From the secret of the ‘death’ of Subhash Chandra Bose to the reasons for poor quality of roads or irregular water supply in Delhi colonies — nothing can be denied to the aam admi any longer, thanks to the Right to Information law.
In three years, people’s right to know has morphed from a distant dream to reality. And bureaucrats are wary. “We fear RTI because action can be taken against us under this law,” admits a senior government official, who deals with RTI in a Central ministry and is not willing to be quoted.
The law has not only forced officials to reveal what was considered intellectual property – like file notings – but has also ensured a lot many changes in governance.
Most governments have adopted single-window system for public services, digitised land records in many states, including Delhi, and introduce e-governance.
“RTI has given innumerable wake-up calls to the government and it has brought welcome changes in governance,” said Magsaysay award winner and RTI activist Arvind Kejriwal.
But it has made work tougher for officials like P.S. Srinivasan (name changed), a director-level official in the Labour ministry. “I ensure while making file notings that I don’t write anything that can embarrass me if the information is sought under RTI,” he said.
However, bureaucrats have now learnt that the best way to deny information is not to accept RTI applications. But if forced to accept an application, information officers demand hefty amounts for providing information or ask for proofs of identification to deter the applicants.
RTI activists said information commissioners must impose heavy penalties on officials for denying information. The Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) has so far imposed penalties in less than 100 of the 8,715 cases of denial. Besides, in some cases, penalties were withdrawn even when information was denied.
Worse, in some cases, the authorities are allegedly tormenting frequent information seekers by putting them behind bars or beating them up. Majibur Rehman, who exposed irregularity in PM’s Relief Fund, was put behind bars in Chhattisgarh.
Another RTI applicant, Ravi Sharma, in Uttar Pradesh was thrashed by police officials because he dared to ask them about the status of cases registered in a local police station.
But despite this, close to one lakh RTI applications were filed with Central ministries in 2006-07 against over 24,000 a year ago. CIC Wajahat Habibullah said, “There is now a realisation in the government that information sought under the RTI Act has to be provided or else action can be taken.”
“Governments have been shaken up by RTI as administration is under lot of pressure,” said Shekhar Singh of National Campaign for People’s Right to Information.
But, Habibullah admitted in his recent order that even an “august body like the Cabinet Secretariat, expected to be a model for the public authorities, is nothing less than flippant” when it comes to providing information.