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Holding government to account

Right to information admittedly presents large challenges for public authorities,but it is crucial for a complex nation like ours

Written by Wajahat Habibullah |
November 1, 2011 11:32:40 pm

As the Right to Information Act (RTI) celebrated the sixth year of its coming,there has been much heated discussion,often emotional,of the benefits that it has brought and also the challenges with which it has confronted government. This debate came to a head with the prime minister’s inaugural address to the Annual Convention of the Central Information Commission on October 14.

It is accepted in all circles that the essence of government in a democracy must be transparency with every organ of government — executive,judiciary and legislature — being answerable to the citizen. Hence the father of the nation,when describing his vision of self governance for India,described it as follows:

“The real Swaraj will come not by the acquisition of authority by a few but by the acquisition of capacity by all to resist authority when abused”

India’s Right to Information Act,2005 therefore,asserts that democracy requires an informed citizenry and transparency of information,which are vital to its functioning and also to contain corruption and to hold governments and their instrumentalities accountable to the governed. This is a universal truth of particular relevance to us as a country,the government of which has,at least since the ‘70s,remained committed to “garibi hatao” . In the words of Kofi Annan,the former UN secretary general:

“The great democratising power of information has given us all the chance to effect change and alleviate poverty in ways we cannot even imagine today. Our task,your task— is to make that change real for those in need,wherever they may be. With information on our side,with knowledge of a potential for all,the path to poverty can be reversed.”

This thought found resonance in the prime minister’s speech introducing the bill in Parliament on May 11,2005:

“I believe that the passage of this bill will see the dawn of a new era in our processes of governance,an era of performance and efficiency,an era which will ensure that benefits of growth flow to all sections of our people,an era which will eliminate the scourge of corruption,an era which will bring the common man’s concern to the heart of all processes of governance,an era which will truly fulfil the hopes of the founding fathers of our republic.”

But for whom are the benefits intended? We know that infrastructure in India is woefully inadequate despite privatisation; employment growth of 2.1 per cent in 1983 had in fact declined to 1.84 per cent in 2004; in the health sector there are regional,socio-economic,caste and gender-based disparities; Centre-state fiscal relations are a matter of concern; an institutional framework for public-private partnership is still to be developed; access to justice is not universal despite the rise of panchayati raj. Finally,because of the demands of national security versus social security and individual freedom,the essence of democracy,which respects the sovereignty of individual liberty,is vague at best. Some of these challenges,specifically the need to address threat to whistle-blowers,were cited by Dr Manmohan Singh in his address.

In this context,it is important to dwell on the definition of “information” in the Act. Information means any material in any form including records,documents,memos,emails,opinions,advice,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”. As the PM mentioned in his address,this will clearly bring under the Act almost the entire scope of the economic firmament,which,thanks to the heritage of our “welfare state”,is answerable to government in a wide host of sectors. Key concepts under the right to information,then,include the following:

Transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority.

The right of any citizen of India to request access to information and the corresponding duty of the government to meet the request,except the exempted information.

The duty of the government to proactively make available key information to all.

Clearly then,this law places a responsibility on all sections of the national fabric: citizenry,NGOs and the media. The responsibility is not that of government alone. This brings into context the PM’s call,on October 14,to all participants in the process to flag the challenges that government and the citizenry face in applying the law. What must follow then is the obligation so clearly enunciated in Section 4 (1) of the Act.

“ Every public authority shall — a) maintain all its records duly catalogued and indexed in a manner and form which facilitates the right to information under this Act and ensure that all records that are appropriate to be computerised are,within a reasonable time and subject to availability of resources,computerised and connected through a network all over the country on different systems so that access to such records is facilitated”

And what then is a “public authority”? This covers any authority or body or institution of self-government established or constituted —

by or under the Constitution;

by any other law made by Parliament;

by any other law made by state legislature;

by notification issued or order made by the appropriate government,and includes any body owned,controlled or substantially financed; non-government organisation substantially financed,directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate government.

The right to information includes the right to inspect works,documents,records,take notes,extracts or certified copies of documents or records,take certified samples of material,obtain information in form of printouts,diskettes,floppies,tapes,video cassettes or in any other electronic mode or through printouts. It does not extend to information not held in material form.

The writer was chief information commissioner to the government of India

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