It took nearly 15 years for India’s Right to Information Act (RTI) to finally become a law in 2005 after the late VP Singh (who was India’s prime minister briefly) first stressed the importance of a law that would give citizens the right to seek and get information. But now that landmark act could become toothless in far less time than that. If that happens, it will be a big blow for India’s citizens and for true democracy.
Under RTI any citizen can request, as her fundamental right, information from public authority, which is bound to reply speedily — within 30 days. Since its enactment in 2005, not only has the number of RTI applications soared — around 70 central government offices alone received an average of a million applications a month in 2013 compared to 100,000 a month in 2007 — but it has also been a law that has been instrumental in the unearthing of several scams and misdeeds involving hundreds of crores of rupees.
RTI applications have been instrumental in unravelling irregularities such as Mumbai’s Adarsh Housing Society scam , which exposed an unholy nexus between politicians and defence personnel and led to the sacking of a chief minister; the scandalous Maharashtra irrigation scam; and the first hints of the cases of corruption related to Delhi’s Commonwealth Games and Assam’s public distribution system. Long before the CAG, the government’s auditor, came out with its report on the 2G spectrum allocation scandal, a BJP leader claimed he had filed 2,000 RTI applications to get documents related to what turned out to be one of India’s most shocking scams estimated at depriving the exchequer of Rs 1.76 lakh crore.
RTI applications have revealed quirky stuff too. In 2012, a Class 6 student from Lucknow wanted to know who first called Mahatma Gandhi the Father of the Nation, the title by which Indians commonly refer to him. No one — from the Prime Minister’s Office to the ministry of home affairs — appeared to know. After the query was forwarded to the National Archives of India (NAI) and it too drew a blank, the NAI asked the pre-teen student to come and search for the information in its library and public records herself!
It was an RTI application that revealed that hockey is not India’s national game and that the Planning Commission had spent Rs 35 lakh on the renovation of toilets. But RTI has also brought about some landmark changes.
Public examinations such as the ones held by the Union Public Service Commission or the entrance exams to the prestigious IITs are today transparent — students have access to their answer sheets and keys after the exams; the assets and wealth of all public servants, including the Prime Minister and other ministers, bureaucrats and others, are now in the public domain; and even the judges of the Supreme Court and High Courts now have to declare their wealth.
The grim truth, however, is that those in power — regardless of their politics and in spite of their glib lip service to transparency — may be happy to see RTI stymied. RTI makes those in power directly answerable to the people and that can make things uncomfortable. Attempts to curb the law’s ambit have been made by successive governments.
The UPA in 2009 wanted amendments to dilute the law but had to back off after RTI activists protested. The NDA government has been more passive by allowing RTI to hobble by itself by leaving key posts unfilled. There has been no chief information commissioner, who hears RTI appeals related to top government offices, such as Rashtrapati Bhavan, Supreme Court and the PMO, since August 2014.
Things aren’t better in the states, where a third of the information commissioners’ posts have not been filled. What this has meant is a pile-up of rejections, an unattended heap of appeals (a redress option for applicants who don’t get a reply in time), and a slothful official outfit that defeats the very objective of transparency. Without an RTI machinery that works, India’s citizens will lose their right to know and its democracy would suffer.