The Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity released only two TV ads and a radio spot on RTI in 2007
Mumbai: How many advertisements does it take to create awareness about a right every Indian now enjoys? Just three in as many years, going by the number of times the Indian government publicized the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
No wonder then that three years after it became law, RTI remains an urban weapon, with the rural masses largely unaware of it.
This dismal state of affairs came to light when an activist group filed an RTI application with the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP), the agency that oversees the government’s ads.
DAVP released only two television ads and a radio spot on RTI in 2007. “No print campaign took place on RTI during 2007,” said Mattu J.P. Singh, DAVP’s chief public information officer, responding to a query by Parivartan—a New Delhi-based citizens’ group for transparency and accountability in public governance.
The query was filed in January by Manish Sisodia, a volunteer with Parivartan.
A Mint article in June 2007 had reported that not a single ad on RTI was released by the Union government till then to promote the right.
DAVP’s Singh blamed the reluctance of other government departments towards RTI for the lack of an awareness campaign. “DAVP has not received funds from any department for publicity on RTI. The publicity has been done from our own resources,” he said.
The way the Act has been structured, the power to initiate publicity campaigns on the law lies with the department of personnel and training, which is part of the home ministry.
The Central Information Commission (CIC), the apex body responsible for ensuring access to public information, has expressed its dissatisfaction over the government’s approach towards RTI. “As of now, no fund is allocated for running campaigns on RTI. The way the Union government is running ad campaigns for creating awareness on RTI is barely sufficient,” said Wajahat Habibullah, chief information commissioner.
The Central commission has asked the government to form an independent committee to work with it on spreading awareness on the Act, he said.
RTI activists across the country have raised similar concerns. “The budget for the promotion of other development programmes is much more than that for RTI. The government’s commitment for promoting RTI is not high because they don’t want people to use it,” said Yogesh Kumar of Samarthan, a non-governmental organization based in Madhya Pradesh.
Malay Bhattacharya, an RTI activist from West Bengal RTI Manch, said: “Awareness on RTI is at its lowest in the state. People are not aware of this powerful tool, and those who are using it are not receiving information from the concerned departments.”
Research conducted last year by Participatory Research in Asia, or Pria, a non-profit, suggests that rural masses have not been able to use RTI due to poor awareness.
Pria conducted the survey in eight states to assess the implementation of the Act, based on data from 65 civil society representatives in 21 districts. It revealed that disposal rates of appeals in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Jharkhand were less than 50%.
So far, CIC has received 17,841 RTI applications. Of these, around 6,364 second appeals are pending with it. Second appeals are made when an RTI application elicits inadequate or no response.
Typically, a public organization has to respond to an RTI query within 30 days. If that doesn’t happen, the appellant can file the first appeal before the appellate authority of the organization. The appellate authority then has 30 days to respond, failing which a second appeal can be filed with CIC. However, there is no time frame for deciding on second appeals.
Unlike the government’s listless approach to publicizing RTI, other development programmes such as Bharat Nirman, a flagship plan to improve rural infrastructure, have garnered great amounts of publicity.
Media units of the ministry of information and broadcasting—such as DAVP, All India Radio and Doordarshan—have been asked to help create awareness on such Central government schemes.
State governments, public sector undertakings and nationalized banks are also involved in promoting these.
The contrast is a stark one. While cricket fans are endlessly reminded through TV spots about the government’s flagship Bharat Nirman programme, there is no attempt to publicize the provisions of the landmark Right to Information Act, 2005. Why? Because the former is a potential vote winner, while the latter is politically useless and a bureaucratic nightmare.
As reported in Mint on Thursday, the government’s publicity wing, the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP), spent little money in 2007 on creating awareness about the Act. In the same year, the government’s publicists spent money on only two TV advertisements and one radio spot for the RTI Act. It spent no money in the print media. However, there appears to be enough money to tell the impoverished viewers of the BBC World Service how they could apply for the national rural employment guarantee scheme.
This defeats the very purpose of section 4(2) of the RTI Act. It asks government authorities to effectively communicate to citizens what they do. Other parts of section 4 require such authorities to publish all relevant facts while formulating important policies or decisions affecting the public. The absence of communication through mass media adversely affects the rural populace more than urban residents. The latter have better access to RTI in any case due to locational advantages.
Politically, of course, RTI is a low-voltage area: Because its utility is too diffused to be electorally important, politicians prefer to leave it alone. The bureaucracy exhibits a sullen hostility towards the Act.
All this is in spite of international best practices being incorporated into the Indian RTI Act. Section 4 of our Act has borrowed provisions from the Mexican legislation on the subject. Similarly, the investigative and decision-making functions of our information commissions have adapted the Canadian, British and South African laws. The Hungarian law goes a long distance in demarcating information into public versus privileged sectors. While not incorporating the Hungarian norms, we have a negatively worded section 8 in our Act. This has multiple exceptions for not providing information by concerned officials. It acts as a shield for bureaucrats to hide facts and information. But where perverse incentives are at free play, it’s too much to expect that a single legislation will remove cobwebs from a secretive establishment.