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Decade on, why RTI needs a second revolution

A number of significant disclosures were forced by the RTI, including the information regarding 2G and Commonwealth Games and so on.

Written by Satyananda Mishra |
Updated: October 13, 2015 11:19:27 am
RTI759 The RTI has had the effect of slackening the tight hold of the government and its officials on both information and instrumentalities of the state.

The Right to Information Act is now 10 years old — long enough to give us a fair idea of how it has performed on the ground. Riding on a huge wave of civil society activism, it started on a positive note and made unexpected impact early on. It promised to herald transparency and accountability in government functioning and thus reduce corruption. A number of significant disclosures were forced by the RTI, including the information regarding 2G and Commonwealth Games and so on. Among the educated and city dwellers, the RTI spread faster.

Most importantly, it led to the demand for several other equally important rights like the right to employment guarantee, the right to education and the right to food security. The RTI has had the effect of slackening the tight hold of the government and its officials on both information and instrumentalities of the state. The decade following 2005 witnessed the slow withering away of the Central government and the RTI surely played a role in that unravelling — by increasing irreverence, scrutiny and through the critiquing of its authority among the general public. However, of late, one witnesses a waning of fervour even though the number of RTI applications has been growing. We examine here the reasons for that.

Understandably, from the beginning, civil society activists and the media have been more enthusiastic about the RTI than civil servants, who have traditionally used information as the source of their power and mystique. The civil service’s indifference and hostility towards the RTI has not diminished over the years; if at all, it has only increased although many government servants, no doubt mostly disgruntled, have also been most successful users of RTI, largely seeking information to fix their own cases and fix those they did not like. Ordinary citizens mostly seek personal information regarding various services otherwise denied to them by the system, be it a passport or a ration card or various commonly required certificates. Since disclosure of such information poses little threat to the system, the public authorities share such information relatively easily.

It is the contentious or potentially controversial information that the public authorities have been very wary of disclosing. Thus, as far as personal information goes or information of an innocuous kind, the RTI has been a success. But as a tool to inculcate the value of transparency, the RTI has neither sunk deep into the government nor among most of the citizenry.

The civil society enthusiasm for the RTI has declined; some leading stars of the movement that led to the RTI have moved on to politics or other equally important areas like analytical studies for the World Bank. Many small-time blackmailers, in the guise of media persons or RTI activists, have successfully milked the RTI to make a living or settle personal scores, thus giving it a bad name among public authorities. As such, the RTI has, in its rise as well as in its decline, done a lot of good to many people. The public authorities, and their otherwise harried employees, must be heaving a sigh of relief now that the pressure is less.

The initial interest shown by the media has also somewhat waned. The attitude of the judiciary, in any case, was always ambivalent from the very beginning; many high courts had framed very restrictive rules — some even fixing a Rs 500 fee for each piece of information demanded (clearly not intended by the RTI Act), and thus making it very difficult for people to access the information held by courts. Between the Supreme Court and several high courts, a large number of decisions by information commissions have been stayed for years, without much explanation. This has created an impression among the public authorities that the judiciary is not very appreciative of the RTI or the way it is used by citizens.

The contribution of the information commissions, both Central and state, in diluting the public interest in the RTI is no less. Long pendency in most information commissions — some even for a year or more — signals their casual approach. This, in turn, emboldens public authorities to take the RTI casually. Besides, a widespread reluctance to penalise errant government officials also contributes to a general sense of laxity in the enforcement of this law. The appointment of information commissioners, especially in the states — many of whom are not equal to the task in terms of intellect and stature — has seriously undermined the citizen’s trust in information commissions. The absence of enforcement provisions in the law has rendered the information commissions toothless.

The law is too ambitiously and, some say, unrealistically drafted as it defines both “information” and “public authority” in the widest possible manner. As a result, the sheer volume and variety of information being sought places a huge burden on the public authorities. This induces a strong sense of resistance in them. Poor record-keeping makes retrieval of information very cumbersome. In most offices, the public information officer is a reluctant low-level official, without much clue about the information held or sought. Consequently, the response of the public authorities has often been sub-optimal and unsatisfactory for information seekers. Finally, in spite of the mandate of the RTI Act, most public authorities have failed to digitise their records and make proactive disclosure of their information in the public domain.

Looking back, one can say the RTI has achieved much but clearly, it seems to have reached a plateau now. One witnesses the same old faces, some weary and tired, at all RTI meetings. People inside the public authorities seem to have taken the RTI in their stride. It would surely need a second revolution to revive the old fervour with which the RTI was first initiated. As far as laws go, the RTI Act has been the best thing to happen after the Constitution of India; we must make it work.

The writer is former secretary, DoPT, and a former CIC

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