The misuse of the Right to Information (RTI) legislation has long been a pet gripe of bureaucrats and is now getting political attention. It figured in a discussion in the Rajya Sabha last week where NCP leader Praful Patel asked if the government would consider amending the Act since it was passed in a hurry in 2005 and was being misused by citizens who with no “locus standi” end up asking the government questions about the country’s missile system or international relations. Mr Patel also said this was preventing officials from taking decisions. Congress leader Rajiv Shukla deplored that some people have turned “RTI activist” into a designation and profession while Jitendra Singh, the minister of state at the PMO, acknowledged such concerns.
There is little doubt that there is a great degree of frivolity in RTI queries. They reportedly range from asking about the number of fans and tube lights in residences, to details of tobacco habits of government officials to the number of “eligible” girls for marriage in a particular government department. These no doubt waste the time of the bureaucracy. But there is also no doubt that RTI has been a transformative intervention in Indian democracy. It has given ordinary citizens, importantly in rural areas, the right to know what is happening with public money, whether it be about spending on schools, roads, drains or the use of their ration cards. And many whistleblowers have uncovered financial scams, irregularities in allocation of land, black marketing of food grains and bad corporate practice through its use. That whistleblowers are subject to threats and violence in itself points to the unsettling power of RTI’s provisions.
There is thus a case for finding middle ground between checking misuse while retaining the empowering aspects of the Act. A fruitful consultative process between government, academia and civil society, that factors in best international practices, will hopefully generate innovative institutional solutions that meet those objectives. There is also an imperative for a more responsive, sensitive handling of citizens by government officials in general. Most find the experience of approaching the ‘sarkar’ daunting, even if the experience has improved in parts. We literally need a very civil service.