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Little right to information

The Indian government’s opacity goes against the very grain of democracy.

india Updated: Oct 23, 2009 22:22 IST

Indian officialdom’s ability to keep things to itself could put the redoubtable Gestapo to shame if it had been around. So, it should not surprise us too much that a study by the National Right to Information Awards Secretariat has found that a person has only a 39 per cent chance of getting information sought under the much-hyped Right to Information (RTI) Act. Among the reasons often cited for not giving out information are inadequate staff, low budgets and poor infrastructure. And the fact that over 60 per cent of public information officers have had no training in RTI. Granted that all these are valid.

But a more inherent problem is that of a mai-baap sarkar’s unwillingness to give away even the most irrelevant piece of information to the people. The officers who do not provide information, even though constitutionally bound to, are rarely penalised. The RTI was meant to sweep the cobwebs away from India’s notoriously opaque structures of governance. But the custodians of information are not about to give up without a fight. In a country known for its chronic corruption, it is necessary that the government and its various arms are seen to function in an open manner. True, information that could have implications on national security cannot be bandied about freely. But, surely on issues like postings and transfers, utilisation of public money and the track record of those in power, the public has a right to know. Hiding perfectly legitimate, even harmless, information from people erodes the credibility of the government and suggests that it has something to hide.

The argument that the RTI will be misused to pursue frivolous queries or conduct personal vendettas is baseless. These can be screened and dismissed by competent officials. Mechanisms like RTI could be immensely beneficial in the case of land records, it could be a vital tool for those who do not have the ‘right’ connections to gain information. But, so far, our officials seem wary of telling people what time of day it is if they can help it. At a time when good governance has come to dominate our political discourse, we cannot continue with this outdated opacity. It goes against the very grain of democracy to restrict information from people it is meant to empower. The government must realise that it will eventually have no option but to keep people in the know of things.