RTI needs more work

Supplement the transparency law with effective implementation of lokpal, whistleblower protection, and grievance redressal legislations

Nikhil Dey | January 13, 2015



Photo: Arun Kumar

The RTI Assessment and Accountability Group (RaaG) report is very significant. It is another example of how much  interest ordinary people and citizens group have in the health and effective implementation of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. There are three main actors who play an important role (in the implementation of this Act) – the government (centre and state), the commissions and the people.

ALSO READ: An RTI request could be a matter of life and liberty. Even when it is not, PIOs should be disposing it of in time – a reality check as RTI Act enters its 10th year

The government is the custodian of information and is bound by the RTI law to deliver and disseminate information to the people. But it has been its biggest failure, because if the government really believed in transparency and accountability, it would have seen this as an opportunity or as a gift that could put everyone on its side. The governments, at centre or in the states, have been completely reluctant. There is not even a single state government which stands out. It was extraordinary that the law was passed by parliament, and survived all these attempts to undermine it, but so little has been done by the executive to use it to establish a transparent and accountable government. The BJP used and supported the RTI when it was an opposition party. But in power, the NDA government has also not shown any enthusiasm or willingness to use RTI’s great capacities. It has not even bothered to appoint a chief information commissioner.

The next on the list are the commissions. The RTI Act says they are meant to be friends of people. They are not even supposed to be neutral, but a body in favour of giving information and ensuring transparency. So they must function like the election commission proactively ensuring standards of transparency are maintained across the country. We all fought for powerful commissions, but unfortunately they too have become power centres, barring a few notable exceptions. The pendency of applications has gone up and the appointment process has been terrible. We need to make them accountable. Most importantly, we need to ensure that the commissions start seeing themselves as friends of people. There are some really good examples of information commissions operating in other countries. For instance, the internal weekly meeting of Mexican commission is open for anyone to attend. Why can’t we do it here? The commissioners are not even willing to put up their own assets on the website. If commissioners do not function as they should, we must name and shame them.

The third on the list are the people; the ordinary citizens of the country, who have been fantastic. They have been an example to the world. Today, according to an estimate, there are 5-8 million users of the RTI Act per year. In the last few years, a number of people have been killed for asking information for the country. These are not big politicians but ordinary citizens. The RTI movement today is an outstanding example of a true “peoples movement” because it is not dependent on any one organisation or an individual leadership. Using their own initiative and drive, every movement in the country makes use of it, and ordinary people are fighting to protect it and carry it forward.

The RaaG study is an attempt to record and use people, and their experiences to study and protect the RTI. It highlights practical problems and suggests what we need to do. RTI is all about protecting and explaining democracy, and making participatory democracy possible. It is making sure that whenever there are two steps back there will be four steps forward. I see the RTI movement as something that has a brighter future with every passing year.

There are certainly some huge challenges. The backlog of applications at various information commissions is an issue. It increases frustration because the people are not getting information from the government, or because the officials are not penalised for not giving information. The commissions are neither clearing applications nor looking at them sympathetically as they are not punished as per the law. But people still have faith in the RTI Act and are using it. Another challenge is the implementation of Section 4 of the Act across the country. Section 4 mandates that every bit of information should be in public domain so that users do not really have to use RTI but can get that information by accessing the website, or other platforms where information can be easily accessed. If we can do this, we will be able to solve most of the problems associated with RTI implementation.

There is also the challenge of misuse of RTI. But in RTI’s case the misuse can be dealt with by publicising it. So if the recommendation of the DoPT  task force now a part of DoPT guidelines, to put RTI applications and its replies online is properly implemented, it would be a great way to deal with this kind of misuse. Through this we can identify, isolate, and publicly censure people who are using RTI for blackmailing. But, unfortunately, even these guidelines are not being followed. Section 4 is also an easy solution for the huge number of RTI applications, but again, the government does not seem to be sincere about it. Some of the departments (at the centre) are setting a good example that should be followed. For instance, every bit of information related to MGNREGA expenses is disclosed on the website. If they can do it for a programme like the MGNREGA where crores of entries have to be made, why can’t others like the defence, oil, telecom and petroleum ministries implement it? If this online record is done for every single transaction, they would be available on the website, including minutes of meetings, contractual/licencing processes, budgets, and platforms for citizens participation in law and policy, we would have much better governance, and we would not have had big scams like 2G or coal block allocations.

Then there is a lack of training and awareness. There is also a big divide among people like us who can use the internet and those who cannot. In a country like ours we cannot just put out information through the internet. We will also have to use other means of proactive disclosure.

The judiciary has also come across as one of the threats to the Act – instances like the Madras high court (judgment), which asked for reasons and particulars on why some information was needed. Though they corrected themselves later, but others are following it. There have been a series of such bad judgments. Earlier, people drew their inspiration from the judiciary. But today it is difficult for an individual to fight the judiciary. We are waiting for the day when a progressive set of judges say that this is the time to save the RTI and make sure that basic principles of transparency are made sacrosanct.

There are some other challenges such as rules passed by some of the state governments or some of the courts that are not in conformity with the Act. It is very important to make transparency and accountability an electoral or political issue. We need to hold the government to account. The BJP  criticised the government when they were in opposition, and promised a cleaner, more open, and more efficient government. But now when they are in power, they are not even passing things on which there was a supposed concensus, and are behaving just like others or, maybe, worse.

The next step should be to implement the second generation of the RTI, which are legislations like lokpal, whistleblower protection and grievance redressal for fighting corruption and for the safety of people who are using RTI. These comprise second generation RTI legislations.

Though all the prominent leaders have promised that these will be promptly implemented only files seem to be moving back and forth without anything reaching parliament on this front. Earlier, the same party (BJP) said the (UPA) government is not interested in passing these bills. But now they are in power and have an absolute majority. Nobody will stop them from passing and immediately implementing these bills, or notifying their rules.

One measure that can bring a lot of change is for the government to  inform each and every public information officer that if it is found that the information is not provided within 30 days, or it is not provided as it should be as per the law, they will have to face departmental action. There should actually not be a need for citizens to go to the commissions in appeal in 90% of the cases. This concept of giving proper information should be promoted by chief secretaries and chief ministers through schemes like awarding the most transparent department or the pro-transparency officials. It is also time that we rename proactive disclosure as mandatory proactive disclosure, not as an amendment to the law but as a concept. Proactive disclosure is a transparency measure, but through mandatory proactive disclosure the government will be bound by duty and law to disclose certain sets of information in acertain time frame, and keep updating the information.

I am optimistic about RTI because of the people who are using it. Even within the domain of politics and democratic governance, RTI has a great future because it does not need money for better implementation, it only needs political will. The citizens have realised this, and will soon enough make sure that the political class does. n

Dey is a member of MKSS, and co-convener of NCPRI. He spoke to Jasleen Kaur.

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