A Decade of Right to Information Act in India: Reflections and Perspectives for Good Governance
“From being always overpowered, he actually felt powerful.”
-Mr. Shailesh Gandhi
In the backdrop of slogans like “Hamara paisa, Hamara hisab” and “Ham Janenge, Ham Jiyenge”, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (Association for the Empowerment of Workers and Peasants), a People`s Organisation undertook the bold initiative to arouse the common people about their right to seek information which eventually led to a legislation called ‘Right to Information Act, 2005.’ By mid 1994, MKSS had formulated a specific demand for copies of financial records of expenditure incurred in the local government institutions including Panchayats. However, since there was no legal entitlement to access relevant information even within the Panchayat, the MKSS had to mostly rely on informal means and sympathetic officials for access to these documents. Once procured, these records were closely examined by the people of the concerned Panchayats. Public hearings were organized where residents came together to verify and audit the work of their Panchayat through individual and collective testimonies. Thus, the demand for transparency, accountability, and redressal through social audit (physical audit by the people), began to take shape. The first Public Hearing the MKSS organized in December 1994 established the importance of information for the people, and exposed the official opposition to disclosure of records. This flagged off the struggle for the people’s Right to Information.[i]
Undoubtedly, the RTI Act has contributed in a very large measure to the efforts for ensuring greater probity, greater transparency and greater accountability in the work of public authorities and the way RTI has brought to light many maladies plaguing the nation echoes its success. It is generally understood as the right to access information held by public authorities but, it is not just a necessity for the citizens; it is a precondition to good governance. It promotes a citizen-government partnership. As Mr. M. M. Ansari aptly pointed out in 2008, “The principle of partnership is derived from the fact that people are not only the ultimate beneficiaries of development, but also the agents of development. The stakeholders’ participation leads to better project and more dynamic development.”[ii]
It is a simple and unsophisticated legislation, easy to understand and use, which in turn, augments its appeal to the common man. It empowers individual citizens to requisition information; to dismantle the culture of secrecy and the primary power of RTI lies therein. Hence without necessarily forming pressure groups or associations, it puts power directly into the hands of the foundation of democracy — the citizens.
The dynamic RTI pioneer Aruna Roy says, “What we are witnessing is a potentially massive transfer of power. This is democracy at the grassroots, and that is why it is hard to believe that the government will let go of the amendments. RTI has opened a million cans of worms. It has put the fear of God into the bureaucracy.”
Thus, we can unanimously hail that official India is changing. In the past ten years, common man has been able to expose major scams and facilitate transparency mechanisms for common good. And here are the top ten revelations:[iii]
The Vyapam Scam is one of the biggest scams plaguing Madhya Pradesh which involved a major racket whereby seats in colleges were sold for cash and several exams were rigged by means of payment, impersonation, the bogie system and tampering with OMR sheets of examinations. The consequent arrests were made possible by whistleblower Anand Rai.
ADARSH SOCIETY SCAM
The applications filed by RTI activists, Yogacharya Anandji and Simpreet Singh in 2008, were pivotal in discovering links between politicians and military officials, among others. The 31-storey building, which had permission for six floors only, was originally meant to house war widows and veterans. Instead, the flats went to several politicians, bureaucrats and their relatives.
KERELA HIGH COURT VERDICT
The ruling of the Kerala High Court that even an applicant under the Right to Information Act gets immunity from legal proceedings against him/her based on the statements in application is a respite for RTI activists.[iv]
RTI queries by a local activist revealed that the kerosene supplied by the Department of Food Supplies and Consumer Welfare during Maghmela, (festival of Odisha) was grossly misappropriated. The siphoned kerosene was supplied to retailers who then opened temporary fair price shops at places.
ASSAM AND MAHARSHTRA PDS SCAM
NGO based in Assam, Krishak Mukti Sangram Samiti, filed a RTI request that revealed irregularities in the distribution of food meant for people below the poverty line. The allegations were probed and several government officials arrested. A RTI query unearthed a major scam in the PDS of Maharshtra wherein as many as 42 lakh bogus ration cards were issued between 1995-2009 leading to a massive theft of food grains. A rough estimate of grains of Rs 25000 crores was misappropriated and such ration cards got cancelled.
APPROPRIATION OF RELIEF FUNDS
In 2008, RTI application by an NGO based in Punjab revealed that bureaucrats heading local branches of the Indian Red Cross Society used money intended for victims of the Kargil war and natural disasters to inter alia buy cars, air-conditioners etc. Local courts charged the officials found responsible with fraud and the funds were transferred to the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund.
POLITICAL PARTIES OPEN TO RTI SCRUTINY
In a maiden step to make political parties publicly accountable about their financial assets, the Supreme Court in July, 2015 asked six national parties to come clean and explain their hesitation to disclose complete details of their income, expenditure, donations, funding, including donor details, to the public under RTI.
UPSC TO SHOW MARKS TO CIVIL SERVICES ASPIRANTS
The Central Information Commission directed the Union Public Services Commission (UPSC) to declare individual marks scored by 2,400 candidates who appeared for the Civil Services Preliminary examinations in 2006 and ordered it to declare cut-off marks for each subject (CIC/WB order, November 13, 2006).
WHISTLE BLOWERS` PROTECTION ACT, 2011
This Act provides a mechanism to investigate alleged corruption and misuse of power by public servants and also protect anyone who exposes alleged wrongdoing in government bodies, projects and offices.
NRIS CAN USE RTI
As a major reward for ordinary Indians staying abroad, the Centre allowed the sale of Indian Postal Orders (IPOs) through the internet to citizens living abroad. The plan is to also allow them to directly file their RTI query related with central government departments online which gained momentum due to RTI activist Mr. Lokesh Batra.
Concerns & Suggestions
There are concerns about frivolous and vexatious use of the Act in demanding information, the disclosure of which cannot possibly serve any public purpose. Such queries besides serving little productive social purpose also drain the resources of the public authorities, diverting precious man-hours that could be put to better use.
Concerns have also been raised regarding possible infringement of personal privacy while providing information under RTI. Ideally, a fine balance is required to be maintained between the Right to information and the right to privacy, which stems out of the Fundamental Right to Life and liberty. One of the major lacunas that stagnate the situation is the leniency by Centre for States to formulate their own rules for implementing RTI thereby, encouraging States to misuse the Act, for instance, Allahabad government charging Rs. 500/- for filing an application under RTI.[v]
It has been observed that the custom of having a single Bench of the Commission in the State Capital makes it inconvenient for parties to commute frequently for hearings especially when the parties are poor. Maharashtra government made it easier for the parties by constituting the Main office in Mumbai and others in Nagpur, Pune, Aurangabad, Nasik, Navi Mumbai, Amravati.
Instead of setting up various branches of the Commission, one can also emulate the Haryana model of setting up a Centre in the districts equipped with video-conferencing facilities. The parties can report to the nearest Centre and attend the hearing in a hassle-free manner. Devising a mechanism to generate SMS alerts to the parties one or two days prior to the date of hearing can massively aid huge pendency of cases. Bihar came up with “Jaankari”, the RTI Call Centre which was also awarded the best e-governance initiative by Indian Government. This exemplary initiative provided a number to file an application (155311) under RTI and the other number which served as the RTI helpline (155310).[vi]
Though not fully by any means, feudal, secretive India has adapted to an open information culture sooner than anyone could have anticipated. In only ten years, the RTI has not just penetrated the fear of common people into the nerves of bureaucracy and more miraculously, acquired a resilience that its authors could not have envisaged. Quoting Justice Mathew from State of UP v. Raj Narain (1975)[vii]:
"In a government of responsibility like ours, where all the agents of the public must be responsible for their conduct, there can be but few secrets. The people of this country have a right to know every public act, everything that is done in a public way by their public functionaries. They are entitled to know the particulars of every public transaction in all its bearing. Their right to know, which is derived from the concept of freedom of speech, though not absolute, is a factor which should make one wary when secrecy is claimed for transactions which can at any rate have no repercussion on public security."
[vii]State Of U.P vs Raj Narain & Ors 1975 AIR 865
Akanksha Prakash is a Student Reporter at Live Law and a third year student of Government Law College, Mumbai.