The Information Commission can impose a penalty on the Public Information Officer amounting to Rs 250 each day delayed till the information is furnished. This Act exempts certain intelligence and security organisations from its purview (Chapter VI). However, information on corruption and human rights violations are not excluded under this Section. Information on human rights violation is to be provided within 45 days.

Thus this Act puts in place implementation mechanisms and processes. However, there are certain issues of bureaucratic and political cultures and secrecy which are used to centralised control of information. In the year 2006, the Central Government proposed certain amendments to the Act. It was interpreted by the Central Information Commission that the Act includes right to see file notings which show advices and opinions of bureaucrats on the concerned issue. However , the government argued that this right was not included in the Act in the first place. The Central Government is now ready to confer a limited right with regard to social sector expenditure and development projects only. Further, no information would be provided on ongoing matters. Only final decisions would be conveyed. Such changes would have gone against the very tenets on which the Right to Information is based.

Finally, a fierce protest by activists of certain States and people at large put a lid on attempts to limit the scope of this Act. Gandhian and social campaigner, Anne Hazare, who recently passed away, went on an indefinite fast in Maharashtra. In Delhi, protest rallies were held at Jantar Mantar. The Left also clarified that it would not support the Amendments Bill in Parliament. The government realised its image were on downslide and decided not to go ahead with the ‘Amendments’ .

THERE is another dimension of the RTI Act which needs to be deliberated upon. Sometime back BBC News reported that obtaining information through the RTI was a costly affair. A Chattisgarh farmer reportedly was presented with a bill of Rs 1,82,000 as cost of mimeographing documents. All that he had asked for was information on paddy purchases in his area. This is obviously to defeat the very purpose of RTI. It is clearly mentioned that information should be provided gratis to people living below the poverty line. A farmer could very well come in this category. Moreover, an Information Officer is required under Section 7(3) of the Act to intimate beforehand the applicant how much it will cost to provide information along with the method of calculation made to arrive at that amount.

Thus it becomes imperative that the government develops and organises educational programmes to create awareness among the public, especially the disadvantaged people, on how to exercise their right as envisaged by this Act. The Bihar Government has started a system where a person can file an RTI application by simply calling the helpline number. This is an important step wherein illiterate people can take recourse to RTI without going through cumbersome paperwork and procedures. Further, to make it more people-friendly, electronic mail facility can also be introduced. A recent decision by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Grievances and Personnel to recommend scrapping of fees at the time of filing applications seeking information from the government departments under the RTI is a welcome step.

Of course like any other Act RTI also calls for judicious implementation. It should not be misused either. The Central Information Commission (CIC) has ruled out disclosure of information pertaining to bank account details under RTI on the ground that agreements entered into by banking enterprises with its customers were matters of ‘commercial confidence’. Further, while dismissing an application which sought information as to why certain tariff policy was framed by the Centre, the CIC has held that citizens cannot question governmental policies and plans through the RTI. In any case Sections 8 to 10 of the RTI Act exempt certain information from disclosure if it affects the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific and economic interests of the state, relations with foreign states or that may be subjudice, lead to breach of privilege of Parliament, State Legislature, or impede the process of investigation or endangers the life of a person.

However, in many cases the implementation of the Act has spelled success. Issues like public distribution system, privatisation initiatives, pensions and reforms, road repairs, electricity connections, telecom complaints have been dealt by people through the RTI. Many honest officers also feel strengthened as all decisions are now open to civil society and media scrutiny which will act as a deterrent to uncalled for political pressure.

Recently documents obtained under the RTI by a Ludhiana based NGO reveal that money collected for Kargil war relief and rehabilitation of tsunami and cyclone victims was misused by senior public officials. Bureaucrats heading local branches of the Indian Red Cross Society diverted this money to pay hotel bills. This case further highlights the importance of strict implementation of the RTI Act to cleanse the system of possible corruption.

Common men and women have both benefited from this Act. For example, a case of a petitioner who waited for 18 years to get compensation for a plot acquired before independence was resolved through the RTI plea. However, if we specially talk about women empowerment, then yes this Act has contributed in its own way in creating conditions for the woman to take recourse to a better well-informed decision-making process, even in her day-to-day life.

An issue that concerns women most is that of food security. In Delhi, women spearheaded the campaign to reform the public distribution, that is, the ration distribution system. Ration shopkeepers either used to keep their shops closed or enough supply was not available with them as prescribed. As soon as these women took recourse to the RTI, the ration shops opened, some shopkeepers even apologised to the people, the ration supply improved and licences of some corrupt shopkeepers stood cancelled. Thus RTI has added another dimension against corrupt practices. Moreover, with this Act in place, women can also access information on issues like domestic violence, harassment at workplaces, whether police is refusing to register an FIR in serious dowry related cases and deaths.

Thus RTI has helped people in making an informed choice. People have access to the decision-making process, reasons for government delays, for example, why a ration card is being unduly delayed. Common citizens can now escape harassment from public officials. However, the efficacy of law does not depend on its content but on its proper implementation. Governance has to be an open book and officials conscious of the fact that they are liable for omissions and commissions during their tenure for just and systematic work rather than doing things at the whims and fancies arbitrarily and getting away with it—after all the affected are the country’s common masses who bear the brunt of mismanagement. The RTI has to play a critical role in systematic corrections rather than limiting its success to individual cases. Then only the RTI Act can be considered a step towards ensuring a stronger and vibrant democratic process in India.

Dr Bharti Chhibber is a Lecturer in Political Science, University of Delhi.

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