The Fight for Right to Information
Fifteen years back, the Right To Information
(RTI) Act became operational on October 12, 2005. It was the auspicious day of
Vijayadashmi. It appeared to herald a new evolution in Indian democracy.
Citizens who had been advocating this law saw an opportunity of converting
India's defective elective democracy into a true participatory democracy that
will give citizens true freedom.
The RTI movement which had begun in Devdungri
village in Rajasthan with Aruna Roy in the early 1990s, saw its dream being
translated into one of the best transparency laws in the world.
In a series of judgments from 1975, the Supreme
Court acknowledged that Article 19 (1)(a) of the Constitution guaranteed Right
to Free Speech, Right to Publish and Right to Information as Fundamental
However, while the first two rights were
recognised and their scope was increased over the years, the Right to
Information was languishing in the absence of a proper method to give access to
information to all citizens.
The RTI Act 2005 codified this right very well.
The draft of the Act had inputs from RTI
activists and its provisions were well crafted. The law in its preamble
asserted that democracy requires transparency in functioning, and it was
necessary to contain corruption and hold governments accountable.
RTI WAS ONE OF THE BEST TRANSPARENCY
After recognising that there may be some
practical constraints in achieving this, it harmonised the conflicting
interests and gave India one of the best transparency laws in the world.
With this strong law, citizens started spreading
and educating others in using the law. In the first five to seven years
citizens realised the potential of this law which they could enforce.
They realised they could get accountability and
act as vigilance monitors of their government. Many scams were uncovered and
public servants began to treat the citizens, the rulers of the nation, with
some respect. Individual citizens started feeling empowered. Citizens started
getting ration cards, rations, income tax refunds, and many other services.
Above all citizens began to get accountability.
The threat of penalties made public servants sensitive towards discharging
their duty of providing information.
The simple law was easy to use and implement.
There are thousands of RTI activists who teach, train and help others without
any charges. This has led to the RTI becoming known and used across the nation.
A few crore RTI applications have been filed in
the entire country during the past fifteen years. One of the weaknesses of the
citizen movement has been the failure of the movement to get even 20 percent of
women users. RTI activists must aim to ensure that at least 50 percent of the
users are women.
However, there has been a resistance of those in
power towards RTI.
LIP SERVICE TOWARDS TRANSPARENCY
While everyone pays lip service to transparency,
it has been noticed that most people want others to be transparent but are
reluctant to actually practice it themselves.
The corrupt detest it for obvious reasons and
most of those who are honest take offence to being asked to share their
decision making and actions because of arrogance.
Since most of the power centres of governance
are covered by RTI, the resistance has transformed into a narrative painting
RTI in dark colours. One of the first unfortunate, significant signals was the
Supreme Court's observation in 2011 in CBSE Vs. Aditya Bandopadhyay: "(RTI) Act should not be allowed to be misused or
abused, to become a tool to obstruct the national development and integration
or to destroy the peace, tranquillity, and harmony among its citizens. Nor
should it be converted into a tool of oppression or intimidation of honest
officials striving to do their duty."
HOW COURT OBSERVATION WAS INTERPRETED
TO NOT OBSERVE THE LAW
This observation has been quoted many times with
glee by officials, who are now seeing justification in not observing the law.
On the other hand, most Information Commissions,
which had been created to act as the final appellate bodies, were not
Second appeals in the Commissions were
languishing at times for years and they were generally very stingy in applying
the penal provisions of the law against guilty public servants.
The governments and PIOs began to see that if
they did not comply with the provisions of the law they would not have to face
any serious consequences. In the worst case, the Commission may rule on
disclosure. Though the Act does not permit any appeals beyond the Commission
these decisions are often challenged in courts by masquerading as writs. Thus
on important and current matters, it has become easy to deny the citizen's
In one blatant case, the PM Cares Fund has
refused to give information on its functioning despite it being a public
authority as per the RTI Act since it is controlled by the government through
the PM and three ministers.
Information regarding purchases and various
Covid-19 related matters is not being provided. In some cases, even details of
expenditure by MLA funds is being blocked.
Major political parties have been declared
public authorities by the Central Information Commission.
They have not challenged the decision in any
court but in a display of illegal arrogance have refused to obey the statutory
order. Commissioners and PIOs have denied a lot of information by disregarding
the law and the constitution by grotesque misinterpretation.
NEED TO FIGHT BACK
However, citizens are also building their
strength to get the law implemented. They have realised the power which the Act
gives them. Even during Covid-19 times many different groups are discussing and
promoting RTI through virtual platforms.
A PIL has been filed in the Bombay High Court to
ensure all hearings by virtual platforms and also to get directions to the
Information Commissions to dispose of all cases before them in a time-bound
manner. Citizens have used e-platforms with great enthusiasm and connections
are being made across the nation.
These may lead to the evolution of a common set
of issues and strengthening the citizen's fundamental right. They have been
pointing out that constriction of RTI could lead to constraints on Article 19
(1)(a) and thus on free speech and right to publish.
A strong narrative is being built of misuse of
fundamental rights and I believe this must be opposed.
The article was originally published
in The Leaflet.
(Shailesh Gandhi is a former Central Information
Commissioner. Views are personal.)