We will know, we will live - RTI
It would be prudent to end the year with a critical look at the RTI Act, 2005 since its inception. This paper attempts to have a broad view of the different issues plaguing RTI and suggests the way forward.
We will know, we will live - RTI
“Information is the currency of democracy”
- Thomas Jefferson
Abstract/ Background of the paper
Knowledge is synonymous with power and greater consciousness of humans have arrived because of access to knowledge. The notion of Democracy is as old as human civilisation and still the concept of a vigilant citizen has yet to get the due importance. The title of this paper is a slogan raised by the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) in 1997 after Prabhash Joshi wrote a historic editorial in the Jansatta newspaper entitled "Hum Jaanenge, Hum Jiyenge" (We will know, we will live) when secrecy in the government files was the rule and disclosure an exception. They were demanding right to information, the most appreciable and significant tool for citizens to examine the performance of their elected representatives and keeping democracy a true democracy. Before the MKSS, Supreme court in Bennett Coleman v. UoI (1973) recognised RTI as concomitant of the Right to freedom of Speech and Expression under Article 19(1). As the RTI Act walks towards adulthood having completed 17 years of its existence, it is time to take a stock of the problems being faced to ensure that the Act achieves the goal for which it was envisaged. This article tries to highlight the major problems faced by citizens, PIOs and how these problems are decreasing the efficiency of this revolutionary act and also suggest steps, so that necessary action can be taken.
Let’s keep the revolutionary flame alive - addressing issues in the implementation of the RTI Act at different levels.
- Public authority
A public authority was supposed to pro-actively disclose information under section 4 of the Act so that an applicant gets most of the information without having to file an application. Further, the computerization and maintenance of records was to be done in the prescribed time limit which alas, remains a work in progress even till date. The updating of the website of the public authorities as well as the training of the PIO/FAA needs to be taken up promptly on a regular basis. An ill-trained and overburdened PIO is a disaster for the RTI Act, especially if he has no empathy for the cause. It wouldn’t be a surprise if such a PIO discourages the citizens from filing application, refuses information on flimsy grounds and sets in order a vicious cycle of appeals and delays. Many PIOs are not aware of the provisions of the Act which is accentuated by absence of behavioural training and awareness about assistance provision. Attitude of not owning up responsibility causes inappropriate transfer of RTI applications without confirming if the recipient of application is the holder of the information. There is little motivation for the PIO to perform and hence, it is not merely the ‘quantity’, but also the ‘quality’ of information delivered which is diminishing the efficiency of the act.
Awareness about the Act is still little and the art of requisitioning the information is the first thing which hits the RTI applicant. If the application is not well drafted, the probability of rejection of information by claiming that what is sought is not covered under the definition of information under section 2(f) “information” means any material in any form, including records, documents, memos, e-mails, opinions, advices, 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; of the RTI Act becomes high.
In many cases the cost of seeking information is life. The step by the Information Commission to provide that information which was sought by the deceased activist on its website would deter the perpetrators, but the issue deserves greater interest by the parliamentarians to consider institutional protection in deserving cases.
A small fraction of applicants have misused the RTI Act which is often being flagged around to disproportionately defame the whole Act.
- Information Commission
The pendency of cases at Central Information Commission today very high and it is rare for a case to come up for hearing before 12 months. Similar is the state of affairs in most of the State Information Commissions. With such a huge pendency, it is surprising to see a large number of vacancies in the Information Commission.
Amongst the current incumbents, almost all the Information Commissioners are retired bureaucrats. The work of Civil Servants demands secrecy which is completely opposite to what this act requires. The fraternity and inertia acquired over decades of service would intrinsically make such individuals ‘soft’ to lapses of the erstwhile colleagues. There are many orders where the Information Commission has recorded the lapse on the part of the PIO but has shied away from imposing penalty. Despite the Supreme Court directions in the PIL filed by activist Anjali Bhardwaj to appoint eminent persons from different areas, the situation has not changed.
There is rising concern that CIC orders are not taken seriously by government. One such example is- In 2017 Justice Sanjeev issued notice to Department of Forest, Wild life, Environment; and Urban Development, Delhi Government and sought replies on implementation of CIC’s order passed on August 5, 2011. It gives the impression that either the RTI Act does not provide the Commission ample powers to deal with the cases of contempt and non-compliance, or Commission is failing to exercise them.
Unless and until the pendency is kept at manageable level, the objective of the Act would be defeated.
The media has reported many stories about RTI. It should now focus on spreading awareness of the right to information and how an ordinary citizen can use it for improving his surroundings. A common citizen is yet to realise that the Act empowers him and makes him as strong as an elected representative to raise question in the legislative body.
The role of Judiciary is paramount in the origin and spread of transparency, of which the RTI Act is a small subset. It has been the protector of civil rights and has led the way.
When there is a choice of using one of the two modes for obtaining information, it should be upto the citizen to choose what he perceives as the convenient option. However, the Court has held that the provisions of the RTI Act do not prevail over the Court Rules and a citizen has only one option to seek information.
The Apex Court has also been criticised for its inability to ensure the implementation of its own order regarding the appointment of Information Commissioner.
The fine literal interpretation of the Act making a distinction between Appeal and Complaint provisions has made the path difficult for a citizen.
As Fali S Nariman said, “I may not like one or two judgments, I may criticise the judgments, but ultimately, I believe the court is the greatest saviour of our liberties”.
- Political leadership
Irrespective of the political ideology, very few governments across the globe have welcomed transparency as it questions their action. Vigilante citizens are perhaps the only solution to demand a more effective implementation of the RTI Act from the government.
Analysis and Conclusion- Always a revolutionary Act
Transparency and accountability cannot be achieved in a day and is an ongoing process. It is not to say that the RTI Act is failing or has lost its sheen, the many success stories show that the Act is gaining universal acceptance. Some of the factors considered above show not only the problem, but also indicate the solution. In addition, the following steps may be considered.
- Some of the supra mentioned problems are being tackled by government, NGOs and people individually, and sometimes together. Two small initiatives show the path of progress.
- Concept of “open RTI Library” was started by Pune Municipal Corporation after the officials observed that most of information that people ask falls under section 4 of the RTI Act. They have kept a notebook for suggestions and complaints in the library. Outcome- Number of RTI applications has come down because of the proactive disclosure of information through RTI library.
- SARTHI- Chinchwad Municipal Corporation, Pimpri, Maharashtra)- information was prepared in the format of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs). 774 Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) were finalized for 45 departments. In order to address the needs of different groups of citizens, a multi-pronged approach of delivery viz. through a Book, Website, Mobile application, e – Book, pdf Book and Helpline (Call Centre) was designed. Complaint can be registered through a call.
- Emerging technology such as AI have the potential to change the modalities of dissemination of information and should be incorporated as one of the prime strategies.
- The DoPT has issued the directions for RTI Audit and it can be a game changer. If the government is able to ‘push’ for the disclosure through proper implementation of section 4 of the Act, it would be a great boost to transparency.
- The inclusion of the RTI Act in the school curriculum has been a longstanding demand which should be met with.
- The awareness of the Act can be spread more effectively by the fourth pillar of democracy, the Press, and its new avatar, the social media. Media is emerging as a trainer for the PIOs/ FAAs and for dissemination of information at a very low cost. It is also providing a platform for synergy and sharing of ideas.
RTI has made Indian democracy a more participatory one and is a hard earned gem in our governance. It is both - a tool to usher in involvement of the citizens in the democratic process and also to strengthen it. Long live the right to information.
1 AIR 1973 SC 106
2 Final Understanding the “Key Issues and Constraints” in implementing the RTI Act- pricewaterhousecoopers
4 [F.No.2/Management Regulation2007/CIC-MR dated 18.06.2018]
8 Review Petition [C] No.2309/2012 in WP [C] No. 210/2012 UoI Vs Namit Sharma
9 Chief Information Commissioner Vs. State of Manipur AIR 2012 SC 864
11 Compendium of Best RTI practices, vol I, department of personnel and training.
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- Chief Information Commissioner vs High Court Of Gujarat on 4 March, 2020 (indiankanoon.org)
- Fali S Nariman: ‘You can criticise it but no one must shake the foundation. Then, it becomes an earthquake’ | India News,The Indian Express
Dr Anuradha Verma
RTI Consultant (IIM Vishakhapatnam)
Ms. Manvi Mudgal
2nd Year, Law Centre II, Faculty of Law, University Enclave, Delhi.