In a democratic country the first step towards good governance is voting. But voting is not just good enough. You need to keep a close eye on your elected government. That’s your Step no.2. In order to do that, Right to Information Act is one of the best tools that Indian citizens have got in past 65 years of independence.
The Right to Information Act was implemented in India on October 12, 2005. It is quite possible that our politicians did not completely understand the power of this law; else they wouldn’t have been so forthcoming in giving it a nod. Or maybe, with a holistic understanding of what this law could do, our politicians implemented the law to keep a tab on the bureaucrats that, over the years, had become a thorn in the eyes of the rulers. Whatever the reasons may be, after the implementation of this law, a series of unearthing of several corrupt practices started to roll. The scandals that would remain hidden in the past started becoming accessible to common people at a nominal access fee. The government’s misgivings started getting exposed. This law is based on the simple principle that if this is our government, then we have a right to access its paperwork. Therefore, leaving aside documents of National security and documents that come under the official secrets act, all government documents are available to citizens. The law is definitely one of the most landmark laws made in post-independence India.
‘Misuse’ is a lie
After the law began being used widely, there also began a huge hue and cry about how it is being misused. There couldn’t be a more baseless argument than this one. The information gathered under this law was said to be used to hold government officials ransom. Primarily, how could an official be blackmailed, had he/she not engaged in any wrongdoing in the first place? How is it just to engage in malpractices and corruption and then point fingers at people threatening to expose them? Of course, just like it is wrong for the traffic police to ask for a bribe from an offender, it is wrong if someone is using the information for blackmailing the officials. But at the same time, for the offender to be fined, there is a significant need for the existence of the traffic police. Right to Information Act is also a kind of a traffic police – a vigilante to keep a tab those entering the no-entry lane of corruption. The trouble is that the amount of people entering this lane is so high, that the existing police mechanism isn’t sufficient. Besides, just like traffic officials were beaten up in the city a while back, similar attempts keep happening against the RTI activists. But this will not deter these activists from doing their moral duties because it is the need of the hour. As one can infer, if people start hoarding into a no-entry lane, the traffic comes to a standstill. The same is true of our nation’s progress. To not let this happen, we, at Parivartan, make it a point to train more and more people to join the force.
The second most common accusation against the RTI activists is that they ask for irrelevant information. This charge is equally baseless. Who is to decide whether a certain document has been demanded unnecessarily or whether it is really important? Will the officials themselves decide whether a particular piece of information is important or not? In addition to that, another issue that comes forward is that it is practically impossible for a common man to ask for specific information from a government office. In such cases, it becomes more convenient to simply get a hold of all of the information and then personally sit down and weed out the unnecessary documents. For instance, if I sense some corruption in the functioning of a government project, I may not know at what step in the system the corruption is taking place (let’s be real, how could I?). So, under the RTI, I ask for a copy of all the files related to that project. I also pay the charges of Rs 2 per page to obtain the said copies. Some of the files I obtain may end up not being useful at all, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t ask for them at all.
Everyone has heard the anecdote about Thomas Alva Edison inventing the light bulb after failing in hundreds of previous attempts. Researching through the RTI is a similar enquiry. People who expect RTI activists to specifically ask for the information that is of concern are the same people who ask why Edison didn’t try the 100th way first.
Yet another objection from the officials is that the number of RTI applications is so high that it bites into their work. This may not be a complete hogwash, but this claim is only partially acceptable. Because the RTI law itself states that every government office must appoint an RTI officer to entertain applications from the people. But in most cases, one of the existing members of the office is made into a part time RTI officer. How will that person cater to both his responsibilities? Obviously then, the RTI starts to feel like an infringement into his/her work. The lack of man power shows the inefficiency of the government and also proves that the law is flawless.
Some people also believe that a certain group of people use this law for personal benefits than for social welfare. This is why; the RTI is seen as a whim of a person infected by the bug of activism. However, what needs to be made clear right now is that the personal use of the RTI is a right of every citizen of this country and in fact, such use must be encouraged. What if a senior citizen’s pension payment is being held back by an official? What if the official is then asking for a bribe? Then, under the RTI, he could ask all the questions like – 1. Under which law has the pension been held back? 2. What is the procedure? 3. And if a complaint has to be filed against the officer illegally holding back the pension, where should it be filed? 4. After the complaint is lodged, what are the specifications with respect to time and which laws are applicable for the same? Now, if the senior citizen uses the RTI for this personal benefit, what is wrong in that?
That apart, the law doesn’t ask you to state reasons behind demanding any document. Therefore, whether it is a personal query or for social welfare, is not a matter of concern. Not every oppressed person in this huge country of ours has backing from an organisation and neither is it necessary that every person has to have this backing. Every single independent citizen of India can individually use the RTI to put an end to the oppression by the government agencies.
To summarise, the claims that the RTI is being misused is entirely false and misdirected. The anti-RTI propaganda is itself proof enough of how effective the law really is.
Politicians smothering the law
Maharashtra’s state government has tried to put conditions like imposing a word limit on the RTI application and to restrict applicants to only one query per application. Not a single political party from the state has raised their voice against this irrationality. But an interesting turn of events with respect to the stand on the RTI took place recently.
A few months ago, the Central Information Commissioner (CIC) appointed by this law, passed a decision that brought political parties under the purview of the RTI. That caused chaos in most political parties. Because, all the accounts of the party’s funds, expenditures, would now be open. Everyone would know whether the internal politics of a party follows democratic procedure. Party leadership must be under pressure that people might see the corrupt practices and use of brute force in the operations of the party. Therefore, an amendment that renders the CIC’s decision moot was tabled in the parliament. The peoples’ representatives themselves came forth to strangle and smother the law that empowers the people.
When the Congress party presented this amendment, the aspiring BJP also joined hands initially1. And now that the BJP changed its stand and opposed this amendment2, the proposal was forwarded to the standing committee for further discussion. When this proposal is actually put to vote in the parliament, every party’s point of view will obviously come forth clearly, but there is no need to wait that long. Because according to the CIC decision passed on June 3, 2013, it was expected from all political parties to nominate their Public Information Officer and voluntarily disclose all information (according to section 4 of the law) within six weeks3, i.e. July 15. Of the six national parties, if one checks how many have actually implemented this order, the answer, sadly, is none (check their official websites if you like). Should one assume that the parties are unwilling to come under the purview of the RTI?
Our parliament follows representative democracy. Our PM is not elected directly by the people, but is selected from among the elected representatives. Therefore, no matter which good soul is selected as the head of the nation, the parliament functions majorly due to the other 543 MPs. Laws are passed based on the opinion of the majority party or the majority coalition of 272 members or more. If the BJP, Congress, NCP, BSP, SP, CPI and other major parties in this country are going to refuse to bring transparency in their operations, then it is a matter of grave concern, according to us. And if the parties don’t want to be transparent in their internal functioning, one might wonder how transparent they will be in running the country. And it is fairly conclusive that where there is a lack of transparency, corruption and other malpractices will bloom. Therefore, we urge the political parties to voluntarily show us the willingness to be open about their operations and show that they are working honestly, for the people, through their actions.
Information is Power
The RTI is a very strong tool. However, the fact remains that Government’s mechanism to successfully implement this act has fallen way short, especially with regards to section 4. This section lists the subjects whose information has to be voluntarily made available by any government office. This list consists of 17 categories – all the employees, their designations and duties, their salaries, details of the work undertaken by the office, the law under which this office operates, the agenda set to accomplish the office’s objectives, minutes of the meetings, financial estimates, account details and other such important details. The section also says that this information should be available on the website of these departments for a normal citizen’s ease of access. It is also expected to update this information on an annual basis. If this section is well and truly implemented across all the departments of the government, total transparency will no longer be a utopian dream. But this doesn’t seem to be the consensus in government offices.
Why should the people have to file applications under the RTI? If the government willingly publishes all this information then it will easily empower the people and make way for a cleaner system. Most of the government’s administrative problems begin with a certain lack of transparency. All the laws are not easily available for access to us. What laws govern the functioning of the PMC? Who governs the process of working at such agencies? On the basis of which law was Pune’s Development plan chalked? – These are some of the things a common man can never get his hands on. It is not feasible to go to the market and buy a book every time. The laws keep changing and it doesn’t make sense to buy the same book over and over again, every time there is an amendment. Technological advances have made it possible to store and distribute large amount of information very easily. Why isn’t this information, be it laws, documents or other details, digitised and published on websites where it could be easily tracked by any ordinary citizen. But these websites too are severely sub-standard. The official website of the Indian Parliament, however, is really commendable. It consists of all the new proposals, bills, information about the MPs, the questions they raised in the house and the Government’s response to those questions as well as the attendance of a particular MP is readily available. Why can’t this amount of transparency exist in the Maharashtra State Assembly’s website? Or in the PMC website, for that matter? Pune is known as the IT hub but the PMC’s latest update is not directly available through their site. The decisions taken by various committees of the PMC are unavailable. And no one seems to want to look into this matter seriously.
Recently, while speaking to a PMC officer, he revealed, “Even if we make the laws accessible, what do people understand from them?” My response is that as long as you don’t provide people with material to read, analyse and understand, how will they begin to comprehend what goes on in the system? Was the RTI used only people well versed in the field of law? On the contrary, most RTI activists are common people and have mastered the craft from self-experience and by reading the law. Open the doors of information to the people and see how enthusiastic they are about it. But everything is chaos right now. No one can figure out what goes on inside the offices of the government. When this happens, the people start to drift away from their government. This disinterest and cynicism has developed among the people due to this deceitful operation that the officials engage in. People need to be taken into confidence; it must be made sure that the information reaches to the very last person and they must be made a part of the decision making process. And if our political parties are going to lag behind in doing this, we will have to be bold enough to question them and those rejecting the offer of transparency even after questioning should be shown the door when the opportunity comes.
In today’s scenario, the politicians and government officials know more about the laws than the citizens in general. Therefore they appear to be superior. But when the people have the same amount of information available to them, it is then that we will have set foot on the right course towards an ideal democracy.
-Translated by Omkar Rege.
(Original Marathi article is published in weekly Vivek of 14th October 2013)