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July 13, 2016

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RTI And Open Government: Pillars Of Democracy


- Madhavi Gokhlay, [ ]

rti-and-open-government

The RTI Act aims to provide strong support to democracy and promote good governance. However, it continues to be fraught with problems on both the demand and supply side…

A true democracy implies participation of people which is not possible unless they have information about what is going on in the country, what policies and programmes are being followed, and whether the government is exercising its powers for public good and not private gain. For people to have maximum information about governmental operations, open or transparent government is a prerequisite. Open government and right to information are considered two most important tenets of administrative law today, especially in democracies. Right to information is critical because citizens have a right to know and also because such a right enables them make enlightened choices, keep tabs on elected representatives, and promote action for development.

Surprisingly however, while most democracies have consciously moved away from opaque and secretive administrative systems to more open ones, Right to Information, in its truest sense, continues to elude them, and India is no exception to this reality.

The RTI Act Comes Into Force

In India, for a long time, the Official Secrets Act (1923) enacted during British rule governed disclosure of information held by public authorities. No doubt, the Supreme Court, in various judgements, interpreted the fundamental right embodied in right to freedom of speech and expression and right to life as meaning Right to Information (RTI).

In the mid-90s though, a section of illiterate wage workers in Rajasthan took up cudgels for RTI when the government cheated them of wages due for work done during the famine at the time. The RTI movement, sparked off by this group’s determination to hold the government accountable, spread country-wide, finding resonance in the enactment of Freedom of Information (FOI) Act in late 2002. The movement further received a shot in the arm when the UPA government’s Common Minimum Program (CMP) promised that the RTI Act will be made more progressive, participatory and meaningful. Multiple factors, including pressure from civil society groups, led to the enactment of RTI Act, which came into effect in the country on October 12, 2005. Billed as one of the most empowering and progressive legislations in post-independent India, the RTI Act’s most radical provision was that information could be sought without having to provide any reason for seeking the same.

Implementing The Act: A Logistical Nightmare

The UK took many years to operationalise the RTI Act after enactment, not so India. However, the short timeframe was inadequate to change people’s mindsets, create necessary infrastructure, and build capacity to deliver timely information under the Act. Possibly why implementation of the RTI Act continues to be fraught with problems like lack of public awareness, lack of proper systems to store and disseminate information, a bureaucratic mindset and Public Information Officers (PIOs) proving unequal to the task.

A survey not so long ago revealed that a mere 15 per cent of the respondents are aware of the Act with sources of awareness being mainly mass media channels like television, newspapers, word-of-mouth etc. The survey also showed that departments concerned have not taken substantial measures to promote the Act, and creating awareness is restricted to publishing rules and FAQs on websites. So much so, citizens are considerably more aware of other government schemes than the RTI Act.

A major problem has been citizens not knowing how to file RTI applications. Even if they do, the process is far from user-friendly. Authorities have failed to make the RTI process easy to understand and execute apart from the fact that there is no guidance in terms of filling out or submitting forms. The submission process too needs to be further simplified.

Lack of qualified, trained PIOs and enabling infrastructure such as a centralised database of RTI applicants, coupled with inadequate/obsolete record management by public authorities and ground-level implementation issues have resulted in a situation where information is hardly ever provided in an efficient and timely manner.

The weakest link has been the Information Commission, which was actually supposed to monitor and review public authorities and initiate action to make them comply with the spirit of the Act.

Reportedly, the Central Information Commission (CIC) will be saddled with over 90,000 pending complaints by the end of this year owing to shortage of staff. Each Information Commissioner has only seven staff members to assist him/ her and is not allowed to hire more employees, even to reduce pendency of complaints. Besides, appeals reach the CIC only after RTI applicants are dissatisfied with response from the departmental information officer and first appellate authority (lower levels).

Many feel that it is not so much the shortage of staff as lack of penalties imposed on erring officials which is the real reason for pendency of complaints.

A Much Misused Act

Apart from the many difficulties in implementing the Act, there have been several instances where the Act has been abused by unscrupulous elements to make a quick buck.

In 2014, a journalist was arrested for extorting money from officials of the LBT department of Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC). In the report published in a leading daily, civic officials said that out of the total RTI applications filed, nearly 80 per cent were filed only to blackmail officials and extort money and engineering and LBT departments were favourites of these so-called activists. The civic officials revealed that many such people had opened offices and started businesses of filing RTIs. After getting necessary information, they usually met the concerned authorities to strike deals worth lakhs of rupees. If the deals did not go through, they even approached the media or higher court with public interest litigations (PILs).

In 2013, the Nagpur Information Commissioner said that information was sought mainly for the purpose of blackmailing. In the report published in another daily, the Information Commissioner went on to say that information had to be provided, notwithstanding, as the Act had no provision asking for the information seeker’s motive. The Information Commissioner proposed thorough scrutiny of RTI applications to rule out third-party interests.

In 2011, the government stopped short of making changes to the Act after activists protested this would dilute the power of the Act.

Whistleblowers Victimised

Not only has the Act been misused, people who have exposed authorities after seeking critical information under it have often paid with their lives. One Amit Jethwa, who named an MP involved in illegal mining at the periphery of the Gir forest, was gunned down outside the Ahmedabad High Court in July 2010. Similarly, Datta Patil, who unearthed a corruption racket resulting in removal of a Deputy Superintendent of Police and action against Ichalkaranji Corporation officials, was found murdered in May 2010. In yet another instance, education activist Vitthal Gite, who exposed irregularities in a village school in Beed, was killed in Aurangabad in April 2010.

Public Interest Disclosure Bill 2010 Introduced

Penalties imposed by ICs on departmental information officers should be made mandatory

One of the many cases where whistleblowers paid a huge price for seeking information under RTI was that of National Highways Authority of India Engineer, Satyendra Dubey, who was murdered after he wrote a letter to the PMO detailing corruption in the construction of highways. The public outcry over failure to protect him resulted in the Supreme Court pressing the government to issue an office order in April 2004 called the Public Interest Disclosures and Protection of Informers Resolution. The resolution designated the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) as the nodal agency to handle corruption complaints.

Finally, the Public Interest Disclosure (Protection of Informers) Bill 2010 was introduced in the Lok Sabha on August 26, 2010. The bill seeks to establish a mechanism to register complaints about corruption, wilful misuse of power or discretion against any public servant. Significantly, the bill provides safeguards against victimisation of persons who file complaints.

Scams Unearthed By The RTI Act

Despite multiple issues involved in implementation of the Act, it has resulted in the unravelling of some major scandals.

In 2008, RTI activists Yogacharya Anandji and Simpreet Singh filed applications that were instrumental in bringing to light links between politicians and military officials. The 31-storey Adarsh Building in Mumbai, which had permission for only six floors, was originally meant to house war veterans and widows. But the flats went to politicians, bureaucrats and their relatives instead. The scam led to resignation of Ashok Chavan, former Chief Minister of Maharashtra.

The same year, a Punjab-based NGO filed an application which led to the revelation that bureaucrats heading local branches of the Indian Red Cross Society were using funds intended for victims of the Kargil war and natural disasters to buy cars, ACs and pay hotel bills among others. The officials responsible were charged with fraud and the funds transferred to the PMO.

Ways To Make The Act Effective

For the RTI Act to serve its true purpose, certain changes need to be implemented which include:

Public authorities must increase their involvement to ensure that RTI delivery occurs as per the spirit of the Act. They must identify gaps in the delivery of information as well as resources needed and appropriately budget for them.

The Centre and states must provide all necessary support to public authorities for effective implementation of the Act.

Information Commissioners must be selected through a more rigorous and participative process unlike the prevailing ad-hoc system. ICs must be sensitised about the importance of their job for the country’s democratic heritage. The role of ICs must go beyond hearing of appeals to encompass issuing directions to public authorities to carry out their duties as per mandate of the Act.

Government should allow ICs to hire more staff; this will allow for greater efficiency. Government should plan in advance and ensure that vacancies are filled in time so that the CIC functions at full strength.

In cases of delay or lack of response on the part of information officers, the latter should be penalised. Currently, penalties imposed by ICs on departmental information officers are discretionary. Rather, they should be made mandatory.

Conclusion

RTI is a powerful tool which can provide strong support to democracy and promote good governance by empowering citizens to participate effectively and hold government officials responsible. In fact, RTI must go beyond providing information to serving as a watchdog and ensuring that all those coming under the purview of the Act work in consonance with rules and regulations.

Currently, the RTI Act in India is passing through a decisive phase but leaves much to be desired before it can be said to have fulfilled its purpose, in letter and spirit!

Disclaimer - Statements and opinions expressed in this article are those from the editorial and are well researched from various sources. The content in the article is purely informative.

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