The Right to Information (RTI) users have been opposing any amendment to the Act because the Act in its present form is one of the most transparent Acts in the world. Despite poor respect for laws and its uneven implementation, citizens have found the Act a great instrument for change. Most users have begun to feel empowered in negotiating with those in power using this instrument. They have rightly realised that given an opportunity, those in power will weaken the Act.
The Union Cabinet first decided to amend the Act in 2006 and nationwide opposition to this move forced them hold back the proposal. In 2009, another move was made to get the information commissioners to support the amendments, which was skillfully deflected. In 2012, ultimately the Cabinet decided not to pursue the agenda of amending the Act and buried its decision of 2006 by giving a public assurance.
The Central Information Commission’s decision on June 3, holding six major political parties as public authorities meant that these parties were accountable to the citizens, not only at the time of elections, but also at all times. This was a challenge to their arrogance. The government, after an attempt to issue an ordinance to amend the RTI Act backfired, decided to bring an amendment Bill in Parliament.
Across the country there were demonstrations and petitions opposing this move. Over one lakh signatures were collected by a National Campaign for People’s Right to Information petition. In Gujarat ballots were collected against the amendments and in Mumbai demonstrations were held outside railway stations. Many people either met Members of Parliament or called to persuade them to oppose the amendments.
The grotesqueness of the political system ganging up to hurriedly pass amendments to restrict the citizen’s fundamental right has now begun to dawn on our politicians. It was clear that the citizens did not appreciate the idea of changing the law without consulting them. They pointed out that transparency in political parties would improve the faith and trust in them and lead to a better India.
The government appears to have realised this and has decided to refer the Bill to the standing committee. The citizens have cause to celebrate and congratulate themselves.
As individual citizens, without the backing and leadership of any particular large and centralised body organising them, they are exercising their sovereignty. This has not happened as a mass movement that threatens authority. But has happened bit by bit, through individual telephone calls, petitions, letters, ballots and multifarious ways through which they have put pressure on those in power to adopt the right process. People have gone about this in a very mature fashion and have held up a mirror to the MPs. This is how democracy must work — through peaceful, persuasive engagement and not by using unruly methods.
This process of engagement with the political class and Parliament will continue until it is accepted that no amendments to the RTI Act will be made until 2025. That will be a solution which will allow them to focus on spreading the law to all and make transparency and accountability non-negotiable in our governance.
Shailesh Gandhi is a former Central Information Commissioner
The views expressed by the author are personal