Use of RTI in governance19 Dec, 2011
RTI IN GOVERNANCE
“We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom; and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” - The closing words of President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) during the Gettysburg Address, delivered on 19th November 1863, have repeatedly been the quoted for its “by/for/of the people” phrase which describes democracy. In the Indian context, it has been used to describe the ideals of democracy which we strive to achieve. However, in practice, it is seen that there is little active participation by the people in the governance and the elected representatives face the citizens at the next election only. Can a government which is not open to scrutiny and answerable to the people be labelled as a true democracy? And can we transform ourselves into a truly participative democracy, which works for the Citizens?
How does the RTI Act, 2005 help?
There are many formal and informal structures in place to arrive at and implement the decision in the process of governance. The “Government” is just one of the actors, albeit the most important one, in governance. Other actors involved in governance and their role may vary depending on the context, time, issue and the level – Centre/ State/ Local - that is under discussion. The simplest situation is perhaps at the local area in a rural setting where the non-state actors may include influential land lords or caste/ religious leaders, farmer’s associations or cooperatives, NGOs, moneylenders, political parties, etc. At the national level the media, lobbyists, research institutes, finance institutions, various MNC’s and international donors add to the cacophony of governance. The process of decision-making and implementation at all levels of governance has shown a significant change after the coming in force of the RTI Act, 2005.
The most significant impact of the RTI Act has been in disseminating information to the citizens which has led to their involvement in the issues of the day. This has resulted into a more open debate in the society of the contentious issues. The active participation of citizens in the affairs of the country, which is a key to good governance, was sadly missing in our democracy. The examples of “Adarsh Housing Society” and the “Commonwealth Games Scam” has shown how the RTI Act can be used as a tool to extract relevant information from the system and thereby help in setting a roadmap for correcting the errors of governance. Such healthy debates which look into the different claims and counter claims of the different interest groups help in reaching to a broad consensus in society as to what is in the best interest of the community as the whole and what are the ways of achieving it. Thus, the Act has greatly contributed to the formation of an opinion which is free, fair and informed.
The decision making requires that all the facts are put up to the authorities in an unbiased and impartial manner. In the aftermath of the “spectrum scam”, where even the high and mighty had to face the music, the sanctity of the note-sheets has been restored. Everyone in the government has come to accept the fact that any file may be opened for public scrutiny and every word written on the note-sheet can be taken up for questioning, irrespective of the hierarchy. Thus, such a transparency – both actual and perceived (due to the feeling that every file may be a potential item on a RTI application) - is creating an environment where authorities are averse to taking a decision which is against the rules and regulations.
After the decision is made, the RTI Act gives an opportunity to those affected by the decision to scrutinise it by questioning the same. This enlarges the decision making body adding more legitimacy to it. Such an action enhances the trust of the people in government when they feel that they have a say in decisions of the government. Citizens get involved in the decisions of governance and are able to keep an eye on all government activities including how the public money is allotted and spent. In this manner, the RTI Act plays a vital role in restoring legitimacy to the state by adequately responding to the grievances of the disillusioned citizens who are now able to be a part of the democracy.
The purview of the RTI Act is very wide as it defines Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) which are substantially financed as ‘public authorities’ and brings information relating to them in public domain. Therefore, citizens can raise question to such organisations and demand transparency in their functioning including those of the political parties. Such a use of RTI Act would help in cleaning the political system as it forms the fulcrum of governance. The transparency in working has led to greater accountability. All the institutions of governance – those of government, private sector or the civil society - need to be accountable to the people on whose behalf they claim to govern. All institutions should be accountable to those who will be affected by its decisions or actions and the RTI Act is precisely helping in this aspect.
It is the basic tenet of Good governance to involve all stakeholders in the activities which affect them. Their needs and requirements have to be addressed to within a reasonable timeframe. There should not be building up of undue pressure and legitimate channels of venting out the grievance should exist in every democratic set up. The RTI Act has aided in this process and has led to shortening of the response time. Due to the time bound nature of disposal of application, the authorities are forced to bring out the lapses, if any, in public domain and the remedial process gets initiated.
Statements declaring how many paisas out of the one rupee spent for any development work actually reaches the beneficiary have often been heard with estimates varying between 10-25 paisa. The success of the “jan-sunwai” programme has shown how the RTI Act can be used to ensure that the benefit of the development actually reaches the targeted group. (The readers may recall that Ms. Aruna Roy and others used the “jan-sunwai” in villages to open the muster rolls and other records to the people carrying the details of schemes and the beneficiaries which blew the lid of corrupt practices adopted by the officials). The RTI Act has tremendous power – enough to transform societies radically and change the power equation. By making the entire process of policy planning and implementation transparent, it is leading to delivery of services effectively and efficiently. The monitoring of the development programmes has shown an improvement and the opportunities for misappropriation of development funds is substantially minimized.
A Citizen often feels small and diminutive, just like an ant in front of mighty elephant, when dealing with a big organisation. He neither has the resources nor the time to face an organisation. Here, the RTI Act comes to the rescue of an individual citizen by putting the power directly into the hands of the foundation of democracy - the Citizen, to obtain the desired information without being a part of a group or association. True democracy is not possible until the majesty of the individual Citizen is recognised by giving due respect to the rights of the individual Citizen. So far, no means were available for an individual to be a part of the governance and play a role in planning and execution of policies. The RTI Act has shown the way how a citizen can alone have an impact on governance structure while sitting in his home.
The citizens on whose names the developmental schemes are designed now have the right to know the details of schemes and their relevance to the community, mode of utilisation of funds, and payment of wages to the targeted beneficiary. As the U.S. Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Wherever any subsidy / benefit of any kind are given to a citizen, the disclosure of the list of beneficiaries ensures the weeding out of fictitious names. It has been possible to curb corruption in many places like the Public Distribution System thereby leading to better services. Transparency in the delivery of essential services and the poverty alleviation programmes would ensure accountability. In the long run, such schemes lead to a decrease in crime and a better quality of life. Citizens have used the RTI Act for various purposes like the housing, education, health care amongst others. The benefits of openness and transparency are for all to see and feel.
If one examines the profile of RTI applications in the developed countries, one finds that about 90 per cent of the RTI applications are filed about knowing welfare measures or the policy decisions adopted by the country and the remaining 10 per cent are for individual specific details. Though no authentic data is available for India, it can be safely assumed that the opposite is true. Instances of misuse of the Act are also seen which hopefully would decrease with the advancement of time. The constraints in the implementation of the Act can be looked from three different angles:-
1. Demand Side: The information seeker side shows lack of awareness of the provisions of the Act and has shown that even the simple model for the filing of the RTI applications can be made better. There are operational difficulties and constraints faced by the applicants in the filing of the applications. This is a major impediment towards reaping the benefits of the RTI Act.
2. Supply Side: The machinery for disseminating information needs to be geared up to plug the gaps of poor training to officers and the poor record management practise. An important aspect is to make the officials understand the benefits of transparency and make an attitudinal change. The pro-active disclosure by the public authorities has not received the required emphasis and needs to be given due importance.
3. The Information Commission side: The Information Commission is the last stage of appeal (barring the courts). Many states like Rajasthan have a defunct State Information Commission with no Chief Information Commissioner. The websites of most public authorities including the Information Commission remain poorly updated. The number of appeals pending with the Central Information Commission has reached nearly 20,000 which imply a waiting period of about 12 months for the appeal to come up for hearing. This is a perfect recipe for disaster.
There are many success stories of the innovative use of the RTI Act which inspire us - like its use by a slum dweller to obtain a ration card, for getting a passport, for getting a proof of interference of politicians in transfer and posting, to address issues relating to a rational basis for public policy etc. For the growth of such success stories, schemes like the Call Centre launched by the Bihar State Government named ‘Jaankaari’ where anyone can register their RTI applications, needs to be replicated. As individuals, until we undertake the responsibility of using the power given by the Act, there cannot be good governance. The concept of ‘Ram-rajya’ has been a dream as far as governance is concerned and the RTI Act is proving itself to be a very important tool in achieving the same. Its widespread use has the potential of empowering the citizens and engaging them for improving the governance in the country in a quick manner. By promoting participative democracy, the RTI Act is strengthening the ideals of democracy and facilitating the effective delivery of socio-economic services leading to a better quality of life for its citizens. Are you giving it a helping hand?