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Making our secrets public

The Right to Information Act is India's showpiece law. Yet, it faces many hurdles. Maja Daruwala writes.

india Updated: Oct 10, 2012 21:45 IST

The Right to Information Act (RTIA), which turns seven tomorrow, is a remarkable piece of legislation. It is lauded regularly at the international level where India has to frequently deflect attacks on its human rights records, un-progressive voting patterns and appalling social indicators. The Global Right to Information Rating, which analyses the quality of the world's access to information laws, ranks India second only to Serbia for the quality of the RTIA.

Over the last seven years, every segment of society has used it to ferret out information from the State: hungry villagers have used it to find out why their names are missing from BPL lists; corporations have had lawyers pour over government files to know why they have not got licences, and government servants, one of the most prolific users, have challenged arbitrariness within their own organisations. In many ways, the RTI can be credited for partially changing the culture of secrecy around government decision-making.

The hunger for information has been feeding into the demand for meaningful public participation in decision-making. For example, in Kerala, public consultation has started on the new Kerala police law. Such initiatives are connecting people with policy-makers. This access to information has exposed scams and spurred protests. Movements like the anti-nuclear protests in Kudankulam and Anna Hazare's anti-corruption drive are encouraging discussions on our quality of governance. Uncomfortable questioning is leading to a more open and democratic governance.

But every silver cloud has a dark lining. Under the guise of amending a good law, the Centre is trying hard to keep the shroud of secrecy intact: it tried but, thankfully, failed to remove 'file notings' from the purview of the RTIA and has used spurious logic to add departments to the exempted list on the ground of being "intelligence and security organisations". The latest to use this escape clause is the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). But the truth is that by statute it is an anti-corruption agency, not a security institution.

To discourage people from filing RTI questions, some state governments have imposed their own rules: they have rest-ricted the number of questions that can be asked per request and the number of words that can be used. In many cases, the application fee has been increased. Many bureaucrats are trying to defeat the purpose of the Act by not complying with its provisions. At the level of information commissions, the Act has to contend with the uneven quality of jurisprudence, heavy arrears and the usual under-resourcing of the tribunals.

The judiciary is also not keen to come under the purview of the law. By appealing against a verdict of the high court that said that judges must declare their assets, the Supreme Court has put itself in the unenviable position of someday being accused of being a judge in its own cause. It recently insisted that only judges should head information commissions and must sit in benches. This has not helped put to bed the perception that it is only looking after itself. The verdict has brought to a halt the working of at least eight information commissions at a time when they are already facing stiff challenges: arrears, bureaucratic systems and refusals to impose penalties on erring officials.

Maja Daruwala is director, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Oct 10, 2012 21:41 IST