It appears that the entire political spectrum may be preparing to muzzle the Right to Information (RTI) with the excuse that it is being misused. Some amendments may be introduced to muzzle it.
Samajwadi Party MP Naresh Agarwal has levelled a charge that Parliament passed the RTI Act under pressure from the US. NCP’s Praful Patel matched this by saying that paanwallahs and chaiwallahs seek information under the RTI. Congress’ Rajiv Shukla went along with this, almost repudiating his party’s biggest achievement. All these people do not understand that they are public servants and are objecting to sharing information with the masters.
Everyone who values democracy must get together and give an effective message that they will not tolerate a regressive attack on the RTI. If they are allowed to shackle the RTI by labelling some applications as ‘misuse’, ‘frivolous’ or ‘vexatious’ they will refuse most information that reveals corruption and arbitrariness.
Generally, Public Information Officers (PIOs) refer to applicants who file RTI applications regularly as blackmailers misusing the RTI. I would divide those who file a large number of applications as: One, those who file applications with the hope of exposing corruption or arbitrariness and hope to improve governance; two, those who file applications repetitively to correct a wrong that they perceive has been done to them, and; third, those who use the RTI to blackmail people. The third category largely targets illegal buildings, mining or other illegal activity.
All three categories comprise around 10% of the total appeals and complaints. Nobody will deny that the first category deserves to be encouraged and is growing steadily. In the second category there are some who have been able to get corrective action and some whose grievance may defy resolution. Generally most of us have a strong aversion for the third category who make it a money-earning racket.
In the implementation of most laws some people will misuse its provisions. Police often misuse their powers to subvert the law, and so also criminals misuse our judicial system to prolong trials. The misuse of laws is largely dependent on the kind of people in a society and whether the justice system has the capability of punishing wrongdoers. There are people who go to places of worship with the sole objective of committing theft or other crimes. But society does not define these as their main characteristic. Nobody can ensure that only angels will use the RTI.
It is worth understanding that the RTI only gives access to the records in the government. Nobody has given instances where ‘RTI misuse’ has caused any significant harm to the nation.
Another argument that the RTI has resulted in reluctance to take decisions in the government is flawed. Honest officials admit that since the advent of the RTI they are able to resist orders that are not in the public interest by pointing out that the records may be sought under an RTI.
The powerful find the RTI upsetting their arrogance and hence try to discredit it by talking about its misuse. If it is muzzled by asking people to define why they want information, soon we will have to provide reasons for speaking. Our fundamental right of freedom of expression is at stake.
We must be vigilant and rebuff this attack on our democracy. Three attempts to amend the RTI Act were stalled by citizens. We cannot allow our RTI to be enfeebled.
Shailesh Gandhi is former central information commissioner
The views expressed are personal