As information commissioner, I have dealt with over 20,000 cases, during which I had the opportunity to interact with a large number of RTI (The Right to Information Act) users and public information officers (PIOs). Generally, PIOs refer to most applicants who file RTI applications regularly as “blackmailers”, “harassers” and those who were misusing the RTI Act.
I will broadly divide those who file a large number of RTI applications in the following categories: One, those who file RTI applications with the hope of exposing corruption or arbitrariness in governance; two, those who file RTI applications repeatedly to correct a wrong they think has been done to them; three, those who use the RTI to blackmail people. This category largely targets illegal buildings, mining or some other activity which runs foul of the law; and four, those who use the Act to harass a public official to get some undue favour.
In my experience, less than 10 per cent of the applications belong to the last two categories. I have often asked government officers how the blackmailers operate. They say the RTI blackmailer threatens a person who has committed an illegal action with exposure and extorts money. Empathy for the “victims”, who have committed illegal acts, is touching! However, the fourth category must be discouraged. Information commissioners can do this fairly easily.
The constant refrain that the RTI provision is misused is nothing but an attempt to muzzle a citizen’s fundamental right. The freedom of speech and media, covered under Article 19 (1) (a), have been expanding with time. There is a national debate when a movie is subjected to cuts or people or media are muzzled by the government, the political class or ruffians.
Reasonable restrictions can be imposed on the freedom of expression under Article 19 (2). The exemptions in the RTI Act cover these. If RTI is curbed, the day is not far when we will have to give reasons to speak and establish our identity. A person can be defamed by speech or writing. Should we now demand that only those persons who give reasons and establish their identity be allowed to speak?
Some years ago, the Supreme Court said the RTI “should not be allowed to be misused or abused, to become a tool to obstruct national development and integration, or to destroy peace, tranquility and harmony among citizens”. The SC has also said the RTI may take up 75 per cent of an officer’s time. The total number of RTI applications filed in India annually is less than 10 million. The total number of all government employees is over 20 million. Assuming a six-hour work day for 250 working days, there are 30,000 million working hours in a year. If an employee spends an average of three hours per RTI application, only 30 million hours will be required for 10 million applications.
In short, it will require on average 3.2 per cent of the government’s work force to spend 3.2 per cent of their work time to furnish information on all RTI applications filed annually. It is unfortunate that public authorities are not castigated for flouting their obligations under the Act, but citizens are upbraided for exercising a fundamental right.
The powerful are upset with the RTI and hence, try to discredit it by talking about its misuse. Many eminent persons berate the RTI and call for restricting its use. There is widespread acceptance that statements, books and works of literature and art are covered by Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution. Any attempt to curb this is met with stiff resistance. However, there is not even a murmur of protest when RTI users are labelled deprecatingly, though this is covered by the same Article of the Constitution. The powerful seem to say: “I will risk my life for your right to express your views, but damn you if you use the RTI in a manner I don’t approve.”
An information seeker can only seek recorded information. If the records expose a wrongdoing, it is silly to blame the RTI. No one blames the media for the scams it unearths. India is rated among the top five nations in the world in terms of provisions of the RTI Act and ranked 66 in terms of implementation. The law must not be amended. Also, the frivolous attitude towards the Act has built the impression that the RTI needs to be curbed and activists can be targeted. This must stop.