Corruption and Unfair Practices in the public service existed long back when even the concept of government didn’t exist. Slowly, people began to realize the importance of transparent governance and started asking questions and this is how the term ‘Right to Information’ (RTI) came into existence.
The RTI finds its earliest reference in Sweden when, in 1776, a convention was passed there, granting the Right to Information to all the Swedish citizenry. Today, Sweden finds itself in the top five of the least corrupt nations according to Corruption Perception Index released annually by Transparency International.
Today, over 100 countries around the globe have passed some kind of legislation to confer freedom of information to their citizens. The impact of the freedom of information has shown that it’s a catalyst for development.
“Information is the currency of democracy,” – Thomas Jefferson
Evolution of Right to Information in India
1982 Supreme Court Judgement It was for the first time in India that the issue of RTI was discussed in court. The apex court ruled that ‘Disclosure of Information as regards the functioning of Government must be the rule and secrecy an exception’.
Mr. Kulwal vs Jaipur Municipal Corporation, 1986 The Supreme Court directed that Freedom of Speech and Expression provided under article 19 of the Constitution clearly implies Right to Information and without the information, the freedom of speech and expression cannot be fully utilized by the citizens.
RTI Movements: Several public figures and leaders also have contributed towards bringing this right into existence in India. 1. In 1990, Aruna Roy led Mazdoor Kissal Shakti Sanghatan Movement in Rajasthan which has been seen as the Firestarter of RTI movements in India. It was a 44-day dharna over minimum wages and public sharing of ‘muster rolls’ and it led to a nationwide awakening which led to RTI Act by the government. 2. In 1996, Harsh Mander, then Divisional Commissioner of Bilaspur (MP) pressed for sharing of registers of Employment Exchange and records of public distribution system with public. 3. Famous activist Anna Hazare also led a movement for this cause.
In 1996, Justice PB Sawant, the Chairman of the Press Council of India, drafted the RTI Bill which mandated the right to information from the public bodies and said that sharing information with the public is an obligation of government towards its citizen.
The Department of Personnel, Government of India decided to set-up a Working Group on ‘RTI and Promotion of Open and Transparent Government’ under the Chairmanship of Mr. H.D. Shouri which presented the report and draft bill within months.
As a result of all the efforts and the Working Group Report, the Government of India passed the Indian Freedom of Information Act in 2002.
This Act was a start but soon people found loopholes in the Act such as the act didn’t acknowledge the ‘right’ to information and is provided for appeals only within government bodies without jurisdiction of courts. So, to make the legislation better, the Government passed the Right to Information Act in 2005.
Highlights from RTI in India
Objectives of the Act To empower the Citizen; To promote transparency and accountability; To contain corruption, and To enhance people’s participation in the democratic process.
Factors responsible for this legislation Corruption; Scandals; International pressure and Activism; and Absence of participative democratic practices.
Definition of Information Under this Act, the information has been defined as any material including records, Documents, Memos, e-mails, Opinions, Advice, Press releases, Circulars, Orders, Logbooks, Contracts, Reports, Papers, Samples, Models, Data material held in any electronic form and information relating to any private body which can be accessed by a Public Authority under any other law for the time being in force.
Obtaining Information The RTI Act empowers citizens to obtain the above-said information in multiple ways which include inspection of work, documents, records; Taking notes, extracts, or certified copies of documents or records; Taking certified samples of material; Obtaining information in the form of diskettes, floppies, tapes, video cassettes or in any other electronic mode or through printouts where such information is stored in a computer or any other device.
Appointments under the Act The Act provides for the appointment of Information Commissioners at the Central and State levels. The Public authorities also have been obliged to designate Public Information Officer to give out information.
Exclusions: Certain agencies like the Intelligence Bureau, Directorate of Revenue Intelligence, Narcotics Control Bureau, Border Security Force, Central Reserve Police Force, etc have been excluded from RTI as the nature of the information may be sensitive to national security. Certain information like those related to internal security, public safety, correspondence with foreign governments, etc. has also been excluded from the ambit of RTI due to obvious reasons.
The Debate about RTI Activism in India
RTI Activism can be defined as the action of using data retrieved through RTI as a means to do vigorous campaigning to bring about a social or political change.
RTI Activism has strengthened our democracy towards being participatory in nature and it has empowered the poor and vulnerable sections to demand and obtain information related to public policies and implementation of policies & initiatives.
The opening up of public records and has proved to be a vital source of information about the government’s decisions, its working mechanism, and the quantum of the effectiveness of those decisions, thereby promoting accountability in governance and checking corruption.
All and all, RTI has proved to be an effective tool in breaching the barrier between the rulers and the ruled.
Although RTI was brought about to achieve transparency and accountability, there are several challenges that the government has faced due to the legislation. Few of them can be listed as under
Misuse of RTI The demand for different types of information unrelated to the public interest has been misused on several occasions. As the government doesn’t ask for a reason for filing RTI, it leaves scope for some people to ask for voluminous and irrelevant information which they can use for vested interests rather than public interests, thereby failing the whole purpose of the legislation. Even the Chief Justice of India observed that the Act has been misused on multiple counts and authorities are sometimes in ‘paralysis and fear’ before they make decisions.
Diversion of already scarce resources to provide Information As we all know that India is a densely populated country with very scarce public resources, the introduction of RTI has further burdened the government with work that can hinder the functioning of public offices.
Public Awareness Due to the lack of education and awareness in India, people from rural and uneducated backgrounds remain unaware of their rights and duties. As a result, many citizens, especially from the rural areas, aren’t able to exercise RTI for their benefit.
Harassment of Officers: Many people have in the past, used RTI as a vindictive tool to harass and pressurize the public authorities. Since public servants aren’t allowed to pour their heart out in front of the media, this aspect doesn’t get as much attention as it needs.
Backlogs and Delays As the resources are scarce and the population is high, the RTI cases face delays in terms of hearing. This is due to an insufficient number of Information Commissioners at the Central level. This also fails the very purpose of the act which said that information has to be provided within a fixed time frame and delay will lead to penalizing of the official responsible.
Lack of Power to Information Commissioners The Information Commissioners were to act as watchdogs in the whole process of RTI but the inadequate authority conferred to them by the act has reduced their efficiency and effectiveness. Although the RTI Act gives Information Commissioners the power to give directions to public authorities if they don’t comply with the Act but they can’t take any action if their directions are ignored.
Unnecessary Dilution In 2019, the Government of India decided to amend the RTI Act and it was passed as RTI (Amendment) Act 2019. Although, the inclusion of the Office of CJI within the ambit of the Act (case-to-case basis) was a welcome step to promote transparency and accountability, the power to fix terms and the service conditions of Information Commissioners at both central and state levels were conferred to Central government. There was severe criticism of the government for this step as people said that the excessive powers to Central Government will hamper the autonomy of the Central Information Commission.
Conclusion and Way Forward
The Right to Information Act is a big achievement of Indian Democracy in terms of promoting the idea of transparent, inclusive, and accountable governance but it’s clear that the act has been somewhat unable to achieve its objectives. There can be many ways RTI can be made better through rules such as asking the reason from the person filing an RTI request (as stated by CJI), penalizing a frivolous RTI, information can’t be used for commercial or publicity purposes, etc.
RTI provides endless opportunities to the citizens to participate and influence governance in a better way. There’ll always be room for improvement but RTI, as a whole, will lead to the empowerment of the vulnerable.