After a decade of the implementation of the national Right To Information (RTI) Act, it is necessary to reflect on some of its key achievements and the threats it faces.
It has spread across the country, and there is no district that has not received RTI applications. It has empowered the ordinary citizen to get respect as an individual from the government and its officials. Citizens are becoming the monitors of their government. This year the number of RTI applications is likely to be over 6 million and the total number in the last decade may be over 25 million.
However, we should also consider the main threats to the RTI, which could lead to its regression. Most people in power develop a dislike for the RTI. Everyone pays lip service to transparency, but when it applies to their actions, there is a reluctance to share information. They forget that the citizen is sovereign in her own right. All positions in Parliament, the bureaucracy and the judiciary derive their legitimacy from ‘we the people’, who gave ourselves the Constitution. In the initial years of the RTI, public information officers gave information reasonably since the threat of personal penalty scared them. Now techniques have been evolved to deny information. The decisions of the information commissions and judiciary have also contributed to this.
Another disturbing issue is the judiciary’s approach to transparency. The Supreme Court had declared that it is a fundamental right flowing from Article 19 (1) (a) of the Constitution, before the advent of the RTI Act in many landmark judgments. In the last five years it appears that the decisions of various courts are expanding the grounds on which information can be denied. Out of 16 apex court judgments analysed by this writer, only one gave an order to furnish information. This judgment had the following statement: ‘The Act should not be allowed to be misused or abused, to become a tool to obstruct the national development and integration, or to destroy the peace, tranquillity and harmony among its citizens. Nor should it be converted into a tool of oppression or intimidation of honest officials striving to do their duty.’ No evidence has been forthcoming for such a strong castigation of a fundamental right. The exemptions in the RTI Act are in line with Article 19 (2), which lists the reasonable restrictions that can be placed on the freedom of expression. Many judgments are expanding the exemptions, in a manner which is not in consonance with the law or the Constitution.
Information commissions were created by the RTI Act to interpret and safeguard the RTI, but their performance has been largely unsatisfactory. They should be giving decisions within 2-3 months; instead many take over a year. Their own accountability is poor. Recently it has come to light that the Central Information Commission has been reducing its pendency figure by rejecting over 90% of appeals on technical grounds. The penalty provisions are used rarely, removing the fangs of the law. The solution lies in evolving a transparent process for selecting commissioners and getting the commissions to be transparent and accountable.
There is a possibility of a true democracy which can lead to good governance and respect for the citizen. Citizens must continue their efforts at spreading the usage and spirit of the RTI, and also to counter the threats. If citizens want a better future and governance they will have to take this responsibility.
Shailesh Gandhi is former central information commissioner
The views expressed are personal